COLLISION

 

(Short story)

 

K. S. VENKATARAMANI

 

I

           

            The beautiful, little railway station of Akkur, new model, stands in a shady grove on an arching curve of the track, like a bird on the leafy branch of a mango tree. It is a beauty spot on the short branch line from Mayavaram to Tranquebar, the Queen of the Coromandel Coast.

 

            The soil is fertile. All around the vegetation is rank and luxuriant though so near the sea. The cocoanut trees peer the sky. Giant banyan and stately mango cover the earth with a deep shade of solemn green. Life in Akkur seems a little idyll. The railway line gives it only a fresh and added charm, a snake-like beauty and fascination.

 

            The little dots of fresh white buildings in the railway compound look like huts in a hermitage. The station seems a place for reverie, and no wonder even the trains move so dreamily, whistling a love tune to the bracing winds from the sea.

 

II

 

            The sky was almost free and the crescent moon seemed to crawl and play with the wayward floating shapes of thin cloud. A steady breeze from the sea was blowing in, and Akkur, standing on a little eminence of its own, received it to the full.

 

            No.8 had just left for Tranquebar leisurely winding her way to the lull of the evening sea.

 

            The clock struck eight, Ramanujam had finished his work, and rose to go to his residential quarters nearby, blithe as a bull to its feed after the day’s hard work.

 

            I knew of this fate for me even on my wedding day,” growled Lakshmi greeting her lord coming home after the day’s work.

 

            The growling voice was soft and rich but it was loaded with a heavy charge of emotion. The station-master, young and alert, quick of sight and sound, felt danger in the rumbling voice.

 

            Will the peace of the night be disturbed? How best to a collision?

 

            But with Lakshmi at home everything went wrong, from the broomstick to the well. For, the broomstick was rough and long and looked more like an instrument of chastising power. And the well stood in lonely splendour a little way off, and the South Indian Railway rejoiced in using rubble everywhere within its sacred precincts, which hurt Lakshmi’s tender, unprotected sole. A bruised foot puts the feminine soul in revolt?

 

            “What is the trouble, dear, why on the very first day you are complaining?” Ramanujam ventured to ask in a kindly and conciliating tone after a long pause, “Look around, the place is magnificent. The station stands on a little eminence of its own.”

 

            “What is the trouble!” Lakshmi cut short the glowing description, “In this forest none but bears can live. Not a soul or sound for miles around but the screech of owls, the hiss of snakes and the music of the frogs. I can’t live here a day longer. Either get a transfer by wire to-night; you have been so good at telegraphing all your life for others’ weal and woe, pray, do it now once for yourself. Signal at once your distress to your officer, and get a transfer. Or send me home to Guntur by the night train which catches the Boat Mail. Enough have I seen of this arid life.

 

            Lakshmi finished decisively, and flung the silver cup to her lord, which had borne as meekly as he the several dints of her temper. Ramanujam caught it nicely from the googly bowler for he had always a quick and trained eye for all moving things, from trains that fly at forty miles an hour to domestic furniture that spins eccentric circles.

 

            The cup was meant for Ramanujam’s sandhya prayers which would be some atonement, Lakshmi held, for his un-brahminical service on railways. Of course the train timings did not permit their proper performance at their correct vaidic hour with the twilight. But better late than never was Lakshmi’s creed so far as her husband was concerned.

           

            Ramanujam turned the cup uneasily in his hands, up and down, half afraid to declare by word of mouth that it was empty. Lakshmi shot a look of scorn from the left corner of her left eye, and pointed out the well outside that shone in lonely splendour unconscious of its great part in this little drama of life. Then she softened a little, and with an air of contempt and condescension showed the tub near her.

 

            Ramanujam stole half limping to the tub of water near her. Seeing that things were going too far even on the first day, he mustered a little courage and desired to nip the mischief in the bud.

 

            “You call this a fit place for bears. It is the most envied spot, dear, on the whole line. The trains are few. The traffic is nil. Tranquebar, the Queen of the Coast, is but a station off and waits for you. Ours is a little paradise if only we know how to enjoy it well together. Enough have I slaved in junctions both night and day without rest or sleep! Here the work is nothing; indeed my pay is pension.”

 

            “Yes, indeed, your pay is on the pension scale: twenty rupees a month and no extra income. My brother will be ashamed even to own me. What you get for a month he gets for a day. He rules over the flag in another way.” She made a very unkind reference to the station-master’s emblem of power.

 

            “Yes, yes, he is a very lucky fellow. Whoever thought that Sarangan would bloom into an I.C.S! Is he now an Assistant Collector at Guntur? All can’t be Collectors: then trains won’t run.” Ramanujam attempted humour to scatter the frown gathering like bees on Lakshmi’s lotus-face, and continued in a slightly ingratiating tone, “But, why, dear, he has not been writing to you of late? When is his marriage? We can travel free to any station.”

 

            Lakshmi ignored the question proudly and asked her own. “Why have you spread out to-night so broad a leaf like an eating purohit?

 

            Ramanujam hoping that supper would have an excellent effect on her temper and save a domestic collision whose after-effects it would take a long time of skill and patience to repair, ran through the sandhya with great speed letting down quickly much water slip between his fingers. Then he himself took out a broad plantain leaf and began to spread it out for his meals. He sprinkled a little water thereon, cleaned it nicely over and over again, and in subdued grunts and appropriate gestures was declaring himself ready.

 

            Lakshmi caught him in the act and put the above incisive query.

 

            Ramanujam dared a straight reply this time. “Because, plantain leaves grow splendidly in our compound. It is a fertile spot the like of which you don’t have for many miles around.”

 

            “Then eat the leaves; for rice bags don’t grow wild here, and twenty rupees can’t feed two souls.”

 

            “Dear, rice bags too will grow wild for us very soon. If you would but learn a little patience and win the favour of God...”

 

            “Learn it yourself and earn first the favour of Railway gods.”

 

            “It will come with God’s favour. The goods section will soon be opened, and, dear, you will have then everything for the mere asking: the finest table-rice, gram and pulse. God has fixed a generous scale of fees to the under-paid and over-worked dogs of this earth.”

 

III

 

            Ramanujam spoke sitting and polishing his leaf patiently with sprinkled water which rolled like drops of pearl from end to end. Lakshmi stood like a goddess in a prophetic fit of anger. Peace or war trembled in the balance like the water-drop on his own fresh leaf. Peace it proved to be.

 

            Lakshmi, overwhelmed with a gracious mood, wheeled into the kitchen with a stately motion all her own, and slipped a plateful of cooked rice all over the leaf in such fine disorder as only an angry wife knows how to slip.

 

            The sight of polished rice in unbroken grains of beauty swept away all taste in Ramanujam even for a manly protest. He began in between handfuls his story of pacification with increased zest, dramatically opening another chapter of his conquest for his Cleopatra’s sake.

 

            “The local magnate is already my friend. You don’t know how mighty rich he is: three hundred velis, two thousand acres of first-class nanja. Even from the station yard I can spy his hayricks and grain-heaps as high as hillocks. It is a sight for the gods.”

 

            Ramanujam had read in novels of women’s delight in the tale of rich and powerful men. Why not try the effect of a neighbour’s story on the peevish mind and mood of Lakshmi?

 

            “Yes, Mr. Mudaliar is already my friend. We owe indeed this railway line to him, and this beautiful little station of Akkur is wholly a creation of his. It is of no use to others. It is his own. He asked for it and got it. Mr. Mudaliar is a member of the Taluq Board and the District Board. His proud boast is that he signs his name in such a way in Tamil that it is easily mistaken for English. He even thinks of standing for the Legislative Council. A rich man can do many magic things in this world.”

 

            Lakshmi seemed to listen to the story. Ramanujam chuckled: yes, reading maketh a full man, and novel-reading makes one a good pilot in stormy seas.

 

            “The great Mudaliar swept into the station in all the glory of the new Auburn Sedan this afternoon to catch No.6. He was gaily dressed like a peacock and his white teeth shone like lightning in cloud-spread sky. He is young and corpulent. His body gleans like polished iron rubbed a little with oil. That is the way of all old fat and blue flesh.”

 

            Lakshmi nodded leave to go on but hinted that the philosophic bits might be left out.

 

            “Fortunately, No.6 was late by half an hour, as the driver was kept a trifle longer by his lady love at Tranquebar. I had all the time with Mr. Mudaliar. We gave him our best chair. Though it had a broken leg it was well fixed with a country nail–our porter, Karian, is a fine fellow, and he used his inherited skill, his father was a blacksmith, to bring together a broken leg and a chair, and charge a carpenter’s fee for the same! Mr. Mudaliar was very kind to me and he promised me his support. On his return he will send us two bags of first-class irriku semba rice. I understand that the station-master is reckoned as part of his household and royal luggage.”

 

            Ramanujam boldly spun the tale. Half of it was fact and the other half the legitimate inferences of an aspiring hen-pecked mind. And l.akshmi’s smile was worth any bold venture or gypsy tale. Yes, there were visible signs of returning good temper. Lakshmi’s face was lit with a very sly smile.

 

            Ramanujam rejoiced beyond measure. He would have even clapped his hands for joy. But the right hand was busy gathering into a regular mound the fine grains of rice scattered all over his leaf. Thank God, it was broad enough.

 

            “As for the goods section it is as good as sanctioned, all a question of days. You will have everything you dream of, dear, from petty greens to lordly cabbage; from choice fuel to table-rice, gram and pulse; of course, all free. Mudaliar himself exports to Colombo twenty thousand bags of rice every year, and imports in return all fruits and flowers, all dainties and luxuries from Kashmir to Cape Comorin. And everything must pass through our hands of course, dear.”

 

            “Twenty thousand bags of rice! Incredible, mighty rich he must be for that! What does he do with all that flood of wealth?” There was a subtle change in Lakshmi’s voice and now one understood the native charm of her talk in peaceful moods.

 

            Ramanujam felt the triumph of his strategy. He continued in an absorbed tone “Yes, yes, marvellously rich these fellows are, and equally idle and vicious. The miser’s hoard of three generations of sweated labour of the poor is now seeing the light of day. The young Mudaliar has a nice band of advisers, and I understand that the station-master of Akkur has an ex-officio place therein. He has already finished the liquid cash of ages. I am told that his gay march this evening was to a money-lender at Mayavaram. I have tramped from Rameshver to Peshawar, dear, and nowhere the idle rich are so selfish, callous and low as here in our own Tamil land. Rice has cut at the root of all our manly virtues and tamarind has soured us for ages and completed the ruin.”

 

            Lakshmi was getting more and more absorbed in the story and was just beginning to discover a slender vein of poetry in her lord. Has sylvan solitude and sea-breeze such mystic effects on over worked and underfed men? She wondered.

 

            Ramanujam thought that this mellow mood was a ripe occasion to ask for a favour, He had not yet progressed with his meals. He was all along waiting for soup. After serving him with rice so well, Lakshmi sat down opposite to him intent on the tale with all the grace and majesty of her static pose.

 

            Ramanujam gently began, “The rice is rather getting cold. The place is as chill as Ooty. Some sambhar if you please, dear.”

 

            Lakshmi fell from Heaven.

 

            Sambhar! Is there any feast today? Why do you love this sambhar so wretchedly well? Now I see that it is the tamarind in the sambhar that has soured you, indeed, as you say.”

 

            Lakshmi repeated herself. Sambhar! Is there any feast today? I have not had the time even to set my things in order or wash my face. Is it not enough to get cooked rice on the first day in a new house? Strange indeed are the ways of men! They think no better of us than as beasts of burden and toys of pleasure.”

 

            There was a strange glint in her eyes and a hollow look in her face. The malady seemed far deeper than the immediate cause of Sambhar. Every touch of home life seemed to hurt her deeply.

 

            Ramanujam simply collapsed. There was hushed silence for several minutes.

 

IV

 

            Middle-statured, a little soft and plumpy, shining with the colour of burnished gold, Lakshmi looked a round-faced, perfect Burman beauty. But the high brow, the rising forehead, and the eagle nose and eyes, and the unfading lustre of a high-class Brahmin girl gave her a marked1ook of distinction and aristocratic birth to which she had really no claim. Hers was a humble birth and her classic beauty was a strange gift of the gods in the infinite mutations of life.

 

            Her father was an agent in the household of one of the leading aristocratic Mahrana Brahmin families of Tanjore. Though his pay was only ten kalams of paddy and five rupees a month, he was the real master of the household. In such an environment of aristocratic culture and refinement Lakshmi grew till her tenth birthday.

 

            The great house had a sudden fall. It went into insolvency. For, the traditions of hospitality were royal without royal means, and three important law-suits went against it in all the courts. Lakshmi’s father died with his chief a broken-hearted man, when she was just ten. Her mother lived only to see her married at fourteen.

 

            Ramanujam was a remote, poor kinsman of hers. He was a bright boy at the college at the time of his wedding. But a strange ill-luck seized him almost immediately after. A wander-lust filled his mind once proficient in geography in the High School. He roamed all over India without a pie in pocket as a young Sadhu: thanks to the beneficent railway system which winks at a free ride by all who care to smear their bodies with the sacred ash, and tell beads piously when the flying squad of ticket examiners click their fingers before them as so much of their own time and money wasted.

 

            Somehow this roaming life for Ramanujam came to an end when a kindly and young Assistant Traffic Superintendent, recently and directly recruited to the Service, discovered this bogus young sadhu at Madura. He sympathised with the story of Ramanujam’s wedded but truant and unfulfilled life, appointed him as a ticket-collector at Mayavaram on promise that he would take in his partner and set up home.

 

            Ramanujam’s as a ticket-collector and signaller was a splendid record of good and earnest work. He kept his promise and set up home. But even on the first day he saw that Lakshmi was too great for him in every way; indeed, too great for the touch of man. He appeared to himself as a slender stream of water springing from obscure depths by the side of a mighty river which moved with all the majesty of a mountain-birth and inborn motion. He dared not break the lofty bunds of reserve and mix with the moving stream his humble offering of love. He was content to crawl along by her side obeying instinctively her sweeping curves of gesture and high turns of mind.

 

            But Mayavaram did Ramanujam one definite good. It gave him bark his old school-boy love of books. And one common trait cheered him, that Lakshmi too loved reading. He became a voracious reader of books; thanks to the Higginbothams’ bookstall and to the friendly relations he kept up with its clerk, who shared with him the decent view that books are in the first place for being read, then for sale to those who can buy but do not read.

 

            Ramanujam was tired of the strenuous work and night vigils at the Mayavaram Junction for over five years. When the branch line was opened from Mayavaram to Tranquebar he had his eyes on Akkur, the coveted station on the whole line. He knew that his urban-minded partner would scarcely like the calm, the solitude and the grandeur of Akkur But he was not prepared for the thunderstorm even on the opening day.

 

            Ramanujam had merits of his own which yielded decisive success in many measures of life. His was the insinuating way. He had not the frank and striking force or beauty of direct power. He made a point through endless manoeuvres. Usually he doubled this skill before the august presence of Lakshmi. That was the fatal error. Women hate this kind of skill, and Ramanujam had read of it even in the cheaper novels of the bookstall. But in real daily life it was impossible for him to change by magic or tuition the winding, sneaking tissues of his body or the secret glands that poured continuously this malicious stream of subtle strategy into his halting blood.

 

            The net result was that Ramanujam was still waiting on this fateful day for his soup while Lakshmi was squatting with the full splendour of her queenly face turned on him like a searchlight.

 

            Time passed painfully and the delicate deadlock continued.

 

V

 

            No. 8 on her return journey from Tranquebar was screaming at the outer as No. 13. Whistle shrieked with a vengeful noise and a petulant ire. Ramanujam was still waiting for sambhar, still mounding the scattered pearls on his broad leaf. He broke his fine work at the first scream of the whistle, and scattered the heap oh rice all around in anger as the one act of protest, and rushed out to receive the roaring train, crying at the top of his voice, “In the branch line they have no sense of time. They come and go early and late as they choose. But that shall never be hereafter. Where is the scoundrel, Karian?”

 

            Karian is the prop of the whole station. He is the man whose goodwill is essential for the motion of trains. But he too had for the day his share of domestic troubles. He got home dead drunk for he made for himself eight annas more than the usual daily luck from a rustic who came with a gunny bag of excess load. What could he do in the intoxicated mood, but stagger home, break the pots and his wife’s head? He too had difficulty in getting his food; for his earnings for the week never reached home as the gin-shop stood on the way. On hearing the screaming train he too came swearing and cursing as if he would blow up everything.

 

            Ramanujam was in a rage. “You rogue, where had you been sleeping?”  

 

            “Sleeping! No, Master, I was quite awake. I had some trouble at home and my meals were not ready and I beat my wife. Ere I could finish with her and get meals, the train is roaring before time. Let her roar. I fear the driver is drunk.

 

            “Beating your wife! Karia, to get your food!” Ramanujam wondered how such a thing was possible and so easy to a porter. But the train was screaming, and there was no time for a more elaborate investigation of the methods of Karian to get at his recipe for good and quick meals.

 

            “Go and lower the seme-phore and see that the points are in proper position.” For, on the second line there were a few empty rakes of a ballast train.

 

            Karian went tottering to the handle to lower the seme-phore and the station-master cried out, “Karia, Karia, you seem to be dead drunk; take care, don’t fall on the line and get crushed; see to the points.”

 

            “Who is dead drunk? Karian? No. The engine driver is,” Karian roared to himself at the top of his voice and tried to lower the signal cursing and muttering, “Come come, you strumpet, I’ll break your jaw even as I broke her head just now. Not a moment of peace in this wretched work on railways.”

 

            Hardly the signal seemed to lower, No. 13 started thundering along the lines.

 

            The key barely turned in the doors of his office room. Ramanujam had not yet reached even his coat and flag. There was a terrible crash as of engines fighting for way. The little vagabondish train ran against the ballast engine and empty rakes on the second line. No. 13 leapt out of the track.

 

            Ramanujam stood thunderstruck. The crescent moon was struggling a heavy cloud.

 

            Fortunately there was no injury to life except for a hearty shake at a chill hour. No. 13 came almost empty except for Mr. Mudaliar and his gay retinue. But Mudaliar himself did not travel as an ordinary passenger but drove the engine with his mighty hand on the throttle and the driver by his side, presumably for emergencies. He was naturally proud to guide a train himself on a track which was so much his own.

 

            Lakshmi flung aside the conventions of her life at this critical hour. She who was never afraid of collisions at home was rather taken aback at the terrific sight of riding steel and smashed timber before her very eyes. Almost immediately she was seen on the station platform by the side of her lord with a troubled face wherein anxiety shone like the cloud in the moon.

 

            Yes, collision was in the air since eight o’clock in the evening.

 

            Thank God that the whirlwind which sprang at home spent itself abroad.

 

            Thank God that what came to wreck life wrecked only steel and timber.

 

            Yes, collision was in the air since eight o’clock in the evening. Thank God that it wrecked only vagabondish trains and empty rakes, and not young and beautiful lives in their first making.

 

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