Tag Archives: night

Stars: Candles of our Childhood

Stars. Hot balls of illuminated gas millions of miles away, results of narrow cosmic chances.

The same stars, due to these enormous distances, appear as pinpoints of twinkling light. And so distant these stars are, that the light that left them eons ago, reach us now. And in that way, looking at them is like peering into the past. But that is not the only way stars make us look back in the past. Some of us travel time in our own ways.

When I first wondered why stars existed, I was perhaps six or seven, enjoying my summer vacations at my grandma’s house. These were times of the mid-90s, and there was less pollution than there is now. Moreover, there were frequent power failures in Mumbra. As irritated as we were due to the extreme May heat, we were helpless. This was the time when color televisions were still not that popular, but I was still happy that there was a black and white one at my grandmother’s house. In my house, however, the only electrical appliance of note was a cassette tape. But these were useless boxes during power failures. My cousin and I were little, and not too comfortable playing in the dark, so we would often sit surrounding a lit candle after sundown, and this would really annoy the adults, because our shadows were proper hindrances to their chores. Consequently, the candle would be placed atop a small wooden cupboard. This was still manageable for us, as the light wouldn’t hurt our eyes now. We would sit in the candle-lit room till power resumed, or till the only source of light flickered away and extinguished, after which we’d run to the kitchen. It had the only emergency lamp in the entire house, but we avoided it out of fear of being scolded.

Just before one of these unpredictable power failures, our mothers decided to take us to the building terrace. They told us we would enjoy the cold evening breeze, though I knew the enjoyment was more theirs than ours. Part of the terrace has a sloping roof, with one half of the slope descending toward the rest of the terrace. We liked it immediately! Due to its smooth tarring, we could slide and roll on it. We enjoyed so much that we didn’t realize that the lights had went out. About half an hour later, tired of climbing a slope rather steep for our age, my cousin and I sat at its base, reclining and looking up at the sky. It was a beautiful sight! The waning moon hardly disturbed the darkness of the rest of the sky. I knew my cousin looked up, too, because we both were quiet. Being the younger one and looking up to me for knowledge, he asked, “How does the sky have so many stars?” I was as clueless as he was, and regarding his question carefully, I looked up again. Indeed, there were a huge number of them, so many that I had never seen so much starlight in one go.

“I think these are candles”, I replied.

“Candles? Why would someone light candles so high up?” he enquired.

“Simple. When there is a power failure in grandma’s house, we light candles so we don’t get scared. In the sky, when there is a power failure, God lights candles so that those living there don’t get scared”, I said.
“What is moon then?”

“It is the largest of the candles.”
I looked at the moon to escape the discomforting ambiguity of my answer.

“A candle?”

“Of course, or why would it become smaller every day?”

“But it becomes larger too, sometimes. And look at its shape. I don’t think it is a candle.”

“It appears to be a different type of candle.”

“Why don’t we have a candle like the moon?”

I was growing irritated, not because of my cousin’s questions, but because of my own inability to answer them. I remained quiet. At the same time, I was curious, too. Were these really distant candles? How did they last all night? They would flicker, but why wouldn’t they get extinguished? And why would someone light so many small but only one large candle? I continued to wonder, while reclining at my new favorite place in Mumbra. We drew imaginary lines between stars, forming patterns, mostly letters in our names. We wrote in different styles, inventing many of our own constellations in the process. For reasons I was not yet familiar with, I felt at peace looking up. The sky had a quiet way about it. The soft breeze had put my cousin to sleep, but I wasn’t really sleepy. We remained till power resumed, and our mothers took us away.

At times, when I look up now, I find myself remembering that night. I smile at the how stupid my answers were, at my lost innocence. I try to recall the patterns we created, but I am largely unsuccessful, perhaps because I cannot find many of the stars that completed our patterns. It saddens me, but it is not difficult to not think about it for long. We live busy lives now, and we have other things to worry about. Not that our childhoods were not busy, but somehow it was far more enriching and gratifying. It was easy to be curious about something as commonplace as a night sky filled with stars.

Stars. Hot balls of illuminated gas millions of miles away, results of cosmic narrow cosmic chances.

And it is because of one of these chances that we exist, and are capable of wondering.

(Image Credits: Marc Van Norden. Click here to be redirected to the  original image)

Of Blinking Green Lights and Man-eating Hyenas…

Ask any Mumbaikar about his/her most preferred place to sleep, ‘Home’ will be the natural reply from almost everyone. Ask about the second most preferred place, and a large chunk would say ‘In the train’, if they get a place to rest their bums, that is. For those who don’t get a seat, a multimedia cellphone and a pair of headphones are their ultimate company. I travel a lot by Mumbai’s locals, and often go through the entire journey standing. That night, since it was a Sunday, I was seated between two women (Gents compartments are usually Ladies compartments on weekends). The lady on the right had leaned all the way to the middle of the window and looked outside at every single object capable of emitting or reflecting light. The one to my left was playing with a toddler in her arms. I could see that the child was capable of walking – dirty soles of his tiny little shoes, that had possibly stepped on everything from “normal” soil to dog poo, were periodically imprinting the material on my T-shirt. There was no way I could prevent this except by standing up, which was a tough bargain. I decide to recollect the happenings of the day to distract my mind.

Earlier in the day, 9:08 pm to be precise, I was along with my pals after a long time, gleefully enjoying the time conversing with them, hanging out at a place where we used to hang out frequently as teenagers. One of them, Jamal, is married for around 2 years now and will be a father in a month’s time. He discussed about his future plans after his wife’s delivery and all the stuff. It was slightly strange to hear all this from him, but we still enjoyed. Time flew and it was only by 10:30 pm that I realised that I lived in Ambernath and had to rush to the station. Just as I was about to leave, Jamal popped up a question about Android’s latest update, the Ice Cream Sandwich. Knowing that I was slightly techie, he knew he could stretch the conversation at will. He did. It was only when he wanted to pee that he let me leave.

I was slightly tired and like many times, wanted to be teleported home. At the station, I crossed lazily to platform 1 using the foot-over bridge. A large crowd that was coming from the opposite direction, welcomed me. I walked along the side, watching the train, from which this flock of wild animals had alighted, leave. Battling my way through the commotion, I reached the lower limit of the staircase and looked at the digital clock at platform 1 (11:07:10), then at the one on platform 2 (11:06:36). I knew it was foolish to check timings on clocks provided by the Indian Railways, but my laziness just doesn’t let me remember it. I took out my phone, it showed 11:07 pm. “Yay! My platform won!”, I thought. This was foolish, too. It also meant that it was MY TRAIN that had left and I was a minute late in catching it. The empty platform corroborated my contemplation. I prayed it was some other train, but it wasn’t. After an excruciating 20-minute wait, a Karjat train arrived and I easily got a seat before it reached next station, though I sat between two women, one of whom had a child with soiled shoes.

I woke up with a start to find that there were a very few passengers and the ladies had gone. And my t-shirt was dirtier. The train was moving very fast, actually faster than any other time I travelled on this route. I looked outside and it was completely dark. “Oh my God!”, I thought, “Is it true? Did I…” Quickly taking out my phone out of the pocket, I checked for any CST-bound trains from Badlapur, using a local train time-table application. Yes, I slept through Ambernath and worse was the fact that there were no trains till 3:05 am from Badlapur. Trying my best to not look dumb to my co-passengers, I approached the gate and stood till I reached Badlapur.

“Dad, I slept through Ambernath and reached Badlapur. There are no trains before 3 o’ clock.”

“Then catch an auto rickshaw.”

“I can’t, as I don’t have enough money. Can you bring your bike and take me home?”

“No bike today, given it for servicing.”

“Okay. See you in the morning, then.”

“Oh no! Take care, son.”

I scanned through the railway charts for any long-distance passenger train halting at Badlapur. Finding none, I sat on a bench. A train going to Shirdi halted and the very few people who were at the platform started to board it. An old lady was getting in when the train started leaving. In panic, she lost footing and holding on to the poles at the door, she was being dragged along the edge of the platform. She didn’t let go, or would have slipped under the train through the gap between the train and the platform. Me and two other men pulled her away and yelled at her for her stupidity. She got up and again started running behind the train. Suddenly, everyone screamed again and it was learnt that a guy in the train had fallen after he attempted to pull the same lady inside. The train halted again and everyone started to converge at a point on the platform. I was sure that someone was killed and knowing that I had to spend a lonely night at the platform, I didn’t follow the people and sat on the same bench, instead.

It was past 1 o’ clock now and I had to cross over to the other platform where the first local train of the day was to arrive. Now, there was a dead body, blood and gore scattered on the tracks, so I wasn’t crossing the tracks at any cost. I took the foot-over bridge and reached the other platform, trying not to look at the spot where the good fellow died, but I was still curious. So I moved my head sideways to catch a glimpse of perhaps a severed leg or arm. Fortunately, there was none, neither was any blood or gore. No one had died. The night suddenly turned more comfortable.

I was hungry, but had enough money to only travel from Ambernath station to home. Also, all the eateries at the station had closed by then. I scanned the other platforms and then the one I was sitting on. My eyes fell on two green neon signboards. I advanced towards them. “Deputy Station Manager”, “Station Manager”. A man came out of the first cabin holding a torch with a green blinking light and pointed it towards an approaching train. The same blinking happened from one of the compartments at the beginning of the train, and again at the end. Mr. Deputy Station Master did this whenever a long distance train passed. “Wow! He earns by pointing a torch the whole night!” He was entertaining me big time, or at least I thought so – I had to pass my time somehow. Afterall, Tata Docomo doesn’t offer free internet if the total core balance is 15 paise! By 2 o’ clock, three more people were sitting with me and waiting for the train, except they had already slept.

“Hi, at what time is the first train?”

“3:05 am.”

“Any passenger train before that?”

“There’s one at 2:38 am, but it usually arrives by 4.”

“See, I just need to go to the next station. Is there any overhead equipment repairing engine which could drop me?”

The guy shook his head and looked at the footprints on my t-shirt. I went back to sit at my place where mosquitoes had just began to miss my alcohol-free blood (All three people were badly drunk). It was quite cold by now and I took out my handkerchief and made into a bandana that covered my ears.

It was getting extremely boring now. Mr. Deputy Station Master was now busy chatting with a GRP constable and had stopped his torch-pointing. There weren’t any trains passing, as well. The only audible sounds were dogs barking in the deserted street outside the station. I wondered how it would have been had that lady slipped through the gap, or that guy got killed. Would have I spent such a boring night with such ease? “No! I would have walked home, in that case!”, I thought and smirked. But I was glad I didn’t have to go on foot, perhaps the dogs would have turned into hyenas and hunted me, had I done that. A sudden jolt surprised me, rather pissed me off, as I don’t like interruptions while I am imagining. I wanted those hyenas to consume the body to which the hand, that rest on my shoulder, was attached. I turned to see what would the creatures feed on. It was the green-blinking-light man. Looking at his slightly squinting eyes behind an old pair of spectacles and a muffler wrapped around his head, I felt like a sinner. I couldn’t do this! Hyenas don’t consume good men, especially those who blink green lights at trains. “This train will halt at Ambernath. You are lucky it arrived early today”, he said. Looking in the direction where he pointed, I saw a train and it wasn’t passing, it was waiting for me! The feeling was soothing, like a survivor straight out of a Discovery Channel show. I boarded the train and looked at my phone. It was exactly 3:00 am, only 5 minutes before the first local train, but that meant I could sleep for 5 more minutes in the morning (which is a lot, if you are an office-goer).

Inside, people returning from Shirdi stared at me blankly, but I didn’t care at all. I recalled my entire experience – witnessing two near-deaths, sitting at spooky platforms, imagining barking dogs converting into hyenas and killing a man with the world’s best job, leaving drunk men who were still sleeping at Badlapur and of course, the happiness of seeing a train that saved 5 minutes of my sleep. “Ah! Home, here I come!”