Friday, May 29, 2009

Easy Does It: Slow Motions On the Way to Darjeeling

The following short story was written for the Japanese travel magazine, Transit. I spent one week in Darjeeling, which is more famous for its tea than its train but when you're in the hill station itself, the train seems to embody the town much more than the tea estates in the periphery. Being built on a hilltop, Darjeeling only has so much space to accommodate its growing population and thus has to deal with many of the problems associated with overcrowding in other Indian cities. Nevertheless, quietness abounds if you walk long enough and if you're lucky you can see the Great Himalayas, the "Roof of the World," on a clear day.
         As an American, it was interesting to write a short story intimately revealing the relationship between a Japanese father and son.

As the train hungrily devoured large lumps of coal, fire blazed in its belly and great bursts of steam whistled forth from its chimney. It reminded the man of large, adorable animals with enormous appetites and slow gaits. And like the endangered species of black rhinoceros or the maritime manatee, the train was something to watch, as much as for its aesthetic shape as for its rarity. For there were not many places left in the world where you could still arrive by steam locomotive.

It was possible in Darjeeling. Before this trip to India, he had known vaguely that Darjeeling was famous for its tea, though being Japanese, he had decided it inferior to green tea; that was nothing personal, for he found all tea lacking the piquancy of his homeland’s brew. Like Japan, tea in India was very much a part of the culture. Also, like Japan, nearly everywhere in India was accessible by train. And it was for this very reason the man had come to Darjeeling with his son: to ride trains.

Their story begins with a Sunday night NHK documentary. A TV special on steam trains had mesmerized his son, seven years old, and a veritable otaku when it came to anything to do with railroads. The father, lacking an interest in things mechanical, felt his eyes glaze over as animated sequences and sepia-toned photographs explained the various functions of valve gears, fire-tube boilers, blast pipes, coupling rods, among other complicated tools and parts—material for him that was stronger than sleeping pills.

His son, however, was duly impressed. And because this documentary espoused the merits of the steam locomotive in Darjeeling, his son had become extremely enthusiastic regarding how their next vacation was to be spent. “You want to go to India?” the father had asked, flabbergasted. “I want to go to Darjeeling,” was his specific response.

And so they went. After all, he felt he owed it to his son. His wife had broken the family unit the year before, bored by a marriage that had begun as an inspiring love affair but had evolved into a sterile arrangement. He supposed that as a young man he had made promises to her that he wasn’t able to keep. Of course, his son had been upset by the subtraction within the family and it was an important occasion when his son revealed his rare joys. The man himself had never had much interest in India, a country he knew from newspaper headlines that suggested famine, war, and disease. It also had the world’s best locomotive. A week there wouldn’t kill them…well, probably not.

It was in April they left. Landing in Delhi, the two of them were both totally fatigued by the 40-degree temperatures. They observed a series of historic monuments there with a thought to the comforts of the air-conditioned bus from which they had arrived. “Some vacation!” the father harrumphed to himself, whenever he saw beggars or a blighted building, which was just about everywhere in Delhi.

He had wanted to fly to Siliguri in West Bengal, from where they would be able to take the train to Darjeeling but his son found this idea unimaginative, for they had come to India to ride its trains. And so they would take the twenty-hour overnight Rajdani Express from Delhi to Siliguri.

The father, used to the speed and efficiency of the shinkansen, was shocked when their train failed to depart in time. He was baffled later when the train would come to sudden halts in the middle of the countryside, stalling for ten, twenty, even thirty minutes. This would be inexcusable, even shameful, should it happen in Japan but none of the other passengers seemed distressed about it. He and his son joined the locals outside beside the tracks, smoking cigarettes and gazing out towards the horizon. One of the delays was caused because the tracks had to be realigned… manually!

The father had to admit that being on the train had been interesting. He’d had no idea how high-tech Japan was! He’d heard about the silicon revolution in India, in cities like Bangalore, but much of the countryside he saw looked like it had not changed much in three hundred years: mud and grass huts, ox-cart farming, and even the absence of electricity! “This isn’t just a train,” the man thought: “It’s a time machine!”

They arrived in Siliguri one hour late. “Can you believe how slow it was?” he asked his son, who seemed annoyed by his father’s question: “Dad, if I’d wanted to ride the bullet train, we would’ve gone to Hiroshima.” The boy was excited that he would be able to stretch out and sleep in a bed within the train. Japanese trains were much too fast for this particular indulgence.

In Siliguri, they learned that the first leg of the train trip north was by diesel engine and that they would have to change in the town of Kurseong in order to ride the so-called “toy train.” At this point, the father was not surprised to learn that the train was “slow” and that going by jeep to Kurseong would be more comfortable and quicker. “No way, Dad!” his son had exclaimed. “Don’t you think it’s stupid to take a jeep when a train is available?” The man realized that this sort of logic escaped him completely, as he always felt speed rules options in all spheres, whether it was transportation or communication. Getting it done and done fast was his way of doing things. His son had more particular ideas, especially, when the matter concerned trains.

Love at first ride: his son was an early trainspotter and from the age of three could name the various trains on the JR line by their colors. At six, the boy could correct his father regarding directions as to which series of trains was the most convenient from one destination to another. The boy knew all the stops for all the major shinkansen lines. As far as trains went, he was a passionate genius.

The train from Siliguri was slow indeed. The tracks ran alongside the road and on the way, many vehicles, passed them: scooters, jeeps, lorries. Sometimes the train was riding right alongside patches of flora: tree branches whipped at the windows and leaves got in the boy’s hair. It also passed storefronts and people’s homes at a quite intimate distance, within meters of a front yard or restaurant window.

The father and son, unable to book first class tickets, were crowded into general seating: it was standing room only, which was okay for the boy who was too excited to sit still anyway. The man was shocked by the way Indians could hop off the train as it was going. Like cats, they always landed on their feet.

He was also shocked by the Indians. They didn’t look like Indians anymore. They looked very nearly like Japanese, their faces being very Asiatic. Talking to them in broken English, he learned a few were from Bhutan, a few from Sikkim, but most were from Nepal. They called themselves “Gorkhas,” and they smiled when they said that.

In Kurseong, they changed to the steam train. Here, the boy really came alive. He watched spellbound as a team of railroad men worked together to ready the train. A man shoveled coals down the train’s gullet, while another tended the firebox. The driver was polishing and greasing and testing the various functions. When the train was ready, the driver tooted the whistle, blowing great belches of steam into the air.

The steam train was perhaps even more leisurely in its pace. Again, scooters, jeeps, and lorries passed them alongside and the locomotive was slow enough that commuters were able to hop off the train when it was in motion, shortcutting their route.

It was also a bit dirty. Coal ash from the steam blasts drifted through the open windows and into hair and pockets. Nevertheless, there was something exciting about the ride. It was not just his son’s contagious gaiety. He himself was getting caught up in the novelty of the ride. For as they chugged along, the train seemed to overwhelm the atmosphere wherever it went, whistle blowing its passage, calling forth townsfolk to witness. As it winded towards Darjeeling, work stopped, parents grinned, kids waved. Wherever the train went, so it was met with a hero’s welcome.

Arriving in Darjeeling, the boy looked up at the father disappointed, remarking, “The meaning really is in the journey, not the destination, right?” The man had heard that before but had never really thought too much about it.

Darjeeling turned into a good place for a father and son. There was a zoo with a Himalayan Bear and snow leopards. There was also a mountaineering institute, a beautiful Hindu temple, and many great restaurants. Darjeeling is a good lookout spot for the Great Himalayas to the north. It was misty for some of their time but one afternoon after the rain stopped, they were able to see the large, snow-capped mountains, some of them the highest in the world, including Kanchenjunga.

There was something very beautiful about being able to see these mountains and it reminded the father of a fond memory. Returning by plane from a stressful business trip in the afternoon, he had happened to glance out the window between fitful attempts at sleep. He saw Mt. Fuji rising from the earth, its white top peeking out from sparse clouds, telling him a secret, but one that he did not really understand.

On their last day in Darjeeling before the express back to Delhi, the son wanted to return to the train station. There was a tourist service in which passengers could take a trip to the town of Ghoom nine kilometers away, returning after a short break.

They arrived at the station an hour early so that they could watch the worker teams preparing the engine. The boy wanted to meet the driver. He stands in the front of the locomotive as it roars through the mountainside, signaling and directing the speed and stopping of the train. Through the station manager they were able to have a brief conversation. They learned being a driver was a family business. The man’s father had been a driver during the British era and he had hopes that his son would take over once he retired.

Sadly, this reminded the man of his own family. His father had run a ramen shop in Shinagawa. Growing up, he had no intention of taking over the family business. He did not like ramen, he hated the movie Tampopo, and wanted nothing more than to become a star pitcher for the Tokyo Giants. Baseball had been his great love, its simplicity, strategy, its love of statistics and averages.

When he was tooling around in a semi-professional league, his father had passed away. Instead of taking over the business, he sold it and the space eventually became a KFC franchise. His dreams of baseball stardom never materialized and he went to work as a salaryman at a typical, uninteresting corporation. Shortly into his career, he developed a whimsical taste for hot noodle soup that he had never known as a child.

In this resurgence of memory, the man recognized a connection between himself and his son that he had overlooked; that in the boy’s memorization of trains, their names, schedules, depots, and mechanical idiosyncrasies, he demonstrated a similar penchant for calculations that the father enjoyed for the laws of averages in baseball and its mess of statistics. Madness, he smiled proudly, was genetic.

They said goodbye to the driver and boarded the train. The train was slow, of course, but it hardly seemed to matter now. The train, in fact, was too small, too inconvenient, and with its gluttonous diet of coal, too polluting but it was all the more special because of that. When any and all of us looked upon the steam locomotive, we were moved because in its leisurely, pleasurable pace we recognized our child spirit reflected back at us.

The man and the boy were the only foreign tourists; the rest of the small compartment was a group visiting from Bombay. They were older and prone to singing Bollywood songs. They sang for a while and eventually turned to the man, requesting something from him. Having no karaoke habits, he was nervous at first, but after much prodding, attempted Happy End’s “Kaze O Atsumete.” It was an old song that he’d loved as a teenager but only now, older, did he realize why he liked it so much. He was off-key and a bit subdued but they appreciated his performance all the same. It did not matter that the Indians would not know the meaning of the Japanese lyrics, for they were applauding the sentiments of the man.

When he turned to look at the seat behind him where his son was sitting, he saw the chair empty. He found him at the back of the compartment, leaning out the door as the Indians were wont. He thought of admonishing him to be careful but his son was looking up at him, smiling, as the train whistles blasted into the misty mountain air.

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