Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (11 page)

For an hour, I drew schematic diagrams in my little notebook of a carriage that would tilt inward, rather than outward, under the impulse of the centrifugal force as it came into a bend by means of holding the carriage in a brace that allowed it to roll, and weighting it along the bottom. At the time, I had no need for or knowledge of such words as I use now in describing what I did. But even as I drew my diagrams, whenever the train crawled into a bend, I would get up and take five steps to the other side of the carriage, on the off chance that my own weight might make the tiniest difference that could save the train from tilting over entirely.

I performed this righting maneuver twice before noticing another boy in the carriage doing the same. He seemed about my own age, though I now think he might have been a little older. The boy appeared to be traveling with his parents, both of whom looked elderly, thin, dark as night, their leather skin pulled onto their bones, giving the impression of bags stuffed with coat hangers. I could not tell if the boy was merely imitating me or if he had reached the same conclusion regarding the need to act as counterweight to the tilt of the train. His mother and father watched him, and when their eyes met mine they smiled at each other.

The boy came up to me and held out a mango. It was smaller than the mangoes I had seen in the Indian grocery stores in London, and it was yellow, without any of their unripe shades of red and green. The boy was so close that I could see the meniscus-like impressions in the fruit where his fingertips held it. I could even smell the mango’s sweetness.

Reaching into the pocket of my trousers, I took out an unopened tube of Polo mints that my parents had given me in London and I offered it to him. He shook his head, but I insisted, taking his left hand and levering apart his fingers with mine. He smiled and returned to his parents, straightaway offering the Polos to them.

I pulled out my pocketknife and carefully peeled the mango, making nicks in its surface before pulling off the skin in strips, which I held between my thumb and the flat of the blade.

When we arrived in Srimangal, most of the carriage emptied out. The town was a major commercial center of the Sylhet region, and it was evidently the nearest stop to the ultimate destinations of many of the passengers. As we left Srimangal, we passed through vast orchards of pineapples and also what I now suppose were orange groves. The pineapples were ripe and ready for harvesting, or nearly so, but the oranges were fledgling and green.

The first time I met Emily’s grandfather, the old man regaled me with a story about his war years in the Burma campaign. Emily and her mother rolled their eyes, having heard this story more than a few times. In his own estimation, the war was Sir Hugh’s finest hour. He had plodded through much of the five decades since as a jobbing barrister, the honor of Queen’s Counsel eluding him (the style
Sir
deriving from an unearned baronetcy). His wife, a severe woman with a fearsome reputation, had risen through the political classes, helped along by a jolly good start in the social classes, and, as a vocal baroness in the House of Lords, she had held fast the Tory line on social issues—defending the family, for example, when it was under threat from the permissive society.

The Burma campaign! I restrained myself—I was one snort from laughing uncontrollably. This is not real. These people are not real. They’re caricatures. With those three words, the Burma campaign, I had instantly forgotten what I already knew of the private lives of these people, the hidden lives that made them real, disastrously so.

Sir Hugh told me his story about the oranges of Sylhet that saved his life. It was simply that. While garrisoned in Sylhet, just across the border with Burma and then part of British India, the young soldier took gravely ill. The father-to-be of Emily’s mother was nursed back to health by a steady intake of the juice of oranges from Sylhet. Sir Hugh looked cheered by the retelling of this story, and I wondered if he thought the oranges of Sylhet brought us closer together.

Zafar then came to a stop. He appeared distracted and leaned back in his seat. I wanted to hear the story and hoped he would not break off his narrative and risk losing his thread. I could never tell at the outset of his digressions whether he had simply thought of something irrelevant but interesting and wanted to share it, or whether, as in the proof of a larger mathematical theorem, he had merely stepped aside to establish a lemma or minor proposition, before returning to the proof of the main theorem, where he would apply the lemma or proposition.

Time appears to slow down, said Zafar, at moments of crisis, stress, or anxiety. Time slows down, we think, during a car crash or when a person falls from a great height into a net, the latter being the setting for certain scientific experiments conducted to explore this experience of the slowing of time. The experience of time slowing down is now understood as a function of the creation of memories. According to the science, it seems that during stress, groups of neurons known as amygdalae are engaged into activity. Associated with this is a spiked increase in the number of memories recorded by the brain in every tiny interval of time—in every instant, you might say. The sensation of how much time passed during an event is dependent on the number of memories associated with the event by the brain; the more memories, however instantaneous, the greater the length of time that is perceived to have passed. That is why we think time slowed down, when in fact we captured an album of photographs in the blink of an eye.

In the early evening, as the light was retreating and monsoon clouds colluded behind the hills, we came to a bridge where the train ground to a complete stop. An hour passed—or perhaps it was ten minutes—and being somewhat irritated by the persistent halting, I decided to leave the carriage to stretch my legs and see things for myself.

We had stopped by a town strewn along the banks of the river from where the train tracks rose up toward the bridge, beneath a visible moon, free of the distant clouds, nearly full, in fact, and phosphorescent. As I climbed off the train, I took into view the town’s main thoroughfare, two hundred yards or so of a wide dirt road. The rains had polished it, raising the edges of bricks that had been set into the dirt road, not in any tessellated order but laid here and there to supply traction to rickshaws and carts. In the failing light, kerosene lamps were being lit in the tin-roofed shacks on both sides of the street, while men squatted beside baskets of fish and vegetables.

Some way off, at the front of the train, the driver and his junior were locked in animated discussion with a throng of men. Something was happening. As I drew closer I found to my astonishment that I understood what was being discussed. I should have expected to hear Sylheti at some point, but I was not ready for it. Evidently, we were in Sylhet, nearing the end of the journey, having passed the trading center of Srimangal and now deep into the province. The boy from my carriage who had presented me with the mango was standing at the edge of the throng, his back to me. I stepped close to him and asked, in Sylheti, what was going on. He turned and smiled at me, perhaps pleased that I spoke Sylheti, and explained that the townsfolk thought the bridge was unsafe. They say, explained the boy, that an hour before we arrived an iron beam fell from the bridge, so it is now weakened.

A few villagers were standing close to the bank side and I approached them to see what it was that they saw. The river below me was wide, several times wider than the train was long, and was running fast. In the monsoon season, the rivers are swollen, many to bursting point, and some flow so fast they are impossible to navigate by boat. Above the river, stretching all the way across it, supported on several pillars was an iron truss bridge. It was, I remember thinking, as high as the blocks of flats in London where we lived—where I used to live.

I remember the height of those flats. I remember hearing that Joya had died. Joya visited my mother often, her two little children with her, though I never sensed any strong connection between her and my mother. After my mother first met Joya, she said that Joya’s children were mixed race. I knew what that meant as a matter of fact, yet what saddened me was the note of disdain I heard in my mother’s voice. But I was always glad for any visitor who would draw the attention of my mother and, on Tuesdays, my father. Sometimes, when Joya left our home late, she would promise to switch the lights on and off in her living room, whose window we could see from our flat, to let us know she’d crossed the housing estate safely. It was Joya’s idea. My mother didn’t seem to care to look, or perhaps she knew that I would look. Joya jumped from a window in her flat one day and landed on the chain-link fence that marked the concrete play area. My mother told me this and seemed troubled by it on the evening she told me. On the following Saturday, as my father and I crossed the housing estate on our way to the library, I counted the eleven floors to her living-room window.

The small crowd of townsfolk, the driver, and the assistant were walking onto the bridge. I joined the boy, my new friend, and we moved with the group onto the tracks and toward the river. As we walked along the tracks, the train driver periodically peered over the handrails and shone a flashlight down the side of the bridge, while his assistant brought a hammer down hard onto the rails. The bridge reverberated sounds that seemed to come from the iron upper framework, not from the deep underbelly of girders and I-beams. We reached a third of the way across when one of the townsmen called out the point where the girder had fallen away. A discussion followed, most of which I did not catch. On the other side of the river, there was a coil of flickering lights, where the bridge landed on the riverbank. I asked a man standing at the edge of the crowd whether the train would stop there. There was another town at that end, he explained, and, because it had a telephone, the train driver stopped there to collect messages.

I told the boy, in my awkward Sylheti, that I would carry on walking across the bridge to the other side of the river and catch the train there.

It would be nice to walk with you, he said. But I have to go back to my parents. Where is your family?

In Bilaath, I said.
Bilaath
, or
Vilayet
as it has otherwise been transcribed into English, derives from Persian and Ottoman Turkish, in which the word meant governorate or district. In Bengali, the word is used to refer to Britain. In fact, one English colloquial name for Britain, Blighty, somewhat archaic these days and mainly reserved for comedy, is derived from the word
Bilaath
, which was current in India in the time of the British Raj.

Do you have any brothers?

I suppose now this seems like a curious question, but at the time, it did not. Friendship is one of life’s mysteries.

No, I replied.

The boy smiled and set off for the train.

Could you keep an eye on my bag? I asked.

Of course. Don’t worry.

I walked farther onto the bridge, the first town receding behind me, into an unlit region between two hives of human activity. Beneath me, the swollen river thrashed about in the dark, throwing up white arcs of reflected moonlight. Deep from within it there seemed to rise a growl.

I wasn’t far from my ultimate destination. The plan was that I would be met at the station by another uncle, my father’s brother.

At the other side of the river, I came upon a second hub of human life, a few shacks and stallholders. Kerosene lanterns left a shuddering glow on surfaces. I smelled the sting of mustard oil and heard its crackle.

The stallholder was frying a mixture of onions and chickpeas with some spices, and the smell was, as Brits would say, terrific. I had eaten nothing more all day than the mango the boy had given me. I gestured to the old man behind the stall that I would like some of what he was cooking. He took my money and wrapped up a portion in a small cone of newspaper. Across the bridge, the train blew its whistle and I could hear the intermittent chug of the pistons heaving the wheels. All the smells, sights, and sounds, from the pan in front of me, from the train across the water, from the river’s moan, from the string of glowing lanterns, from the solitary moon—all claims on the senses came to me as one, as if merged into the entire night.

The snack was delicious and I asked for four more: another for me and three for the boy and his parents.

If I close my eyes, I can hear the sounds again: the groan, the creak and snap of girders buckling, the high-pitched whistle of wires flying, the crash of a carriage hitting the tower, of another hitting the pier at the base, and then the sound of water, not a splash but as if the growling torrent had leaped up and crunched the falling carriage in its teeth. Halfway along the bridge was a splay of girders, their edges picked out by the moonlight. The river had taken the train, separating the carriages into prongs in the water.

The townspeople on both sides rushed to assist, launching their skinny boats into the river. I climbed down to the riverside, almost losing my foothold in the mud and loose earth. It seemed to take forever, and by the time I reached the riverbank, bodies and all sorts of articles were already visible in the gray waves under the light of the moon.

I wanted to help and clambered onto a boat with two others. But everyone must have known that the passengers had had little chance against the enormous impact.

Of course I waited for my new friend and his parents, but I never saw them again. Perhaps they survived, perhaps they were rescued by another boat and taken ashore, but they had been sitting in the front carriage, as I had been, and that carriage would have taken blows from the front and behind, between river and train.

Zafar poured us both some more champagne.

We drank silently.

You never told me about all this, I said to my friend.

Should I have? he replied. There’s a lot we haven’t talked about, isn’t there?

I know that I looked down when he said this. I know that I reached for the stem of the glass, lifted it, and drank. Was that shame?

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