I was at the helm of the cramming mass of people boarding the train from Kannur and their stubborn insistence to move forward, no matter who was in their way, knocked me about and into the body of one of my work hosts. We were standing on the platform, about to part ways but the crowd was effective in making our goodbye as quick as possible. We would have hugged goodbye regardless; a gesture as foreign to Indian people as the head bobble is to westerners, but now we were forced into an awkward and unprepared embrace. It didn’t matter, we had become comfortable enough to understand the situation and appreciate the exchange, despite being knocked off our center and losing the intuitive signal to know which side the other was going to lean in to.
After having fed me every day for the past four; both lunch and dinners all home cooked using local produce and laid out with such a casual ease, my work hosts had driven me to the train station and waited for my train to arrive, and depart. It’s an act of generosity I’d learnt, in our hurried society, to reserve for my parents, not for my friends or, most certainly, not my business associates. But this kind of hospitality is foreign in the west, not in India.
On board the train it was a panicked fight to my top bunk and the son of my hosts, who had dashed ahead of me, was carrying one of my bags and standing guard by my bunk. He was keenly aware of where I was and who he would have to muscle in line to make sure I got to my seat safely, and he got off the train in time. I threw the bag I had up to the top bunk, along with the bottle of water and plastic bag filled with food (including fresh made banana bread using bananas from the garden) my hosts had made and packed for me, when the son insisted I climb up immediately and he would pass me my other bag. It meant that we wouldn’t get to hug goodbye and I wouldn’t be able to tell him how truly I appreciated his help over the past few days.
But, neither one questioned it, we both understood the density of the moment. People were in a determined race to find their seats, and there was always risk of getting stuck in the crowd. People won’t move out of the way in this country, they’re as steadfast as any plastic deity with a bobble head you often see on the dashboard of cabs. In a flash, I launched myself up as he passed up the bag. We made eye contact and smiled and I said Thank you so much a thousand times in my head but he only heard me say it once. I was truly thankful.
Sitting on that top bunk, looking down at the crowd while organizing where I would place my bags so that I could lay down, I felt like a kid going off to camp. I was sitting on my alcove in the train sky, above the train world; the prison greys and blues of the lifeless shelf like bunks, the cold metal grills separating each ‘section’, the stoic whir of an industrial ceiling fan all around me and the moment seized me where I realized how alone I was. Happy, but alone.
Just then, above the sounds of chaotic shuffling I heard a louder “Bye, see you, bye” and something inside knew it was for me. I looked down to the open window on my left, below my bunk, and shining up at me, between the metal bars; solid in the horizontal stance they took to protect us, were the smiling faces of my work hosts waving goodbye and wiggling their heads in approval. I know they were making sure I was safe and comfortable, even though their son had done the same thing only a minute before.
I laughed and waved and said thank you again and for a moment I really did feel like I was being sent off to school camp and being waved off by my parents. We waved enthusiastically, and smiled until they finally pulled away and I was left staring at that empty window. And I stared for a few minutes as if the impression of those loving, supportive, happy faces were in the air outside. I stared until I felt sure the image was no longer there while my heart sat in my throat, I felt so moved.
I found my headphones and put on a song from the The New Basements Tapes Session called “When I get my hands on you” and stared straight ahead. A gridlock of steel. I grabbed my phone and snapped a photo. I suddenly thought of all the things that go unnoticed in life. Like the symmetry in my view, or the fact that I was the only one sitting up-right in this carriage staring straight head down the tunnel of monochromatic industrial metal. The fans whirred and I continued to stare straight ahead, the song as my soundtrack, and I was as alone as ever in that crowded train. But, that goodbye lingered.
It’s the little moments that hold us together, I thought. Just two people, squashing their gazes together through metal bars, to wave goodbye to someone. But, that was my goodbye, my own private goodbye that I suspect wasn’t a big deal to them, but it was everything to me. That goodbye sweetened my view, it gave meaning to what I was seeing in front of me. It reminded me that I wasn’t alone at all. We have people’s thoughts, we have people’s kindness, we have their small gestures to keep us company.
I thought of the privacy of this moment, only seen by me, and the times we’re alone but in the company of our lingering moments and fresh nostalgia.
As I stared, I understood that my view was so…so cold, mundane and it wasn’t pretty but it was important in the most unassuming way, because I had that goodbye.
Only I saw that goodbye from my angle and, in that moment, only I was looking down the tunnel of that train ceiling and then I thought about all the secrets life must keep; the things we see that no one else does, the feelings we can’t explain, the private goodbyes and the sacred hellos.
All the secrets that won’t change a life but instead, make a life; the little moments. The ones that hold us together. The moments that remind us we’re here; wherever that is, whatever that means.
This is the first of my February series – Life’s little secrets. It’s my homage to love as I show the mundane moments that I see but that might not have meaning, as an image, without an narrative.