ko Surmawala by Shivakumar Rai. Translated by: Riccardi, Theodore, Jr.

The Tuphan Express left Habada Station regularly at ten in the morning. As soon as it crossed the signal post, it began to travel like the wind. It darted through Vardhaman, Barakar, Raniganj, and Asansol one after the other like a boy running from class to play hooky. As it picked up speed, the rhythmic noise of its wheels was interrupted from time to time by the shrill sound of its whistle.

On this particular day, there were few passengers– only about eight or ten Bengalis. They left the train at Vardhaman. Two Madhises climbed in, scrambled up onto a bunk and began to snore like tiger cubs.

Krishnavir and Haribhakta had always wondered whether they or the university would tire of each other first. This time, it seemed, they had tired. They had stolen their mothers’ earrings, cleaned out their fathers’ money boxes and were running away to see the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal at Agra. They considered themselves, after all, students of history. Krisnavir had already run away to Calcutta on several occasions with the few pice that he had gotten by playing jhinge dau. He thought himself extremely clever. For Haribhakta, however, this was the first glimpse of big trains and wide plains. Krishnavir and Haribhakta kept staring out the window. Krishnavir was a conceited young man who was proud of his experience.

“Look over there,” he blurted out “at the rice! Look here, they’re all jute fields. They’ve put up a fence around that factory garden to keep the sun out. Why do you think they’ve done it? That is all a jute field. They have to fence jute fields in like that.” To the inexperienced Haribhakta all these things were new and he was filled with astonishment to see them all at once.

The train stopped for a moment at Bata station. A man entered their compartment with a small tin box in his hands. He went and sat down on the seat behind them. Neither one indicated any interest in who he was or where he was going, but as soon as the train left the station, he attracted their attention by reciting over and over again, “Tansen Pills, Tansen Pills.”

“Tansen Pills, made in Punjab,” he chanted. He took two tiny bottles from the tin box and said, “Put one in your mouth and you’ll feel fine and keep in good health. The big bottle is eight annas, the little one four annas. Take some, Babuji, taste them.” Krishnavir popped two small red pills into his mouth and swallowed them. He asked for some for Haribhakta and gave them to him.

Taking out another bottle, the man continued.

“Tiger Balm, Bengal Chemical Tiger Balm. If you have a headache or a cough, use this balm and the pain will disappear in a flash. Pimples, boils– it’s good for all these. Snake or scorpion bite. Rub just a little balm on that spot and the pain will go away at once. The price, only eight annas, every householder should have one.”

He took some balm from the bottle and began rubbing the forehead and temples of the travellers. Krishnavir could think of no reason in the world for him to miss such an opportunity. He stuck his head out.

”’Haribhakta,” he said, “get yourself a rub, too. The medicine feels very cool” Haribhakta refused.

During the trip, several hawkers got on selling flashlights, tooth powder, chocolate, and many other articles and then got off. The train was going at full speed.

“Listen Haribhakta,” began Krishnavir, “we must be careful on big trains. It’s not like our D.H.R. back home. You keep staring out the window like a dolt, but we must keep an eye on our baggage when people are getting on and off. There are thousands of people- and one of them might snatch up something and make off with it. We have to watch carefully.”

He pointed to the bunk above.

“See that iron chain up there?” he said, “What do you suppose it is? If there is an accident or anything goes wrong, you must pull it and the brakes will work. But if you pull it for no good reason, you will have to pay a fifty rupee fine. So watch that your hand doesn’t fall on it while you are asleep up there in the bunk.”

The train moved along.

“You shouldn’t put your head out like that. Sometimes these windows fall suddenly and strike your head. Lots of times a train comes on the next track with an open door and then there’s a terrible accident.”

Poor Haribhakta could not even look outside now.

“I’m going to sleep,” he said wearily and climbed up onto the bunk.

“All right, sleep,” said Krishnavir, but we must take turns sleeping. Someone might walk off with our belongings while we’re asleep without our knowing it.”

Haribhakta did not sleep a wink. All through the night, all kinds of people got on and off. However, Krishnavir slept blissfully on.

New Delhi was only two or three hours away. The thought of the Red Fort and the Kutb Minar excited them more and more. The train stopped at Tundala Junction.

“Look,” said Krishnavir, pointing to the railway timetable, “only two or three more stations to go. Just think — in two hours we’ll be in Birla Mandir, or in Connaught Place, or at India Gate.”

Two Muslim boys climbed on, wearing filthy undershirts and clothes. They glanced at Haribhakta and Krisnavir, and mumbling something inaudible to themselves, they went and sat down behind them. Krishnavir took a good look at them and said knowingly to Haribhakta, “These are the sort of people we have to keep an eye on. They look like gundas ….”

The train started off. A third person came into the compartment carrying a leather suitcase. He took a reed and two small bottles from the suitcase and gestured toward them like a sorcerer.

“Friends,” he began, “listen carefully. If your eyes tear, if they are bloodshot and you can’t see well, then put some of this ointment on your sweet eyes. It will make them healthy and beautiful”

“Take this reed,” he said, showing it to them, “first, dip it in this bottle to wet it, then take some surma from the other bottle and put it in your precious eyes.”

He put some surma in the eyes of the Muslim boys.

“Friends,” he said, “put some surma in your dear eyes.

If you are walking along a road and you get dust in your eyes, if you are riding in a train and you get smoke and soot in your eyes, this surma will make your eyes clear and bright-if any of you gentlemen needs some, please stand up.”

This was a much longer lecture than his headmaster ever made so why should Krishnavir not believe it? After all, he was no fool. It was true that he had been kept hanging around in one class for three years, but that was only because he hadn’t paid attention to his studies.

“Please give me some,” he said getting up.

“Put surma in your precious eyes,” said the man, as he smeared surma on Krishnavir’s eyes.

Haribhakta kept staring hypnotized.

“Put some surma in your eyes, too,” said the vendor, extending the reed.
Haribhakta could not refuse, so he said nothing. He put surma on both his eyes.

The two suddenly fell back, stunned. They saw ten moons and thousands of stars. It was as if chilli powder had been poured into their eyes. Tears streamed down their faces, their noses ran. They both fell forward clasping their hands to their faces.

Fifteen minutes later their eyes were slightly cooler, and everything seemed somewhat clearer. They lifted their heads and looked around. The Tuphan Express was racing along at full speed but what an astonishing thing had happened!

The surma seller was gone and with him the Muslim boys. They looked around–there was neither suitcase nor bedding on the bunk. The coats they had left there were gone too, just as when a conjurer makes a coin in his hand disappear by blowing on it and uttering a mantra.

As soon as their eyes cleared, they looked around. Krishnavir sat on his haunches wondering how so many Calcutta thugs were unable to fool him and yet this one Delhi surma seller could throw dust in his eyes.


Source: Riccardi, Theodore Jr; Shivakumar (1988) “Four Nepali Short Stories,”Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 8: No. 1, Article 4. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/himalaya/vol8/iss1/4