Chasing Ghosts on a Train From New Delhi

Forced to leave her childhood home in Sri Lanka, a writer embarks on a quest for her mythical past.  
Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka
Mount Lavinia in Colombo, Sri Lanka used to be the Governor’s Residence and is now a hotel. Photo courtesy Roma Tearne

Dawn breaks over Delhi.

A moment before, we had been in complete darkness but now layer upon layer of rose-faint colour embalms this city’s skyline. Our train draws away from the platform of New Delhi railway station, leaving the frenetic pulse of activity behind.

It snakes hesitantly across the dust-scarred suburbs and I notice that everywhere, between concrete and half-finished buildings, along rubbish-strewn wasteland and roadside ditches, there are small fires burning. Remnants of a passing Delhi night, providing a lingering warmth to those ghostly figures that crouch around. Like shadow puppets from another era.

The train is beginning to gather speed and, through the tired waterless leaves of a mango tree, I catch a glimpse of a man stretched out on a makeshift bed. He wears only a loincloth. Beside him, another flickering bonfire is dying. Somewhere in my head a memory is triggered, for it is 40 years since I last witnessed such an eastern sunrise.

I have travelled more than 6,000 kilometres to promote a book I wrote about a place not all that far from here. It is further south; three flying hours away, in a country so deeply engraved in my childhood memories that I am able to describe it with eyes closed. I am referring to a coastal suburb of Colombo, in Sri Lanka, beyond the southern-most tip of India. A looking-glass island, ringed by coral. Once, long ago, it was my home, but because of the political nature of my novels it is unwise for me to return. I am not a good traveller at the best of times; not for me the seamless journeying from one country to another. Both my homesickness and the brutality of my young uprooting from Sri Lanka have made me uneasy, so I tend to prefer what is familiar. And even though my work forces me to travel, I am reluctant for change.

Yet here I am in India now, and as the dawn rises, so too does my awareness of the true motives behind this trip. I realise that I am here to find another, different location that reminds me of my childhood. A place to compensate for all I lost. I am searching, like a lover, for a familiar image, hunting for it as I have done all my life. Endlessly hoping to discover, in other lands, this lost and lovely place of the past. Surely in India I will find it at last.

The first time I became aware of this quest to recreate the place where I was born was when I discovered a small fishing village called Carbis Bay on the Atlantic coast, in Britain. It was summertime, the sea was calmly blue, the breeze gentle, and the view of golden sands was so like that other bay I had lived by for the first ten years of my life. No matter that it was a colder sea or that the voices were not those of familiar people. No matter too, that now I was older. “Look!” I cried, “there are the rocks that I once knew!”

Long ago, I had carved my name on just such rocks: Roma, Colombo, Ceylon, The World, The Universe. Looking across Carbis Bay I saw at last how landscape and memory become entwined.

Some years later, during a series of trips to the Mediterranean I began to access other, long-forgotten memories. Out they came, released no doubt by the sight of bougainvillea, flush against sun-baked walls and the flat, white light of a southern day. And again, in the bright, bustling cities of Palermo, Istanbul, even Cairo, I would sometimes catch, like a strain of unidentifiable music, the sense of that mysteriously elusive place. And now, here in India, I am so close to home, so nearly there.

Roma and Father

Simpler times for the author and her father. Photo courtesy Roma Tearne

As the train moves on, I can think of nothing else. Years of writing about Sri Lanka while living on the Atlantic-buffeted British Isles have given my past a mythical status. A paradise that was lost. Ten years was long enough for a Prospero-like spell to be cast over me. The old cries for home remain as strong as ever. But, I tell myself, looking back is a dangerous thing. Does not all mythology warn against it? To look back is to risk entering the underworld of dead time. There is a danger in wanting a substitute home. The train slows at a level crossing then grinds to a halt. The dawn is brighter, no longer hesitant. The street fires flicker like the fireflies of Ruskin’s Italy, “fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves”. I see myself, many, many years before, walking hand-in-hand with my father through the tropical city, stepping past other fires still flickering in my memory. Exactly where we were going I cannot remember but my father’s voice is strong and clear.

“They are only street people,” he tells me. “They have nothing. Just bits of wood to keep out the chilly morning air.”

My search for that voice and all it represents has been a lifelong one. In India, I hope, I shall get a little closer to the epicentre of that distant experience.

The train gathers speed once more; my eyes are gritty with tiredness. I cannot keep my camera steady long enough for the exposure I need. So I shall have to look instead. And remember.

The sky lightens and lightens but a delicate, milky mist continues to float over the ground. It shrouds the laurel and the “boom” trees, knee-deep in mile after mile of impossibly-yellow mustard fields. We pass one road sign and then another, too swiftly to be recognised. There is a building with red lettering. A blackly-etched bullock, thin-shouldered and mournful, a blanketed figure on a bicycle. Then to my surprise we pass through scenery that might have stepped straight out of a watercolour painting. Softened and remote in this refracted light and utterly beautiful. I see a group of sari-ed women disappearing gracefully into the distance. There are bundles of firewood finely balanced on their heads. Their preoccupations and their lives, all closed to me.

Their day, of cultivating the land, has begun early, in the same way that it does in every rural community around the world. Then suddenly amongst the varied greens of the field I notice smudges of fluttering crimson, kingfisher blues and yellows. Small huts with woven roofs that look like witches’ hats appear and disappear again and again as our train scurries on. There are trees, painted with strips of acid green and red, cow dung fires, untended and unwatched. I long to be nearer, to catch a clearer glimpse of face and voice. What are these mysterious lives flashing past me? The light is stronger now, eggshell transparent, and shadowless. Even the dusty windows of the train cannot hide its strength. Soon, I know, it will fall relentlessly on the workers in the fields sending them back to their darkened huts. A battered truck trundles down a rutted lane followed by two dogs. A flock of white birds rise all together and flutter high out of frame.

There is something unexplained in this landscape that puzzles me. But what this is, I cannot as yet tell. For the casual visitor of course India remains eternally colourful and exotic. Cattle in the street. Holy trees charmingly smeared in yellow powder. Magical realism embedded in every freshly picked mango, the scent of all Asia on their silky skins. For the everyday visitor, dirt and poverty lie in wait wherever they look, as clutching their anti-bacteria wipes and bottles of water they move gingerly from place to place. And also amongst the chaos of the slum dogs is the guilt created by the withdrawing tide of the Empire.

However I have noticed that more recently the prevalent view is that, beneath the glossy world of international travel, it is possible to make “real” discoveries of one’s own. There is the hope that in the blandness of globalised uniformity, there remains something more substantial waiting to be found. Often I have found such gems hidden in the flea markets and bazaars in dusty corners of the cities I visit. In Delhi, before boarding the train I found one such treasure; an undiscovered world in a small shop selling, amongst their souvenirs, a clutch of fading old photographs. The shopkeeper was a little puzzled. The photographs, he said, were not so popular. He hardly sells any to the tourists who prefer to buy the leather puppets, kites, and other knick-knacks. But the curling sepia images of families picnicking, strolling through a park or taking part in a wedding ceremony are small cameos of a way of Indian life fading slowly into their own past. Found photographs, more than anything else, capture the spirit of a place.

Thinking of these new-found treasures in my bag, staring out of the train window, I wonder about those endless memories I have been chasing. Can such a place exist any longer, in the East, beneath the economic glitter balls, the global lifestyles and the boutique hotels? What task is this I have set myself? It’s been 40 years and the world has moved on. The past, as we have so been famously told, is a foreign country. Instead of trying to excavate it, I should simply enjoy the holiday, I decide, like any other tourist with no presumptions, aims, or agendas.

Bassa Padana, Italy

The river Po hides behind unharvested mustard in Bassa Padana, Italy. Photo: De Agostini/Getty Images

And then as I stare at the shimmering fields of mustard, the mist clears and the landscape of winding, dusty roads and small wayside shrines and willows sunk in flowers appear different. Unexpectedly I am reminded of Italy, Bassa Padana and the countryside around Cremona, in the valley of the river Po. In late spring, perhaps, when the uncut rape harvest casts yellow shadows across the tender poplar trees. Startled I blink. Why Italy? For me, Italy has always been a place without complications, by which I mean I have no ambiguous memories tied up with it. I have simply been happy there, having lived off and on in various parts of the country, a foreigner in a foreign land. Nothing more or less than that. But as the train travels north and I gaze with delight on the bright fields outside Delhi, I see, perhaps for the first time, something that has eluded me for so many years. I see that connections exist in the most unlikely places, and ‘il piccolo mondo’ as the Italians call it, is in fact just that, a small world. That everything is connected to everything else. Long before the phrase “global village” was thought of, long before the Internet, before the century of migration there have been connections of landscape with landscape, myth with myth. Beyond man-made boundaries, a world all inter-connected, one place with another. And seeing this, all at once I realise that only by leaving and returning, only through this restless searching, have I come to such an understanding. And I thought also, how strange it should be that the idea of il piccolo mondo should be brought to me through Italy. The place that offers contentment precisely because it isn’t home.

Appeared in the September 2012 as “Il Piccolo Mondo”.

  • Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan-born novelist. Her fifth novel "The Road To Urbino" was published in June 2012 by Little Brown.

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