“Death Train” Fiction by Shashi Kadapa

From the dim oil lights of the platform, he could see gross misshapen faces eaten by disease, pressed against the closed windows. A few hands waved at him frantically as the train slowed. He felt an imperceptible force trying to drag him inside and he resisted, falling backwards.

Late 1898

The death train rolled through the night, windows shuttered, doors locked, and lights dimmed. It was on a one way trip from Mysore city.

No whistle to announce its arrival. Station masters along the route were ordered to allow the train through. It stopped only at Haveri station to take in coal and water. A few half dead, deformed people from the nearby villages swathed in blankets were pushed in. Cries of tortured souls sound faintly from the bogies.

As one person was hefted in, his blanket fell and the porters gasped in horror at the boils, warts, and pustules on the face and arms. Some occupants crawled to the door, begging for water.

The train pulled away through the night to Alnavar junction. Then it moved into a siding, entered a tunnel and briefly stopped. The driver Bhimappa pushed the throttle, released the brakes, and jumped off. The train moved onwards, to the incomplete bridge that spanned a dry ravine of Kali River.

The engine appeared to hang in the air and then it plummeted and crashed among the kerosene drums placed in profusion on the ravine floor. These caught fire, engulfing the bogies, and the hapless passengers. Forest tribes stood on the rim of the ravine and hurled stones on the few that survived.

Memories of the crash and his complicity would haunt the driver forever. He was from the Siddi tribe, many were fierce hunters, while some had joined the British government.

After the accident, no animal enters the area, no bird flies over it, no tree grows there. It is unholy and villagers speak of howling and moaning in the night, and of misshapen forms that roam the ravine seeking warm flesh to kill. Over the years, many died, eaten by the demons.

British engineers had earlier dammed the ravine to make an irrigation canal and to construct the bridge, and this work was abandoned. They, brought down the tunnel, and posted warning signs. Official records were expunged of this accident.

Now – Early 1940s

Shirish Kulkarni, station master at Alnavar junction in Dharward stared aghast open at the rushing behemoth as it came in the darkness. No information, no whistle or lights, just a mass of steel that hurtled down the track.

He looked at the engine, and imagined that the front looked like a grinning macabre skull.

From the dim oil lights of the platform, he could see gross misshapen faces eaten by disease, pressed against the closed windows. A few hands waved at him frantically as the train slowed. He felt an imperceptible force trying to drag him inside and he resisted, falling backwards.

The train chugged on, moved over the switch rails and sped along the disused and junked siding. The siding led to the collapsed tunnel and on to a broken bridge.

In seconds the train disappeared into the tunnel and he heard a crash.

He began shouting hoarsely and ran behind the train and came to the siding. The large iron barricade across the rails stood intact.  He climbed over and came to the blocked tunnel mouth expecting to see it smashed. It was crumbling but it was intact.

His head spun and his mind was in turmoil. Was it a train he had seen? Did he hear a crash? Where was it? Why did the barricades and the blocked tunnel remain intact?

Then he saw an apparition at the tunnel mouth that emerged from the small gaps. He shone his lamp and saw that it was clad in a white dhoti and coat with a blanket over the head, arms raised beckoning him.      

The guard, ticket clerk and the telegram operator came running.

“What is the matter Sahib? Why did you shout and run?”

Kulkarni gestured towards the tunnel and saw that the thing was gone. To save face, he murmured about seeing an elephant near the track and that he tried to scare it.

They walked back to the station and Kulkarni waited in the office for a telegram about an accident near the next station Kashnatti. It never came.

The story of the death train

As he sat thinking, the guard Advyappa came over.

The guard was well past his retirement age. Since he was sincere without any family, he was allowed to work, and live in a small room in the station. He came and sat on the floor and looked at Kulkarni.

“Sahib, did the people in the train call you?”

Shocked, Kulkarni got up with a jerk, sending the chair tumbling back.

“What? How did you know? What do you know? Tell me fast.”

Sitting cross legged, he began. “Sahib, about forty years back, a terrible illness the plague struck our people. Mysore city and its surroundings saw the maximum infections. The Dewan sahib of Mysore tried to restrict the infected in one place, but the disease spread.”

“What?  The plague? Yes I have read about it. What has this to do with the train?”

Advyappa continued, “The Dewan rounded all the infested, put them on a train and saying that they would be sent to a safe place until they recovered. Alnavar was the last station that it passed. Then it crashed on the bridge and all the people died.”

“What? The Dewan was not told that the bridge was incomplete?”

“He knew, yet he sent the train. He wanted to kill all the infected and burn them.”

“O Deva. How terrible!”

“The Dewan died shortly from the disease. Legends say that a ghost train passes through now and then calling whom it wants, and takes them on their last journey.”

“None survived?”

“Some escaped. Siddis say that the survivors turned into daityas, malevolent flesh eaters. They are the undead and they infest the ravine and kill.”

“Why does that apparition come to me?”

“Since you are the station master, they want to kill you?”

***

Kulkarni had recently joined the railways and this was his first posting. A railway job was for life and he could retire with a nice pension. His plan was to work, study, and appear for the ICS examination.

His grandmothers’ village Hindasgeri was nearby though he had never visited it. His father had died when he was young and his mother had brought him up in the nearby Dharwad town.

He was worried about the train. Was it real? What was that figure he saw at the tunnel mouth? Brooding, he went to sleep.

***

A scraping sound on the window jerked him awake. He pushed the window panes and looked out. Something shadowy swayed under the trees, the form unclear.

Grabbing a stick and his oil lamp, he went outside, the light barely penetrating the dark night. The shadowy form retreated into the thicket and he followed.

“Who is it? What do you want?”

No answer, just a stirring in the bushes.

He went ahead with the stick raised in one hand and the lamp in the other and pushed into a clearing.

A revolting and nauseous smell of rotting flesh hit him and he stepped back. The figure he had seen at the tunnel mouth emerged from the shadows. The hands were outstretched as it came near.

Kulkarni lifted his lamp and stood petrified with terror as he looked at the face. It was a mass of rotting flesh and bubbles that oozed pus. It was a daitya.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

It raised skeletal hands that dripped gristle and gestured at him to come near. Kulkarni looked beyond the figure and saw more shapes crowding in.

Panicking, he stumbled back and rant to his house. Bolting the door, he peered out of the window and saw the shapes fading away. Kulkarni spent the night with his stick ready to beat the demons if they came again.

***

As a station master, Kulkarni often rode on the handcart trolley to inspect the tracks. Two laborers would push the trolley and crank the handles while he and his assistant looked at the tracks and noted problems.

The main fear was landslides that washed away the tracks. Elephants often tried to dig up the rails, or charge the train. Once, he had and his gang had frantically outrun a tiger that chased them. He sat on the officers’ seat with his stick and watched the tracks.

Soon they were near the siding that led to the tunnel. Imperceptibility, the trolley picked speed and instead of the main track, it moved to the siding and the tunnel.

He screamed loudly, “Why are you going there. Pull the brakes, it is a dead end.”

He turned to his assistant and his blood froze when he saw a face with blisters grinning back. He looked at the workers and saw skeletal hands dripping with gristle rhythmically pumping the handles.

He tried to jump off but something gripped his arm. The barrier came up and the trolley pushed through unscathed. The blocked tunnel was seconds away and he braced for the impact.

They went through the wall unharmed and then the trolley halted in the tunnel. Sun rays wafted from the ventilation openings in the roof and from the broken sections of the wall. The beams cast dim shadows that danced on the floor.

He saw a number of dark forms rising from corners. In the distance, sunlight framed the open end of the tunnel.

His assistant rose and gripped his arms, the skeleton fingers piercing his flesh.

It opened its mouth and leathery scaled insects flew out, swarming towards Kulkarni. As they buzzed around his face seeking to enter the mouth, he could see gnashing glittering teeth that lit up when a beam fell on them.

He jumped from the trolley and ran towards the tunnel mouth. Bony fingers rose from the tracks and grasped at his ankles almost tripping him. He ran on and broke through the mouth and on to the bridge. He stopped at the edge, looking down at the rocks below.

Behind, the ghouls were drifting in, bony fingers stretched out. Down below, he could see the burnt wreck of the derailed train. He could make out movement on the floor as more demins emerged from the wreck.

The daityas from the tunnel were closing on him and he moved back, slipped and tumbled down, catching a broken rail and hung over the ravine. The ones below were reaching out, the daityas hovered above, boils and warts bubbled from the bones of the face, and swarms of insects flew out.

His hand slipped and he fell. The forms flattened with his weight and he could see dark fluids oozing out from the crushed bodies. The daityas were relentless, grabbed and pulled him into their midst. He knew he would die a painful death.

Pushing the horde, Kulkarni ran on the dry river bed to the boulders at the end. He scrambled up the rock, tearing his hands and slipping. The daityas were scrambling up, reaching to catch him. The top was about ten feet away, and he felt hands grasping his shoes then the ankles.

Suddenly, stones started falling on the horde, missing his head by inches. He squinted through his sweat and saw a group of forest dwellers flinging stones and driving the demons away. Hands reached down and pulled him to safety, and he swooned.

Rescue and answers

Through a daze, he recalled being carried through the forest, and placed on a straw bed under a tree. He woke shortly, trying to get up, and someone helped him up.

Villagers were squatting on the ground, some in their dhotis, and others in trousers, and females in sarees.

He drank a pot of water and the leader of the tribe spoke. “Sahib, I am Sidappa, leader of the Siddi tribe. What were you doing in the ravine? The daityas would have got you.”

Kulkarni stuttered and stammered and then broke out, “I… don’t know. I was riding on a trolley and then it broke through the tunnel. What are these things?”

“Sahib. You are the first person to survive an attack. Many were led the bridge, and they all died.”

“Who are they, and why do they kill your people?”

“They are survivors of the deadly disease from the train crash. Our grandfathers tried to kill the remaining, but some exist as the undead.”

“Some insects with fangs flew around me.”

“They are minor forms of the daityas and enter the mouth to infect and posses.”

“What can we do to stop this?”

“You should meet Bhimappa, the train driver. He is old but remembers.”

They led him through the clutch of huts and stopped at an enclosure in a corner. A large hut stood there, and pitiful moans sounded from inside.

Sidappa shouted, “Bhimappa, come out. The station master sahib has come.”

Turning to Kulkarni, he said, “Age and disease has eaten away his mind and body. But he still remembers and can speak.”

An old, frail man with matted hair and beard crawled out of the hut and looked at the people. Kulkarni drew in his breath sharply. The face, legs and hands were black, diseased with dried warts and boils. It appeared that he was cured of plague but it had left its mark.

“We have a number of our tribe members that are beyond saving. They are held in that large hut.”

Turning to Bhimappa, he shouted, “Ajja (old man), tell us what happened that night.”

Through stutters and stammer, punctuated by gasps and tears, the old man narrated the story. “Train filled with the sick —- stopped in the tunnel … people opened the door and tried to come out … we beat them … the crash and fire.. many died.” Then he started foaming at the mouth and fell down.

“Sahib, To attain moksha (salvation), the undead in the ravine have to be washed away by Kali River. Their souls are unfulfilled and need salvation. Our tantric is ready with the funeral rites.”

“What? What can I do?”

“Come with me Sahib.

Sidappa led him through the jungle and to the ravine. Kali River took a horseshoe bend, with one arm flowing onwards, and the other blocked by huge boulders that lead to the ravine. His settlement was at the tip of the horseshoe.

Pointing, he said, “We have to blast the boulder wall here to let the waters wash away the undead. We need barood (dynamite). Will you please help sahib? Many have died, more will die.”

“Did you not complain to the government?”

“The government wants to hide this crime and denies that anything happened.”

Looking around, Kulkarni said, “Sidappa, if we blast this place, your settlement and people will also be washed away.”

“So be it.”

“What? You will move your people away?”

“Maybe.”

“Let me see what can be done. It will require a lot of dynamite.”

They led him through a forest trail back to the station.

Blasting the ravine wall

As the station master, Kulkarni managed stores and inventory needed for track building and maintenance. Dynamite was sometimes needed to blast rocks for laying tracks. Some stock was in the stores. Maybe, he could lift the explosives and then say that rain damaged the stock? This was a common problem in this tropical jungle.

He sent word through Advyappa to Sidappa and the tribal came over. They both stood sorrowfully in front of Kulkarni.

“What is the matter?”

“Sahib, the train driver Sidappa killed himself today. He jumped into the ravine.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Perhaps, he was consumed by his guilt of the accident.”

“Very sad. He was following orders. Anyway, I have a solution to this problem. Will you help?”

“Certainly sahib.”

 “I have dynamite. Does anyone know how to use it?”

Sidappa broke out, “I know Sahib. I served in the railway when I was young and laid tracks.”

Kulkarni looked at the tribal skeptically. Sidappa guessed the doubts and said, “Sahib, I can show my pension slips and uniform.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Kulkarni said, “My plan is to blast the retaining wall that blocks the flow. River Kali will rush in and take away the tortured souls.”

“We are ready.”

Kulkarni asked them to come in the night and take the explosives and the fuse wires. This was risky. If the tribal misjudged the timing, they would be blown up.

***

Kulkarni, Sidappa, Advyappa, a couple of tribal’s and a tantric set off after the last train passed. Kulkarni felt something was wrong when he saw his gang walking without any trouble, while he stumbled on the rough floor and on the roots. They were almost gliding on the floor.

The half moon had slid behind clouds and it was grey darkness. He slipped and reached out to grasp a nearby shoulder.

He felt bones instead of flesh, and looked with his mouth open at the people.

They had transformed to what they were, daityas.

He wanted to run but a skeletal hand held his arm.

A dry voice rasped and he strained to hear the words. “Do not worry sahib. We are good daityas, but we also need moksha and want our sins be washed away by Kali River. No harm will come to you.”

When they entered a clearing, Kulkarni glanced at them and saw the haggard, diseased faces, filled with warts and pustules. Even the tantric limped along, sores oozing from holes in the skull and his throat.

Sidappa continued, “When the train derailed, pestilence flew all around, infecting our tribe. The illness affects people in different ways. Some are possessed, and it eats the mind, and infects the body. Some turn to evil and they are in the ravine. Others like us are good. We show our true form in the night.”

There was nothing else Kulkarni could do but go along. Soon they were at the horseshoe embankment. The river flowed on the right; the dry ravine was on the left.

The transformed tantric sat down and started his rituals. He placed lemons, chilies, flowers, and threw turmeric powder. Lighting a small fire, he started rasping the funeral mantras (chants).

Sidappa tied a rope on a boulder at the top and dropped the end into the ravine.

“Sahib. Place these dynamite sticks among rocks and in the openings. Be sure to tie the fuse wire. I will go down from this side.”

While Kulkarni was fit, he was not used to dangling over a ravine on a rope with dynamite. The moon had come out from behind the clouds and he could see somewhat. He started moving down, clutching at the rocks, inserting the sticks and fixing the fuse. Sidappa was a tribal, used to climbing, and he was fast.

When he was halfway down, Kulkarni realized that the floor was a roiling mass of moving grey shapes. The undead had awakened and they were climbing up on the rocks. The Siddi tribal’s started throwing stones, and a few missed him by whiskers.

Glancing at the bridge he saw the death train coming, and it would crash on the broken bridge and into the ravine. Kulkarni could either continue or meet his doom, or he could run away. He chose to complete his task.

As he placed the last stick, they caught him. This time there was no escaping and he was pulled down into the mass. He fought but they were too many. They tore his clothes and tried to stick their fingers in his mouth.

Hot, putrid skulls brushed against his face, the dry gristle rubbing his skin. A score of the fanged insets flew around waiting to enter his mouth and posses his body.

Sidappa had climbed back and watched the struggle. Shaking his head, he lit the fuse and stood waiting. The dynamite exploded bringing down the embankment.

A huge head of water flowed washed through the ravine carrying everything in its path. His tribe was also swept away, and their settlement was now under deep waters..

Kulkarni felt the mass of beings pulled away then felt the shock of wave as the flood tossed him like a leaf. The river flowed in spate dragging him along.

***

Villagers found him washed up on a bank several miles away. He was badly bruised, but would recover. He would have an explanation to give, but he was alive and the danger was gone.

He stared with blurred eyes across the waters and fancied he saw Sidappa bowing and thanking him with a namaskar. The tormented souls had attained moksha.


Based in Pune, India, Shashi Kadapa is the managing editor of Active Muse, a journal of literature. He is the 2021 International Fellow of the International Human Rights Foundation, NY. Thrice nominated for Pushcart Prize, he is a two-time award winner of the IHRAF, NY short story competition. His works: http://www.activemuse.org/Shashi/Shashi_Pubs.html


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