The Observation Car

Somewhere along the line

(Listen to the poem here)

The train for Kandy leaves Colombo Fort
just as the morning heat begins to swell.
Inside the observation car the rusty fans
begin to turn and tilt. We watch the platform
where we stood for one, two quarters
of an hour slide off our moving stage.
And now we’re ready for the world
to come by and perform for us.
It’s only jungle,” the man said who had
tried to make me rent a driver with a car,
so I could watch somebody’s nape, unending
tarmac and have fifty gift-shops urged on me.
Instead I am in conversation with a family
from the hills. We have few words we share
but when we do find one we splash around in it
as in a pool on this hot day.

Shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes.”
Their small twin girls have pairs which
flash and glimmer and they display them
as if they were four cobras—
and yet alarming when wrapped
alive and tight around their feet.
Almost before our journey starts, the train
stops at a halt. The fans go sticky still,
we soon begin to stew. A ragged man with bulging eyes
walks up, scrunches his face against the glass and
stares into our tropical aquarium.
Ours is a two-way observation car,
his grin reminds us.
It grows upon his face,
while it recedes with
him, as we
start off
Two trains broad-shouldered with commuters
hanging from their doors
pass by on either side and scarily converge.
A Hindu temple goes wheeling clockwise by,
a market trails its ragged rainbow edges next to the line,
signs in Sinhala, like a parade of decorated eggs,
which I can’t read at all and signs in English of which I read
just snips—
Fall ill less often
Spare Parts Tower …
now here’s a banyan … and is that a colony of bats?
A mango tree? A hoopoe? Then there’s a sudden
flowering of umbrellas and people, people, people.
It is a bit like watching history, this staring from
the back end of a train. You see the consequences
and reactions, but not the plans, the prospects or the
possibilities of all these people, people, people,
people, people, looking up from books,
or down and back from bridges,
away from walls which they were painting and now painting
on the air or turning round from other people, people, people
they were talking to, each caught deep in a gesture
or expression. Our speed’s a camera and
its shutter is never still. All of them I recall
as single images: the monk in saffron reflecting
as he peered above his stylish mirrorshades, the lady in
a sari bending down to calm a fractious hen,
the clerk wearing a ladder on his shoulder and wobbling
on a bicycle, the schoolboy slipping
as he ran, his arms at two and eight o’clock,
who wasn’t in my world quite long enough to fall.
We slowly shed the city’s concrete skin and then
we run through fields of green and greener
pools, past a dagoba and a buddha standing,
with a secret smile behind the foliage of a tree
and then inland and up into it’s-only-jungle country,
where every two, three minutes the vegetation
sidles one step closer in and makes
its tendrils turn a few more twists.
And here we are the main event,
it’s more like being history itself.
Youngsters race out from houses, all whirling
arms and tumbling legs, to bring an urgent waving
message. It is “Hello! Hello!” and, like a heralded new century,
we blithely run on unconcerned, not answering,
dragging a keel which slices through the way things are.
But when we move on, we see them re-conjoin
like water in the sea.
People, sometimes whole families, three generations
at a time, jump out of bushes to re-possess
the tracks we’d shooed them from, which are
their general highway and with them cows return
with one swish of their tails to graze the grass
we’ve breezed and freshened.
Two, three, four times I see a pair of squatting
neighbours put back the pieces of a conversation
across the tracks which we had barged and swept away.
Purposeful boys in shirts of stunning white
march out in single file to check how well
we’ve flattened out the coins they’ve laid upon the line,
built back in eighteen sixty-three, four, five, six, seven
to the design, for the designs
of some of my imperial people, who
didn’t just excel in making railways
but also in tracing lines upon the world, disrupting
patterns woven piece by piece over the centuries,
re-arranging neighbours, shunting people off
and marshalling them about and spreading noise
and dust and speed.
But not just them. Almost all tribes who’ve had
the strength and the opportunity have done the same
on every continent in every age,
an attitude which trickles down from empire
through to state and provinces, towns, neighbourhoods,
buildings and houses all have and have had people
laying rails to say this is the way your lives shall
run from which they shall not stray,
because it pleases us to make them so. And so it shall
go on with no relief in sight from power—this great contagion
of the mind for which there’s no known cure.
We cross a tiny tunnel now and on our right
a mountain top stands up flat in the sky,
the land falls sheer away from us while on our
left, perched up inside a bend above the cliff,
there is a stop which has a platform only
two, three, four, five yards long
on which, alone in concentration, paying us no mind,
there stands a man, just like a diver about to take a verdant plunge
into the wild and beckoning valley and out of history.
We go on climbing bend after tunnel bend and tunnel.
It should be getting cooler all the time, but every
five, ten, fifteen minutes the fans give up and
then the heat begins to seethe.
I go and ask the guard what’s wrong.
He says, “The fans? Oh, they don’t work.”
A good and honest answer, better than most.
The things we strive to make seem to be trying to escape
our rule, by breaking down, coming apart
to fall back into nature and secede.
The door onto the universe that’s next to him
has not stopped slamming open–shut
since we left Fort two hours ago.
The rails will warp and rust,
the bolts will all be shaken loose,
the sleepers come untied,
the grass will grow again,
the cows will eat it up and
conversations will resume
which had been interrupted
only two, three, four, five, six centuries ago.

  Phillip Hill 2007


(This poem is included in my book The Observation Car which is available from

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