Tuesday, May 08, 2007

1014 Coimbatore-Kurla Express

I’ve had a strange connection with trains right from the beginning. The earliest being every child’s fantasy of being a train driver which later faded away at the thought of sleepless nights and the Michelin rated food offered in the trains. After school I’ve been jumping from one train to another; sometimes Goa, sometimes Bombay or Madras or Bangalore or just about going wherever they take you involuntarily. There’s one particular train journey that I’ve grown to like over the years not just because I've done it more often than not in the past so many years but simply because of the odd sentimental touch that just happens to be attached to it like an unapologetic barnacle.

It all started one early morning in December with the wind just nibbling at the ears to keep me awake at four in sync with the piping hot coffee that had gone down a couple of minutes back. We (my mother included) cursed the taxi driver with all things foul and fair for being late. We just made it in time to heave the strange looking apparition called my trunk (I still think the word coffin is more appropriate something which most of my course mates still swear by) into the running train; shove some luggage under the seat and just plonk down into the back breaking stiff berths that adorn the trains. The train seemed near empty except for some sleep deprived soul or the other in each bogie. Come Bangalore, the train was bustling with activity and suddenly it seemed as if everyone had chosen this particular train to get to wherever they wanted to. I've normally been till Mumbai and Lonavla with the occasional stop at Pune for a quick bite or gobble, thanks to my wonderful grand aunt who had her own kitchen secrets worth a million and over the years had grown accustomed to feeding youngsters with monstrous appetites.

The journey invariably was accompanied with food packed from home that could be munched all the way. There’s something really mystic and wonderful about any mother’s cuisine that makes every kid swear by it often only after discovering the brave new world of hostel food with its insipid and some times toxic concoctions straight out of my twelfth answer sheet (please refer to my earlier blog-reminiscing about school) or for that matter from the Vellore Jail Canteen Service [1]. Every kitchen down south boasts of a secret omnium-gatherum of spices passed down by word of mouth from one generation to another probably dating back to Meenakshi Ammal’s [2] forgotten great grand grand mother or some indistinct relation who would have been King Nala’s [3] cordon bleu chef. The same combination of idlis and chili powder never made any difference with what was meant to last a couple of days never seeing the light of the next day. The rest of the journey was spent on munching on anything the journey humbly offered with a cup of tea every now and then and sometimes very often. I certainly agree with what most travellers claim; go up north and u start savouring the real taste of tea- thick, creamy, milky as it should be. Some of the best chaai can be had in gujju land where there seems to be no dearth of tea, milk or for that matter chaai shops that seem to co-exist with the ubiquitous paan shops. But let’s forget that heavenly tea for the time being and get to matters of greater consequence.

Come to think of it, a journey by air is quick, economical and a sense of relief prevails on reaching the destination which is quickly replaced by jubilation on reaching home or despair at the sight of one’s superior. Not that it is inevitable in a train journey but there is this slight thrill and anticipation that keeps you on tenterhooks for a longer time. Who in the right frame of mind would want to waste almost three to five times the time (on an average) spent on an air trip, to bear with insipid food in a dazed, often discombulated state at the sight of childish antics; screaming babies with ultra high pitched bawls; fighting kids and their parents who don’t have any idea about Calvin or Hobbes, but really lucky not to have their kids read it; gujju families and matrons who choose to flaunt their culinary skills; haggling and debating for hours endless about luggage space or the lack of it; and ogling listlessly at the sights and sounds of the countryside as observed from a window? There is a unique or weird way in which someone spends time on a train. I've seen people sleep their way from Coimbatore to Bombay; that’s a phenomenal 28 hrs at a stretch without any grub at all!! There are also other people who chomp their way through the journey with tastes varying from knick-knacks to betel-leaves and often at times with variants of tobacco. There are some other strange and odd-balls like me who think that the best place for reading a novel or two or even more is either at home or on a train with endless tea or coffee (however insipid, watery, bland, jejune it might taste). Then there are even some others whose only way out is endless meaningless chatter and gossip and an obtuse point of view on every subject but a master of infinite card games especially the rummy. One would probably expect him to transform into something of a desi James Bond with a mundu and oiled hair and expounding the laws of the game to Le Chiffre or Blofeld sitting patiently opposite for Mr. Bond to make his false move so that he could be pitch-forked out of the train or take out some hi tech gadget to comb his hair and pronounce ‘One tomato soup, shaken not stirred.’

So you see, this is the thicker slice of life that makes it interesting and comic provided you have the time and patience to sit through.

There’s one other major reason that I like that journey and that train in particular. We were on our first holidays from Lonavla and I decided to get the first train out of the place to reach home faster than Harry Potter could have with his floo powder or prestidigitation. This train, The Jayanti Junta Express was quite oblivious to a lot of things including time and opts to reach Coimbatore in nearly 32+ hours from Pune making an imbecilic confusion of a Herring Bone Stitch [4] between the states of Maharashtra, Andhra and Karnataka. We (I and my friends) schmoozed about all things sundry and those that weren’t, and in an unexpected act of kindness I decided to donate my right leg slipper to an unknown single track station in Andhra as we sat in the footsteps crossing it. After a little brooding I decided to let go of the other slipper too in the same station as we were leaving, when I realized that the one left in my hand couldn’t even be used in self defense let alone swat my friend sitting next to me a couple of times. The next evening again saw us yapping till about dinner so that I could wake up at the beastly time of one past midnight at Coimbatore. I woke up alright because of a very strange tingling sensation in my back. Some unidentified thing scurried to the other side of the partition to trouble somebody else. I glanced at my watch to see the two luminous hands read ten past two, a very ghastly hour to get up. I went and opened the door to get a better view of the countryside bathed in darkness. The sight made me glance at the watch again. It still showed ten past two with the second industrially toiling away the precious moments. I realized that the approach to the Coimbatore station never had a super-highway with a neatly placed petrol station, an over-bridge that was a replica of the one near the ACC Factory, Madukkarai and to top it all the sprawling campus of Amrita Institutions. The second hand kept ticking away and it really did not take a timer or an explosive for realization when it chose to blast right through me barely managing to float this unwanted piece of rubbish,

‘You bloody dunderheaded oaf, Coimbatore passed sometime
ago when you were busy dreaming about a second midnight
snack. You, my dear friend are closer to the next station- Palakkad’.

And so when the ghastly significance of the beastly hour sunk into me, I did what best I could; woke up precisely to get down in the next station; boarded the next train back to Coimbatore and managed to reach home at about eight in the morning to hear my mother double up with laughter when I narrated the series of mysterious incidents that lead me home.

Since then my luck has not run out as the last station in the Kurla Coimbatore Exp always happens to be Coimbatore and that too at a pretty decent hour…


[1] Vellore Jail Canteen Service- A state owned enterprise whose cooks and chefs are fellow inmates in the Central jail catering to the exquisite dislikes of the who’s who in the state and often at times, the country.

[2] Meenakshi Ammal- A great grand dame who brought out some secrets of the kitchen in a series of books which have become a ready reckoner of sorts to many housewives across the country.
[3] King Nala - A famous king in hindu mythology who was famous for his culinary skills and for cheating the Lord of Death- Lord Yama with the help of his wife Damayanti.

[4] Herring Bone Stitch- A confounding pattern in embroidery which very closely resembles what it is supposed to- a herring bone.

No comments: