I climbed the steps of the Chennai central railway station with trepidation, afraid I was running late for my Aleppey express, scheduled at 2030 hours. I find out that despite my fears the steel dragon made in different factories in the country, carrying passengers of varying colors, castes and states- a symbol of national integration itself- was waiting for its thousand odd passengers, including me, at the 6th platform, lazily exhaling from its engine. All goes well, till now.
I find out my berth from the chart pasted on the side of the compartment and climb in. It is the coupe adjacent to the toilet, but I am thankful that I got a reserved berth compared to the masses I saw, stuffed into the general compartment at the rear of the train.
I changed into a comfortable T-shirt from the formal shirt that I was wearing and settled down into the lower seat cum berth with a book and tuned into FM radio. In comes a full-fledged Tamil family, and to describe them as stereotypical would be an understatement. However, let me describe them (that being the primary purpose of this post) for your benefit.
Let me start with the children first. There are three of them, a sprightly boy of about 4, a reserved girl of 6 summers and a suckling infant. The boy is wearing a sweater over his clothes and the girl is wearing a smart red dress. The boy has a kuri on his forehead, thus making the deduction of a recent temple visit or the house puja room, for prayers towards a safe journey, elementary. He neatly strips off his sweater into his grandmother’s hands and starts jumping across the berths. Both the young ones are bare footed, making me feel a certain amount of pity for them. Poor parenting, in my opinion. (or is it poor parents?).
The children are accompanied by a bespectacled, silver haired and nose-ringed grandmother, who ambles along with her many bags and plops herself to the berth opposite. (She is not plump, I just added the ‘plop’ for the drama.) She is draped in a shimmering, sea-blue, silk saree. Her teeth and lips are stained red with betel and her face smeared with turmeric. (She does not give a frightening impression despite the words used above, but exudes gentle, matronly airs. Anyone who has seen a typical Tamil grandmother can picture her.)
Next the mother enters in tow. She is a thinly built figure, with a sindoor on her forehead marking her marital status and a garland of marigolds pinned to her hair. She has a few gold ornaments on herself and carries herself with poise and grace, like all mothers do. She sits down beside me and immediately puts her infant to her breast, satisfying the most primeval need of all mankind- food, water and breast. He baby fell asleep, immediately and peaceful , like all babies do.
The father and elder brother in his teens (maybe a distant cousin) come in next. The father is barefoot too, and hence is just setting an example of poor foot care to his children. He carries with him an enormous bag of baked goods for the journey ahead. The brother carries the printed tickets for the journey in a plastic bag in his hand and carries them as if carrying bank documents or certificates.
The boy wants to go to the toilet as soon as his father enters the compartment and the father, seeing another primeval need, promptly takes him to the loo. (The mere thought of going barefoot into the Indian train toilet makes me shiver inwardly in disgust.) The elder brother climbed onto the top berth in the meanwhile. The father and boy come back and the entire family settled in, like a flock of birds taking roost on a rafter and the other animals on the hay below. (I was reminded of an illustration from The Animal Farm, an excerpt of which I read in school.)
I ask them about their destination. They want to visit the Guruvayur temple (I have written about and taken many photos at the temple and I thought of taking a detour to my workplace and following them on their journey, but I held those thoughts back considering their privacy.) They intended to worship their God at Guruvayur and proceed to Trivandrum, which is 300 km away, on the morning train itself before taking the journey back to Chennai the same day itself. A long and arduous journey in the name of faith, something that many Indians willingly do on a daily basis- another example of the Indian psyche.
A cool breeze , with a vein of skin-tingling chill running through it ,accompanied the long toot of the engine, marking the beginning of my journey. (Till I come up with / plagiarise an intelligent/philosophical sounding quote, I will leave the paragraph hanging here and continue onward with my journey.)
I strike up a conversation with my neighboring passenger. He is an evangelist and has traveled to Chennai to spread the good word. He is based in Kerala and bears a name that sounds similar to mine. He has reservation for the middle berth, in between the grandmothers’ and the elder brothers’. The father requests him if he could move to his upper berth, so the family can stay together and he can sleep in earlier if he likes to. Another example of adjustment and harmonious living practiced in the Indian railways.
It was the turn of food to make an appearance and when I mention food, plenty of it came out from the various tubs, cans and foil wrapped containers. I expected to see steaming idli-vada accompanied with sambar and chutney. Though they were not steaming or piping, the idlis, vadas , chutneys and sambar were many in number and looked inviting. I was travelling on a full stomach and dreamed of a day when I could travel with my family and eat home cooked food on a train. Surprisingly, the father took out a foil wrapped packet of plain fried rice and ate it, probably for appetizer, sharing it with the little girl. They started eating and as tradition prescribed it, the father and the elder brother took the first bites, taking spoonfuls of dark, thick, spicy coconut chutney along with the idlis. Grandmother was eating the idlis and the father offered her a vada dipped in sambar. She immediately tore off a quarter and gave it to the little girl- the concern and care evident, like all grandmothers do. The idlis started disappearing pretty fast and when she saw that everyone in the family was considerably satisfied gastronomically; she started eating, like all (traditional) mothers do. By this time, the baby woke up. Instead of crying its lungs out, (like babies usually do) he scanned its surroundings and sensing peace and harmony and contentment all around, laid there in the mother’s lap, observing of the goings-on of the little niche of the universe around with his round eyes wide open.
Seeing all his unfold before me, I felt this irrepressible urge to write it down and took a pen and paper. I thought that it would be better for my memory and muse if I could remember it all like a movie but four years of training in medical school had made me all the wiser about recording all things, important or trivial. I tried to jot my thoughts on paper but the gentle rocking and the lack of firm support beneath made writing a tedious task. So I had to resort to the keyboard and display for keeping things in posterity. I sat there, typing away on my computer with the family sitting beside, minding their business and looking at the screen occasionally. There was a brief tug of war between the scruples in my mind and the love for my blog and you can see which one had the upper hand here. I have been neglecting to post in the blog lately and that guilty consciousness may have landed the killer punch in the battle here.
It is 2230 hours and the family is now sleeping in their berths and I am sitting in the side upper berth observing them. The baby is fed again and the mother too is making preparations to sleep. I sit, typing the last few words of my journal and planning to sleep off soon. The family also has the same destination as me and I request them to wake me up , in case I oversleep. This is one of the great things about a journey, where you let your life be controlled by complete strangers, be it the driver of this great engine or the friendly family in peaceful slumber, in the adjacent berths.
A wayward breeze brings in the smell of urine from the adjacent lavatory and I sincerely hope the wind will mend its behavior and blow in more appropriate directions during the night. With a sore throat and a content mind, I lie down but not before showing the Ticket Inspector my id card and making sure there will not be any more interruptions in my sleep. God is in heaven and all is right with the world.