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Vol. XXV No. 9, August 16-31, 2015

The Great Indian Railways

Vijay Nambisan 'Madras Central'

An occasional column by a British freelance writer on her eight years in Madras
The Great Indian Railways
The black train pulls in at the platform
Hissing into silence like hot steel in water
Tell the porters not to be so precipitate.
It is good, after a desperate journey
To rest a moment with your
Perils upon you.

– Vijay Nambisan ‘Madras Central’

In the early dawn, the long deep horn of the Shatabdi Express to Bangalore reverberates through the city  and pulls me from peaceful dreams. I lie in the  tranquillity of my sleeping house in Kottur-purum and  imagine the scene at Chennai Central station.

People are queuing to get past the ticket barrier. Women clutching semi-conscious babies nervously try to find the right coach number and seat, asking to move or change with others so they can be close to relatives. The floor of the station littered with bodies sleeping, eating, and defecating. Boxes piled high with elaborate caging of string. A weighing machine with flashing neon light standing unused as porters hurry past through the sea of coloured sarees with suitcases balanced on their heads.

For the privileged few in the calm and comfort of the first class A/C compartments, metal flasks will be doled out with a tea bag, two packets of biscuits, white and crisp inside the bright yellow packaging. “A newspaper, madam?”
I lie in my bed and imagine the smell of jasmine that frequently adorns the traveller, the hair oil, the sweat, and the soot. This is the great Indian railway station.

I remember with shame how when I first travelled to Coimbatore on the Shatabdi Express we contrived to get a compartment to ourselves by buying up a four-berth sleeper. We placed pillows in the bunks to make them seem occupied, a childish schoolboy prank that can only be excused by the English obsession with solitude and my hatred of other people’s snoring. This is, after all, a moving residence with all the romance associated with extreme privacy.

Suddenly a woman appeared in the compartment with an entourage of relations and a tiny screaming baby. Her family, seeing her off, was eager for her to share with foreigners rather than potentially lecherous single men. She took one look at my horror-stricken face and fled.

One day, our family boarded this same train to go on holiday to Ooty. We took our driver with us in order for him to drive us on arrival, but he emerged the next morning from his second class compartment with his suitcase and newly acquired hat to enjoy a holiday himself! He had employed a driver from Coimbatore to show all of us the sights, but it was not  till he climbed into the passenger seat next to the driver that we realised he was taking a self-imposed vacation!

In Ordered South, Robert Louis Stevenson writes,

“Herein, I think, is the chief attraction of railway travel. The speed is so easy, and the train disturbs so little the scenes through which it takes us, that our heart becomes full of the placidity and stillness of the country; and while the body is being borne forward in the flying chain of carriages, the thoughts alight, as the humour moves them, at unfrequented stations. . .”

One of the world’s largest railway networks, the Indian Railways was the brainchild of (you guessed it) the British. 23 million passengers a day travel from 7,172 stations along 65,000 km of track, which begs the question why are the roads still so busy!

Madras Central was designed by George Harding, a British architect, in the Gothic revival style, with the later addition of the bell tower by Robert Chisholm The original land on which it was constructed was called John Pereira’s garden after the Portuguese merchant who built a house here for recreation, but by falling into disrepair it became a gaming den and cock-fighting venue before it was purchased by the railways (debatably it still is!).
This splendid station served as the main gateway for all people who travelled to South India during the British Raj and although the station now has bookshops, restaurants, Internet browsing and a shopping mall it would seem that the hygiene standards remain much the same as they were 138  years ago when it was built. The station lacks several facilities, including drinking water, and has only ten toilets to accommodate the 350,000 passengers that pass through it daily. These are not worth a visit. Despite this, Chennai Central still retains the excitement and bustle that makes large stations so intriguing. The sense of mystery that train  travel engenders for many of us is stark contrast to the stationary monotony and dangers of Indian roads.

One of my greatest disappointments is the way in which many Indians draw the blinds and settle down to sleep as soon as they board a train. I risk extreme displeasure from my travelling companions as I politely request to flood the compartment with sunlight, although they think nothing of subjecting me to six hours’ snoring!

Surely the best thing about travelling by train is the moving landscape passing the window? For me, looking out of the window is about living other people’s lives vicariously, a succession of memorable images like the sudden swell of hills, or the emergence of giant boulders on the way to Bangalore.

Weary, wiry men with bullock carts ploughing through red earth, the fleeting view of a girl washing long tresses of raven wing hair beneath a water pipe, the glimpse of a heron on a lotus pool, the shanty towns by the railway tracks where I can only guess at the misery of daily life. All these images are what make up life in India.

It has been on train journeys that I have had some of my most memorable conversations. The journalist lurking within me is nosey about other people’s lives. On one occasion I was eating a hard-boiled egg that distressed my vegan neighbour. This led to a discussion about vegetarianism and the caste system, which was highly educational. Indian train journeys and humour go hand in hand, which is fortunate because, generally, it is better to laugh at the chaos than be enveloped by it.

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