Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Coromandel Journey

June isn't the best time to go traipsing through the southern depths of India. Geography and meteorology should have told me as much. However, the lure of travel after three months spent rather quietly in my remote corner of West Bengal was too strong for vagaries of the Indian climate to weaken: so a cloudy, muggy morning found us in Kolkata, crossing the Vidyasagar Setu over the Hooghly into the city to take care of some business, and then the stately Howrah Bridge, to the railway station.

Calcutta, at its best, is very sticky; on a day when the rainclouds were gathering fast and thick, the weather was almost unbearably humid. Throngs of people waited at the terminus, wiping grime away with red cotton towels or nipping in for quick baths at the not-so-clean facilities available there. Train travel in India is an arduous task, with innumerable delays, unscheduled stops and disturbances involved- you almost need an intrepid heart to embark on a train journey that lasts longer than twenty-four hours. You have to pray for good company on the train: no wailing babies or snotty children or snoring men or people who insist on eating everything that emerges from the pantry and displaying the masticated contents of their mouths during their incessant conversations with friends/family. Train journeys were fun once, when you knew endless hours of play and ice cream with cousins waited at the other end- the years have swallowed up the thrill and now present an unattractive picture of practical concerns.

The name of the Coromandel Express conjures up serene visions of a palm tree-lined island, idyllic and pristine, with the grey-blue waters of the Bay of Bengal indolently lapping the beaches. The train never passes along the coast, but courses through lush, verdant valleys watered by the Godavari and the Krishna and the thin ribbon of the Mahanadi, past emerald fields and rolling, sharply rising hills. It covers four states in its journey, travelling through Orissa and Andhra Pradesh on its journey from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, a route that is quite a treat for the eye.

The train pulled into Chennai Central on a surprisingly pleasant, breezy evening (which made me wonder what all the fuss about the horrid Chennai weather was all about- hasty judgement!), just about 30 minutes late; almost no delay in the mammoth Indian Railways' system. We had a few hours before we took the train to Madurai, so we stepped into the city to be welcomed by the typically southern fragrance of jasmine flowers in the air. A short distance away rose the structure that houses Moore Market, a sort of flea-market that sells about everything from books to parakeets. Not finding much of interest, though, partly owing to our fatigue, we returned to the railway station to wander amidst another multitude of waiting people and munch on murukku. People slept on the floor on newspapers and thin sheets, oblivious of the noise, or drank innumerable cups of coffee. The train to Madurai arrived on time- a 'special' train for the vacations- and we were rather glad when we were finally on the last leg of the journey, coasting towards our destination.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Last Train Home

The neon lights flickered fitfully as Lisa walked down the now motionless escalator, one of the stragglers going home at midnight to cold dinners and indifferent beds. She and her companions, acquaintances by sight, were regulars on the last train at night, alighting in ones and twos at the stations on the North-East line. No crowds surged in to push them backwards, imperilling their exit; the bullet-like whoosh was the only sound they heard as the train chugged forward through the cavernous tunnels, being swallowed into the darkness and disgorged again, intact, by sterile, white-lit platforms.

Lisa stepped off the escalator and sat down on the nearest steel bench, sitting down with her back arching uncomfortably against the odd angular curve of the cold chair. She smoothed her brown uniform skirt over her knees and fished in her large, square handbag for one of her newly-bought paperbacks. These were about the only books she read now, fresh off the press but then gathering dust in supermarkets, spines cracked and pages thumbed by various uninterested fingers. She almost felt a sort of pity for these neglected books, lovingly sent into the world by writers who thought their fortune was made at last, but then trashed and denigrated by harsh criticism, ensuring the author was never heard of again. They were books with stereotypical covers, raised gold letters and extravagant blurbs; they didn’t make any demands on her intellect at that unearthly hour, when all she wanted to do was stumble into bed, too tired even to dream.

You read far too much, said her friends at work, when she had first burst upon them, bespectacled and glowing with the pride of her newly obtained college degree. The timing wasn’t too good for her, though- she wasn’t wanted where she wished to go, so off she went disconsolately to assist at one of the numerous fashionable shops dotting the island. There may not have been enough jobs, but there still was plenty of money. The rich continued to buy diamond-encrusted watches for their lovers, and she waited on them. She would meet some interesting people this way, she thought, and write about them. She would be discovered. All she needed was patience.

So when her slightly bemused, vaguely respectful colleagues accused her of reading too much, she had initially waved an autocratic hand at them. Reading feeds the imagination, she had said, thinking of the worlds she fled into when the demons of reality bore down heavily upon her. The idealism she worshipped was the stuff of legend, the halo she imbued herself with existed only in the world she had imagined into existence, piece by piece.

Sadly though, Lisa missed the bus when adulthood beckoned. She forgot to grow up, and realized too late that the companions of her childhood had gone ahead, leaving her behind with her own fairy dust, a grown-up Disney princess swathed in pink gauze and wearing ribbons in her hair.

The transition had been difficult, but almost complete. Realising that she was capable of love surprised her pleasantly; knowing that she could have her heart broken made life seem worthless for a while. She thought a lot, and she thought deeply. The names she assumed changed- she was no longer a Bathsheba or an Irawati, but plain Lisa. Two syllables, rolling easily off the tongue, with no quirks of pronunciation. She was getting herself a new identity, becoming a new individual. She didn’t want a sparkly tiara on her greying hair. The veneer of refinement faded as she settled into her role of working girl, imagining, in moments of romantic weakness, that she was living the life of Lily Bart without the suitors. Those who had started the journey with her had struck out on their own, going their own separate ways, meeting occasionally to celebrate spouses and jobs; she had- by some stroke of misfortune?- kept her hermetic life intact. The real and the presumed still confused her, but she was getting better at sieving the ideas presented to her, learning that the inner child that had to be guarded wasn’t physical, but purely platonic.

The last train whooshed into the station and Lisa looked up with a start. In three quarters of an hour, she would be walking home past the restaurant with its little cluster of smoking men, their cigarettes creating single points of light amidst the silhouettes of the ornamental plants that lined its front. Their beer cans would be crushed and discarded on the pavement in due course, and she would pick her way through them distastefully, muttering at their capacity for idleness, then pull up short as she remembered her own situation. Maybe they were stragglers, and perhaps she belonged with them, too. She’d know in a few years.
I've given up waiting for the rain.

The trees are listless and parched, the birds are cooing more plaintively than they normally do; the earthworms, emerging for brief spells, dig back into their burrows again, disappointed. The bank of clouds which does occasionally make its way upward occasionally from the west seems more inclined towards a pyrotechnic demonstration than a rainshower; the sun gleams with a sated smile, knowing that it won't be displaced from power for long.

The monsoons are around the corner, so says the weatherman. Rainclouds, where are you?