Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Staggering Into The Sunshine And Out Of It – an unplanned weekend detour

It had been sometime since I had visited my parents and friends in Madras so I decided to go over for the weekend.

I got on to the Guwahati Express at around 11.30 on Friday night at the Cantonment Station, hoping to catch up on some sleep. I had already had a couple of Cobras and was half-way through McCall-Smith’s “Tears of the Giraffe”.

Just another regular, short train journey home was what I was expecting.

The first sign of something interesting afoot was when I found a guy sitting with his feet stretched out on my seat. He asked me for my seat number. I told him my seat number and he put his feet down to let me sit down. His buddies were lolling at supreme ease on the other seats and one of them was blasting “Hare Ram! Hare Ram!!” on his mobile phone. I broke the ice by asking the seat-keeper whether he and his buddies were going all the way to Guwahati. Yes, he said. They were Air-Force Police personnel. They had attended a “mental toughness” training in Bangalore and were getting back to their station in Guwahati. They would travel almost another 2 days before reaching their destination.

They were passing each other a 1 liter pepsi bottle but the stuff in the bottle didn’t look like cola and I didn’t have to think too hard to guess what was in the bottle.

When the train stopped at Bangalore East or KR Puram - not sure which - I saw the boys get down and ask around the platform vendors for cigarettes. I knew from experience that they were not going to find any so I called them over and gave them a couple of cigarettes. After that, the ice was completely broken and they positively forced me ;-) to have a swig from the pepsi bottle. Just as I had guessed it was some kind of Army issue whisky. One thing led to another and soon we were animatedly discussing the relative merits of the Israeli army and the French Foreign Legion, the Siachen and the Gripen and other things martial. The whisky had a perfumy flavour to it but it went down smoothly enough.

By the time the bottle was emptied and we finally hit the sack it was past 3 in the morning and I had clean forgotten to set an alarm for myself.

I slept well enough and woke up at around 8.30.

Madras had come and Madras had gone. I had slept a little too well! I had slept right through the 30 minute halt at Chennai Central and had continued sleeping for another 2 hours while the train had rattled its way from Madras to Guwahati.

The next stop was scheduled for around noon, God knew where, and it looked like it was going to be a wasted day and a wasted weekend.

I got myself a cup of tea from a one-handed kid and went to the toilet to smoke a ciggy when the train suddenly slowed down and groaned to a halt. Without a second thought I stubbed the cigarette out, collected my stuff and jumped off the train and staggered into bright sunshine.

I had jumped off the wrong side of the train and I was between two tracks. The one-handed boy had followed me to the door and he motioned to me to move away from the other track. A few seconds later a train zipped past in the opposite direction and the whiplash rocked me back on my feet.

My train started moving too and I was soon left standing all alone in what looked like the middle of nowhere.

There was a tiny station - I soon found out that its name was Doravaruchatram - about 500 meters down the track and I wobbled through the station master's office and across a small field onto a national highway. I crossed the road and the first thing I saw was a wine-shop replete with a pictorial pantheon of Hindu deities. I said a silent prayer and asked the wine-shop man for a beer. The only beer available was Armstrong (strong beer). I put the bottle in my backpack and asked where I might find some tiffin. He pointed down the road.

A young share-auto driver was at the wine-shop exchanging all his small notes for big ones from the shop guy. I asked him if he would drop me in Chennai. He said it was a 100 kilometer ride and that at 7 rupees a km it would cost me 700 rupees. I might have almost gone with him. Luckily for both of us, some passers-by who had joined the conversation scolded him and told him it was a stupid idea, what with an AP registered autorickshaw and all. They suggested that I take the "local" (train) from Sulurpet station which was about 10 or 12 km away. The auto guy and I sheepishly agreed that it was probably a better idea but I anyway hired him to find me some tiffin and then take me to the station.

The tiffin place was a small thatched shed and the food was cooked and brought from the owner’s house in the field behind. It took about 10 minutes to find a bottle opener but finally I settled down to wake up properly with my Armstrong (strong beer). The tiffin – 3 dosas, 2 vadas and 2 idlis with unlimited sambar and papulu podi– was delicious. The auto-boy and one of the passers-by who had suggested the train option invited themselves to my table and the 3 breakfasts cost me all of 74 rupees!

The auto ride to the train station was pleasant and I noticed sign-boards for a bird sanctuary - Nelapattu - on the way. I think we also passed a village called Tapa Indlu on the way. Don't know why but it reminded me of Machu Pichu.

At the Sulurpet station, on a whim, I bought a first class ticket – I’ve always wanted to do that on a local train. I still had an hour or so to kill, so I wandered out of the station and asked the lone auto guy where the nearest wine shop was. He said I could go straight and turn left or go straight the other way and turn right, but if he took me there and brought me back to the station it would cost me 20 rupees. I took the auto. At the wine shop, Sanju, the auto-rickshaw man had a 90 whisky while I had myself a slow Kingfisher.

I was back at the station just about in time for the train and I finally staggered out of the sunshine into the first class compartment which was empty except for a couple of gents in lungis catching up on their sleep.

I spent the next hour or so watching the people and the landscape and trying to memorize the names of the stations we passed - Akkampet, Tada, Arambakkam, Elavur, Gummudipundi, Kavaraipettai and so on - and wishing that I had remembered to bring my camera along.

I finally reached Basin Bridge station sometime around 3 or 4 PM and took an auto and reached home about 12 hours late. Ooof!

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