Rail Sneham

The alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. Alarms, by some freak of nature, are audible only to parents. Dad and Mom are up and ready in no time. And since we’re children (my bro and I, that is) we get an extra 1 hour of sleep. There’s something about brushing your teeth and getting ready at 5 in the morning, isn’t there? Crappy is an understatement. But then, if you’re getting ready to catch a train that will take you to your favorite aunt’s house for summer holidays, there’s nothing that you won’t put up with. Even getting up at 5 AM.

For a family of four, we sure had a lot of luggage. 2 full bags. (It’s a different story now – for a family of two, we carry 4 bags). And Dad always made a comment on how we (Mom and me, generally) never travel light. I’m too sleepy to care. My brother, ofcourse, is falling asleep on his feet. I still wonder how my Dad can be so chirpy in the mornings – one thing his children did not inherit.

A 45 minute bus ride (and a nap) later, we’re at the railway station. People all dressed up, aunties smelling of Ponds powder and jasmine flowers, uncles smelling of vibhuti and Charlie and kids our age, sleep-walking behind the parents. The moment we enter the station, I wake up. Not because of the noise or the crowd, but because of the huge time table with the train arrival and departure timings. No one told me then that my parents were very literate and could read out the departures and platform numbers themselves. I took it upon myself to patiently stand there (the sleep fairy nowhere to be seen), ticket in hand trying to find our train. Another matter that our train was almost always on platform number 1, bang in front of my eyes. And the moment we enter the platform, I used to look at the huge railway clock and adjust my own watch to the same time – after all, that was the time the train was going to follow so I might as well follow the same! We had rituals as kids, didn’t we?

Next came the hurried walk down the train’s length trying to get into the right compartment. Since our parents were excellent planners, we rarely had waitlisted or unconfirmed tickets. Get into S1 or S2, fight with brother for the window seat, give up when Mom reminds me that I’m the older one, punch him once for good measure, have him sit at the window seat for exactly 15 minutes after which the poor thing would be sleeping, gently move him beside Mom and hog the window seat for the next 5 hours – phew, it was a lot of work getting settled on a train. Having a brother who used to sleep at the drop of a hat, helped.

Like all children all over the world, the first thing we did after settling down was to start asking the million dollar questions – “When will the train start?”, “When will we reach Madras?”, “When will the breakfast come?”, “Can I have vegetable cutlet and tea?”, “I have to go the bathroom. Can I go now before the train starts?”. The last one was always met with a hard stare and a stern line that one does not use the bathroom at stations ‘coz that will make the tracks and the station stink. Good sense prevails. The second thing we did was to make Dad get us the latest copy of Champak, Gokulam and Chandamama.

The smells and the sounds of a train are from another world, aren’t they? The iron smelling windows, the rexin seats with the Southern Railway emblem stamped on it, the two sets of shutters, one just plain glass and one with ribbed bars. The stinky toilets, the gymnastic balancing act one had to do to actually use them. And above all this, the food! O dear God, the food! I’m yet to have masala dosa that tasted as yummy as the ones sold on Southern Railways. The hot coffee. I always burned the tip of my tongue trying to drink the coffee when the train was moving.

When we run out of books, we turn to the window and watch the paddy fields go by. My brother would have occupied the other window seat ‘coz the benevolent looking uncle whose seat it was, felt sorry for him.

Each big station on the way was a milestone. “How much longer to Madras?”. “Is the train late?”. “Will uncle come to pick us up?”. “Can we go by auto?”. (FYI – I thought autos were proprietary to Madras. No other place on the planet had autos.)

The moment we reach Tambaram, all hell breaks loose. People scrambling to get their luggage down for the next station, Mambalam. The train stops there for a mere 2 minutes, so if you had to get down you had to be standing at the door. We used to sit with a smug expression that we’re going till the very end and we didn’t have to hurry.

The train rolls into Mambalam. The platform is much higher and seems more closer from the window. I always thought Madras had a distinctive smell and feel. Maybe the sea breeze, maybe the humidity, maybe the Coovum (which, by the way, was a landmark)! Or maybe the simple thought of a long holiday without any books or homework.

The first sign of home were the extra railway tracks. Small stations had only one or two. Big stations had 9 or 10. Big station meant home at last! The moment the platform starts, our heads were trying to get out of the windows trying to catch a glimpse of Uncle and wave like mad so he can know the devils are here. After being sufficiently satisfied that Uncle has spotted us and won’t go off without picking us up, we impatiently wait for Dad to bring the luggage down. Champaks and Gokulams neatly packed in to be given to the cousins at home.

And as we get out of the train, surrounded by this huge sea of humanity, getting propelled out to the entrance even without doing anything, I always turned back for one look at the great giant who got us there. Tired, puffing and panting, creaking and stretching, the great big train stood there – mission accomplished. A mission of getting hundreds of people safely to their destinations.

There’s still a small part of me that longs for those train journeys and summer holidays. That feeling of having done the journey, of travelling from one home to another, the sights and the smells – you don’t get that when you travel by air, do you? It’s an experience in itself to travel by rail. And when you go home and wash off the smell of the train from your body, it is with the knowledge that 30 days later you will be at the same station, waving goodbye to Aunty and Uncle, ready for another journey in that wonder of a transport mechanism, the train. And exactly a year later you will come back for another summer, on another train, but the journeys are new each time.

Chennai Egmore celebrates 100 years of being Chennai Egmore! For close to 18 years I have set foot on those platforms every year, without fail. There’s a personal relationship with Egmore that’s not there with any other station – not with Chennai Central, not with the Secunderabad station. Egmore was summer holidays and cousins. Egmore meant I was going to see Grandma in about 30 minutes. Egmore was the destination.

So, here’s to the big station. Here’s to the station being what it is to me, to many more children in future.

P.S: ‘Rail Sneham’ is a term used in Tamil for the friendships one makes over a train journey. My friendship was more with the train itself than the people in it!