17 December 2008

Train to Chennai

Indian trains are as stratified as Indian society: there’s unreserved seating for those who can only afford the cheapest ticket, reserved air-conditioned seating for the middle classes who like their comfort but don’t want to pay too much for it, and first class air-conditioned seats for the upper classes who like to travel in comfort and style, and for whom money is no object.

I chose the middle option. When I found my seat it was empty. I was surprised because usually there is always someone already in my seat when I find it. The person occupying it usually explains that they would like to sit with their wife/husband/daughter/sister-in-law and would I mind taking their seat instead? They would kindly direct me to the seat that was allocated to them. When I would find it, someone would already be sitting there. I would then again be politely asked if I wouldn’t mind taking their seat in the next car… There was no need to play this game of musical chairs this time. When I found my seat, it was empty and waiting for me.

As soon as I had settled in my seat, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Didn’t we meet on the bus to Pondicherry?” an older woman asked. I remembered her: an Indian woman who lives in the US who was travelling with her husband. We had chatted over a quick cup of coffee during a stop on the way to Pondicherry, and they had told me that they go to Chennai every year for the music and dance festival. I had told them that we may meet again because I’m also a regular. Now they were sitting behind me! To my right there were two police officers dressed in their distinctive khaki uniforms. I wondered if this was a new security measure. To my left an Indian man was travelling with his family to Chennai. His children’s American accents gave them away as ‘NRI’s (non-resident Indians).

The chorus of food vendors started.

‘COFFEE…!’,

‘CHAI, CHAIYA, TEA…!’,

‘DOSA, VADAI…!’,

‘WATER BOTTLE…!’,

‘COOL DRINKS…!’.

It’s impossible to go hungry on Indian trains. The vendors in their checkered shirts and matching caps filed in and out of the car tempting passengers with their breakfast offerings. As the journey wore on, other snack options appeared:

‘SOUP, SOUP, TOMATO SOUP…!’.

And then later: ‘BREAD OMELETTE…!’ and ‘VEGETABLE CUTLET…!’

Followed by ‘SWEET POLLI…!’, and finally ‘BISCUITS…!’.

There had been a delay leaving Bangalore but somehow we rolled into Chennai Central right on schedule. The porters in their red shirts and lungis rolled up to their knees were already on the train before it had come to a stop, pulling at suitcases on the overhead racks and carrying them out on their heads.

I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the midday heat of Chennai. The crowd of passengers made it’s way along the platform towards the exit where it dispersed into waiting cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws.

(Image: The Times of India)

1 comment :

Venkat said...

I don't know if you've had the vegetable cutlets on an Indian railways train, but I think that they are the best cutlets in the entire world! Also, the omelette is amazing. And of course the "elaichi" chai in earthen pots is just too good.

I miss all that. I miss the sleeper class in the Indian railways.

*sigh*