The electronic board: Train 56225, Chennai, 13:40, Departing, Platform 9 …
Bangalore is a bustling city. The town with its quaint British districts: Richmond, Benson and Cleveland has changed a lot since it was described as “a bit of England in alien land” by Winston Churchill when he was stationed there in 1896.
Even on a Sunday, the building sites are festooned with brown men in yellow helmets and red high-visibility jackets fixing steels, pouring concrete from giant hoppers, arranging groundwork posts or just standing and talking. The overhead metro construction stretches out to greet us as we approach along the Hassan road. Giant towers like the vertebrae of a gigantic prehistoric brontosaurus line the road at forty-yard intervals. A little closer to the town centre, these bare bones are connected by a concrete spine (awaiting rails) which shades our roadway beneath, nearer still appear stations and finally trains appear above our motor coach. Under construction too are blocks of flats; their bare box-like structures reach thirty stories or so into the bright blue sky.
As we make our way through the crowds to the station, our touring group is a target for trinket hawkers who rely on their ability to attract the interest of each potential customer. Fans are flicked open and alluringly waved, a penny whistle is hauntingly played, and, in response to a shake of the head or a disdainful hand gesture, the vendor replies with a polite “Maybe later?”. Ignoring the pleas of the vendors, we battle onward toward the giant electronic board which shows the times of the arriving and departing trains and the sanctuary of the station entrance.
Inside the AC Chair Car, diagonally across from me at the lone central table sits a grandmother, her daughter, and her son-in-law. Light from the window highlights the vivid colours of the grandmother’s garnet-red and gold brocaded dress. Her daughter in an orange patterned sari amuses her one-year old child has charming ringlets in her black hair and gold bangles around her tiny wrists. Up and down she bounces her gently on her knee settling the baby in the new environment so that it will not cry. The baby on her mother’s lap plays at banging the table like some pianist prodigy. In the red and yellow air-conditioned, double-decked carriage the baby is passed to her grandmother whose attractive dress is unfortunately offset by her ugly protruding teeth. She lovingly cradles her granddaughter in her arms. Father sits quietly in the aisle seat staring down the central way as passengers push past in search of pre-booked seats. These will be my fellow travellers for the next six hours.
Half-full the train smoothly pulls away from Bangalore City station on time at twenty to two.
More Indians with large bags and plastic wrapped parcels crowd on at Bangalore East and by Krishnarajapuram station every seat is taken. With bags overhead, bags on the floor below seats, bags everywhere and people standing in the passageway between coaches, the train is full.
Identified by his shoulder flash, Vinpool wearing a grimy red jacket of the Arenco Catering Company holds a silvered tea urn between his legs. He dispenses hot sweet masala chai into a paper cup for fifteen rupees taking care not to spill it.
‘Masala, samosa, bhaji,’ cries another red-shirted vendor. The young mother with a garland of beads around her neck stops him. She buys two samosas for twenty rupees. The vendor carefully folds the ten-rupee notes and posts them into his breast pocket stained black by the frequent insertion of grubby notes.
The baby falls asleep in the arms of her grandmother. Perhaps in sympathy, I fall asleep resting uncomfortably on the arms of my narrow upright seat. When I awake the baby is playing the piano again.
It is starting to go dark. We stop at Katpadi Junction; we are over halfway now. The long low platform is filled with men attired in dull, long trousers and short-sleeved shirts interspersed with a few women in brightly coloured saris. The baby is becoming a little restive, perhaps it encourages me to get up and walk around to stretch my legs.
Our carriage is like an Indian village. The babble of the Dravidian language spoken by the peoples of Kannada accompanies the bustle of so many vendors pushing through the narrow aisle, proclaiming: ‘Coffee, cold drinks, masala dosa, samosa.’
One vendor, who carries a dozen water bottles entombed in a plastic wrapper on his right shoulder, cries in a high-pitched, whiny voice: ‘Cold drinks.’ but he only sounds the last syllable of each word and I hear “Boiled eggs”!
It is eight o’clock. The vendors make a final sales effort, squeezing past passengers now standing and stretching their cramped limbs. Outside dark fields become infrequent houses, each lit by a single oil lamp. The odd lamps make a higgledy-piggledy pattern alongside the railway. Now the railway enters into a denser, better lit, urban development. The electrically-powered lights merge into each other giving a low yellowish glow around the walls of the dwellings and the single story corrugated roofed houses become double story concrete block dwellings. Unpainted brick becomes painted concrete. Cars with blazing headlights wait level crossings as we speed into Chennai.
The train slows; the terminus approaches. The baby, now fully awake, is comforted in the arms of her mother. The father rises and gathers up cases, the young mother smiles at me as she adjusts the baby in her arms. From the overhead rack, I get down my day sack and along with the multitude of fellow travellers shuffle along the central aisle to de-train in Chennai.
Our lives will follow a different track now.
The train will soon return to Bangalore with a fresh load of passengers.