Tuesday, May 15, 2007
An Ode to Malai
Written By - Thaths Chandrasekharan my Drona in many aspects.
Swami woke up with a start as the train imperceptibly slowed down on its way into the station. The bridge a few hundred meters from the station had that peculiar deep rumble which never failed to wake him up. He stared out of the window to see the lights on the temple towers. He was in Chidambaram. The weekend was over. Back to College life in rural Tamil Nadu. Swami started life in general and monday mornings in particular.
Swami woke up his still dozing buddies in the compartment and collected his bag. He got off the train that had not yet come to a complete stop. He was greeted by the familiar sight of his beloved old platform and, what one of his freinds preferred to call, "Tingi Tingi" music blaring out of the station's public address system. He exchanged plesantaries with the friends he failed to meet at Egmore - the station they departed from. "Dei @#$%&&!!!" (You @#$%&&!!!) shouted one of his pals, "Yen da call pannala?" (Why didn't you call?). Swami hastily apologized and made a quick excuse up for not calling over the weekend.
Soon, bleary-eyed students trooped towards their hostels. The more chivalrous knights-in-polyester-trousers-and-nylon-teeshirts made a bee-line to the ladies compartment to help their distaff half with their baggage. Swami lit his first cigarette of the day - the last in the 20's pack that he had he had purchased from the 'potti-kadai' (local convenience store) near his home in Madras. Swami, a New Liberal, felt that helping women and its implications of the women not being able to help themselves was more sexist than the Old Sexist ways.
Swami hastily finished the last few puffs and felt the pangs of hunger deep inside his stomach. "Lets eat at the VLR (Vegetarian Light Refreshment) Stall," he heard his friend and confidante suggesting. They ordered a plate each of the piping hot 'Pongal' and devoured it with relish. Swami and his chum Mani hastened out of the station at 5:45 am. Their urge to attend class on that monday morning had nothing to do with their hurry. You would be in a hurry too if you had had a taste of that divine 'Pongal.' Despite, perhaps even because of, its divine taste, it had the unfortunate consequence of being one of the best laxatives known to mankind.
Swami blissfully entered the warm confines of his bed and drifted off into sleep having set his alarm to go off at 7:15 am. He would eventually promptly wake up at 11:00am.
Mid-morning: 8:00 am
At around 7:30am the student crowd from places like Mayavaram and Cuddalore starts pouring into the station from passing trains. They are the really loyal subjects of the Indain Railways. They travel everyday from their town by one of those tortoises (turtles if you have been in America too long) that go by such cryptic names as '520 Up Passenger.' They are proud of their trains and live an entirely different sort of life from the rest of the college students.
They are probably the best managers of time in Annamalai University. They do their homeworks on the platform waiting for their ride home and write their lab reports sitting at a table inside the Non-Vegetarian Light Refreshment Stall (NVLR) eating 'muttai parotta' (scrambled eggs and paratha bread). They are also an organised bunch. They constantly organize 'Train Days' when they deck their favorite compartment with flowers and distribute chocolates to their fellow travellers. As with any organised bunch, groupism is their plague. Swami witnessed two or three 'Train Day' functions being organized in the same semester by different factions of the train regulars.
A few 'days-callers' drifted into the station to have their lunch of dried 'Thayir Sadam' (rice and youghurt) and musty 'Vadai' (fried lentil patties) which even a rat would be ashamed to share a trap with. There are also a few "regular" students at the Annamalai University (like Swami) who are die-hard station addicts. Having nothing better to do at this hour of the day they spend a few minutes in the station (smoking, of course) on their way back from 'Maami mess' (The local Mom and Pop, in case you know the vernacular - the Uncle and Aunt). There are also the Thanjavur type of families waiting for the perpetually late Cholan Express.
There were also a couple of students who are going back to Madras to collect funds for their organization's upcoming event. Swami sweared at these students. "Lucky @$#%%^&$%!!" He said "They are going away on OD (On Duty - meaning they got credit of attendance and a possible 10% of the money they collected)!!"
The Tea 'Kadais' (shops) serve tea briskly to the students returning from classes. The students prefer the tea in the station as the one served in the hostel is as transparent as "Silk" Smitha's garments. Swami drank his tea slowly (making loud hissing noises blowing on his piping hot tea) and drove the sleep induced by four hours of lectures away. Some students are still carrying their books while the ones who finished their classes earlier can been seen lounging around in their 'lungies' (sarong is the nearest "english" word that I can come up with). Swami and the ever accompanying Mani made it to the VLR and gobble up steaming Idli's and Poories.
Late Evening: 7:00pm to 9:00pm
Chidambaram Railway station is Austin's Sixth street, New Orleans' Bourbon street and New York's Times Square rolled into one. One should understand the positioning of the station. The train track metaphorically and geographically divides Chidambaram from Annamalai University. The station is the Checkpoint Charlie of Chidambaram. If Kipling were to know of the existence of the station he would not have made such sweeping claims like "And never the twain shall meet." A number of entrpreneur set up businesses at this point because they could appeal to a mized clientale - middle class families from Chidambaram and the rich students from the City. All sorts of businesses were carried on. Free Market Economy flourished. One could find old hags selling jackfruits, middle aged men selling magazines and twenty-ish women involved in human-kind's oldest profession.
Swami entered the station from the hostel side. The mechanics involved in any gathering of humanity was at play. Groups formed, merged, split, fought, collided, disappeared, re-formed and slowly entropied. Some eternal drifters like Swami moved on from one group to another and thus maintained neutrality.
Chidambaram is probably the only station in India where platform tickets are scoffed at. Swami recalled, with embarrassment, 'The Incident' - buying a platform ticket in his first year at Annamalai. He would be ostracized if word of this blasphemy got out. He guarded the shame zealously. "How could I have been so dumb?!" wondered Swami, "I should have known that I was doing something wrong when the ticketing clerk gave me that strange Are-you-out-of-your-mind look. I should have realised it when it took a full 15 minutes for the lady to find a platform ticket."
The groups coagulated around distinct areas of interest on the platform. Around the refreshment stalls, tea stalls, the "multipurpose store" and notably, around the women's waiting room. Swami slowly drifted along the platform continually moving himself towards the beehive of most activity - the multipurpose store. He stopped to gawk at the Tamil magazines on the stand. Mani, in perpetual hurry (not to be confused with the perpetually money minded Hari) and unable to appreciate the soft-porn art of Tamil magazines, dragged Swami away from the stand. Swami grabbed a few final glimpses of the pictures and drawings of starlets splashed across the covers of mags like Kumudam as he was inexorably dragged towards the center of the station.
The multipurpose stall was situated near the entrance. This stall sold all kinds of things - cigarettes, bananas, medicine, cool drinks, chocolates (love lorn students used to buy their quota of Amul Chocolates - a gift for someone they loved) and what not. There stood the 'Dwrapalakars (gate keepers).' No!! They were not employees of the Indian Railways. They were the students who were in financial doldrums. They lived life on the edge, bumming cigarettes and other things off people going home to Madras. Their philosophy - "One is always generous when one is going home." Swami had joined their ranks many a time.
Swami waltzed across the tracks to the other platform to greet other friends and to grab a gulp of some colored drink in a bottle from them. He then returned to the multipurpose stall and exchanged a few words with the shopkeeper with whom he was in first name terms (incidentally the shopowners name is Visu. And this has nothing, whatsoever, to do with this narration).
A couple of 'Yettu's' (police constables) were lazing around in the platform. Their pot bellies barely covered by their khaki shirts were objects many a joke among the student community. A few months after the 'Annamalai-nagar-police-station-incident' the jokes changed to other parts of the policemen's anatomy.
A bunch of students were returning from the local watering holes ranging from a pleasant evening at Nattiya - the local pub - to a quick gulp at MS Wines (aka Ganesh Wines). One of them endowed Swami with a bear hug and declared his undying loyalty and love. He even made profound statements like "You are the only one who really understands me." Swami mouthed the appropriate replies and escorted (arm-in-arm) his comrade out of the station.
Some local families had gathered in the station for 'Shenkottai Fast Passenger.' A misnomer if ever there was one. It neither went upto Shenkottai nor was it very fast. The only reason students still used this train was it was cheap and, more importantly, the journey to madras was overnight and they did not have to loose precious day time in the journey. The PA system started blaring out the same "Tingi Tingi" music. That, is Jaladarangam music, for the lesser informed. Swami's eyes started darting between the horizon (where he expected to see the lights of the train any moment now) and the "decent looking" teenager probably heading to meet relatives in Madras with a couple who appeared to be her parents.
A small group of foreigners walked beside Swami with their heavy backpacks. Swami and Co. immediately changed the medium of conversation to English from coarse college Tamil. "The problems that plague the society today are entirely due to man's inability to see Satre's Being from an objective standpoint while Freud himself says that Being is Nothingness." The foreigners (who went by the common name of "Americans" or "Hippies") had gone out of ear shot. Swami continues "Nasti figure illa macchi" (did she not have a great figure).
The train made its way into the station. Swami loved seeing the ancient ritual of "keys" being exchanged between the train driver and the person on the platform. As soon as the train pulled to its scheduled 7 minutes halt, a group of students started moving alongside the train and staring into every window. When they happened to notice a girl worthy of their time they stayed outside that window and practiced the mating rituals that resembles a peacock's preening dance.
The bell tolled and the train started departing after a shrill whistle. The crowd waited for the train lights to dim in the horizon and started its trek back to their hostels. Lumpy beds awaited them. They would doze off thinking about their future and dreaming their sultry dreams. They would wake up to another day with its set of troubles and triumphs. The only solid certainty in their lives was the station and 'Shenkottai Fast Passenger.'
- ▼ 2007 (7)