From Here to Anywhere (Calcutta – Chennai), Indian Rail – 7th July 2011


‘He is by nature led

To peace so perfect that the young behold

With envy, what the old man hardly feels.’

Wordsworth, ‘Old Man Traveling’

‘Indians scattered on dawns highway bleeding……….’ Jim’s dream drifts down from the thatched palm roof in Shivas place.  Sweet marijuana smoke mingles with a fresh coffee feel and Nag Champa incense, Guru is making pancakes again……………………………… But I’m propped up on a colourful fishing boat, beached on Manallapurams shores, Tamil Nadu.  The brown Indian Ocean rages and thrashes, sucking dried coconut husks into its raging belly.  The sky is fading to a burning orange as large pelicans dip and dive on the thermals.  The heat simmers around 40oC and teenagers yelp with glee as they thrash at a worn tennis ball with a cricket bat made from driftwood.  The old shore temple grows in mystery as shadows fall.  I have no idea how I made it to this beach scene at this stage…………………

30 hours on the Carmondam ‘Express’, Calcutta (West Bengal) to Chennai (Tamil Nadu), a trip of 1700 kms southbound.  Add to that 5 hours worth of delay, dead engine.  The Carmondam  Express is a behemoth of a train.  Stretching over a kilometre, I counted more than 25 carriages.  I pass time on a top bunk, 26E, carriage S3.  With no window or natural light, I retire inside for a while.   Unable to sit up, I crouch and sip chai.  Reading about ‘non-self’, sometimes Herman Hesse, time moves slowly and with ease.  I feel pleasantly distracted.  The Times of India proclaims that naked mole rats are the future to a cure for cancer.  I have always been fascinated by their sagging ugliness.   These ‘sabre-toothed sausages’ have similar genomes to humans.

The toilets are cleaner than British Rail and the endless procession of vendors means that all sugar peaks are satisfied and fried snack demands sated.  ‘Chai, coffee, pepsi, mirinda, pani, veg cutlet, samosa, chat puri’……  There’s a trinket man with his flashing ‘made in China’ gadgets, chana (chickpea) lady who smells of raw onion, occasional floor sweepers and many dejected looking beggars suffering from horrendous physical deformities.

Aggressive transvestites do the rounds, wearing bright saris.  They clap their hands with force, 10 rupee notes clutched between their painted fingers, they shout obscenities at us all.  The men around me seem to bristle with fear and produced notes and coins to get rid of them.  I am in no mood for this type of bribery, although they do seem slightly demented.  One smacks my newspaper and stands over me wide-eyed and furious at my insolent behavior.  What can be done here?  What type of situation is this?  He leaves.

At 11pm we stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Mathya Pradesh, and pick up a motley crew of drunkards and farmers.  All deep eyes and bony legs sticking from dhotis.  A gang of five eject the man sleeping opposite me and across from me, in a whirlwind of shouts, shoves and finger wagging.  All of a sudden, everybody seems to be sitting in the wrong seat and a sense of confusion prevails.  I am now faced by five sets of wild, piercing gazes.  A young man, the wildest of the bunch, with a wispy moustache and fixed sneer produces a phone and begins to video me.  The rest just stare vacantly and do not respond to smiles or nods.  Uneasy air passes between us.  The gang spit tobacco into a small paper cup and play cards with great fanfare, stained teeth and wicked smiles.  Are they dacoits?  They look like bandits.  One of the transvestite beggars sidles by, and attempts to intimidate the wispy mustachioed movie maker, he clubs her around the head with a heavy hand and hateful words.  Thankfully these punks have no stamina, passing out like corpses after a while.  Sleeping on and around each other, their feet occasionally making guest appearances on my bunk.

This night, there are bodies lying all over the dirty floor.  The train sleeps soundly, jerking from side to side.  Three men are sleeping at the door of the toilet and don’t stir when I stand on them (accidentally). The bunk begins to feel like a serious luxury.  I sleep for ten hours straight on my anorak.

I’m in third class here.  No frills.  $7 for all of this, bought from the tourist ticket office in the cavernous Writers Building in the central square of Calcutta.  I managed to get the last seat out of dodge (on the tourist quota), the dusty dot matrix printer spat it out and I was well away.  I’m privileged to be here.  There were over 70 people on the wait list.  The Indian Rail system is archaic and vast, but works well.

As a sign of changing times in India, I join a queue that I believe to be the morning ablution line.  Turns out it’s for the two electric sockets, all the youngsters are charging their mobile phones.  From a gap in the door, I get a snapshot of India’s farmlands shooting by.  Men ride antique bicycles or buffaloes between rice fields and kids wave standing on piles of rubbish.  Cow dung is dried and formed into tall pyramids, then sealed with more dung.  For a rainy day I imagine.

Man on his bike, Orissa

It begins to get dark and I wonder if I will be spending another night up here.  I ask the guy on a lower bunk ‘Chennai!’ pointing towards the barred window, he stares blankly and shrugs, looking like he may cry.  A casualty of all these many minutes.  Eventually the train finally slows and stops.

In Chennai Central Station there are pilgrims sitting in groups across the hectic platform.  The humidity is impressive.  Women wear garlands of Mali (Jasmine)Flowers in their hair, I catch the scent as I brush by.  Many women have shaved heads, some lathered with an orange paste.   There are notices posted with the English ‘word of the day’, today it is ‘expend’.  Its 9pm and I get into a bright yellow rickshaw and utter my well used line ‘Cheap hotel please’.  I love this feeling, a new place.  Stepping into the unknown without clues or cares.

I stay in the Sri Durga Prasad Guesthouse, Chennai.  A large institutional building/ temple with a team of porters wearing grey acrylic boiler suits and the white and red markings of Vishnu on their brows.  Very professional sorts, one even carries my dirty backpack for me.  The reception area is more of shrine to Goddess Durga and Sai Baba (the now deceased multi-millionaire ‘spiritual’ guru).  The city has a tidy provincial capital feel, as opposed to a seething metropolis.

This is after Calcutta, which is unique in its decrepid chaos.  Communist control has led to stagnation and decay.  No sign of development or modernity there.  The history and grand Raj buildings, churches and monuments make it an interesting site.  The people have a ‘never say die attitude’ which is admirable and a good sense of humour.  Calcutta does have a certain faded style that appeals to my sentimental side.  ‘The City of Joy’ and the shining message of Mother Teresa.

Sri Durga Prasad Hotel

I eat across the street, in a restaurant where the waiters have PDQ’s and bow ties.  Everything seems so orderly here.  The sadhus greet me with a warm wave and a ‘Good Evening’.  It’s quieter and friendly, without the oppressing poverty.  There is a distinct difference in the air.  Tamil Nadu is unique in language and heritage, mainly Dravidian as opposed to the Aryans of the North.  The ancient culture was responsible for trade with Rome, Greece and China over 2000 years ago and spreading Hinduism, and then later Buddhism, around Asia and beyond.

I opt for the Special Limited Meal, it is the best and inaccurately named.  It turns up as twelve different small bowls of wet and dry curries, dhals and a pistachio dessert with free flowing basmati rice and toasted chapatis.  All served on a banana leaf and shoveled down by hand.  The names alone conjour images of a fabulous feast, kazambhu, kootu and rathakuzhambhu.  I fancy the appama with coconut milk, but am stuffed to the gunnels.  I wash it down with a fresh lemon soda from the in-house juice bar and a hand stretched tea.  This is served in a cup and bowl and poured at a height at the table and is perfectly dark, spicy and sweet.  They make their own ice creams and hot masala mik here.  Yes, my belly is smiling at South India.

In Mallapuram they carve marble and fish.  There are many temples and caves dating back to the 6-7th Century, the Pallava Dynasty, impressively ornate and situated on the shoreline.  There are many old books stores, and shops selling carved soap stone and other tourist tat, but ugly concrete hotels disfigure the place.  Hippies arrived here in the ‘60’s and since then, tourism has flourished.  Some good sorts though and a Shiva makes a good brew.

I’m staying with Manoj and his family in a comfortable room overlooking the fishing community.  From my window I see palm tree sway with the waves rolling in.  After traveling for days down from the highlands of wet Sikkim in the north, in packed jeeps down winding mountain roads and landslide delays, way up there, level with Nepal and Bhutan, to here almost level with Sri Lanka in the south, I am giving myself a few days rest.  Keeping my arse on the beach and away from bus seats and top bunks.

I am becoming good at watching this odd world pass me by.  In India there can be too much input.  Good and bad.  Never quite sure what you’re letting in, learning by osmosis is a precarious past time here.  You are compelled to take it all, or nothing at all.  52 days left.  What can be done here?

Beach fayre, Manallapuram


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