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A Train Journey from Hell
Jul 09, 2002 08:31 AM 8320 Views
(Updated Jul 15, 2002 05:25 AM)


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When I arrived in the afternoon of Tuesday 23 April (2002) it was raining heavily, a welcome relief from the scorching heat. My main object of this trip was to visit the Silent Valley, and the Parambikulam wildlife sanctuaries. During the next 4 days here, the temperature had soared upto 38 degrees C (just over 100 degrees F). It was sticky and humid, but all those troubles were justified after our encountering various wildlife in a majestic back drop of high mountains and evergreen forests. The giant Malabar squirrel, the lion tailed macaque, wild boar, chital, jungle fowl and elephant are common in these sanctuaries. If you are looking for a detailed description on Palghat, this is not for you. It is about the Train journey from Palghat to south via Kerala Express, as the title suggests. So please bear with me.

I arranged my return trip to Kottayam via Kerala Express on Saturday, the 27th. I haven't travelled in the Indian railways for 35 years, and welcomed this opportunity to sit and relax and watch the country side for the next 5-6 hours. Upon arrival at the Palghat station early to catch the 7 a.m. train, I was appalled by the sanitary conditions. The entire tracks were covered in filth - trash thrown out of the train by passengers, to the delight of hundreds of crows. The place stunk of urine and human feces. To top it off, it was announced that the arrival of Kerala Express would be delayed for another hour. The better part of me wanted to leave the station at once.

But tickets were already purchased, and no buses were available for next several hours and I had to be in Kottayam by 3 p.m. to meet a friend. Someone suggested breakfast, but my appetite for the day was already gone. When the train came after 8 was packed. For each passenger got out of the train, at least three of them got in. I moved from compartment to compartment looking for a place to sit. Several of the passengers occupied as many as three seats each, either sleeping or just stretching out comfortably without caring for others. When the train started moving, I found a little space at the edge of the seat. An older gentleman was sleeping on it. He moved a bit and stretched his bare feet out through the window. When the air started flowing, it reduced the strong smell of urine inside the compartment.

I have noticed it before, but never paid any attention to it back then. A number of passengers in the Indian trains bring far too much food,when traveling with the family, from watermelon, orange, guava, mango and banana to jackfruit and biscuits and constantly devouring them and discarding the paper bags, cups, pop bottles and other waste outside through the window. As there was not much to see from an overcrowded train, I let myself to doze off. Within minutes I was awaken by the call of numerous vendors announcing their wares in Malayalam and Tamil: ''chaya, kappi (tea and coffee), vada -sambar -dosa-idli, andiparippu-kashuvandi (cashews), ooperi (plantain chips),samosa, poovan pazham (a type of sweet banana), choodu (hot) nescafe, and so on. And soon, out of the blue a different breed of vendors arrived. A man placed a bundle of Malayalam books beside me and walked away, another man dropped a bag of cashews to someone's lap, they would be back to retrieve them later.

After a brief stop at Trichur, the train resumed its speed towards the south. We were approached by a large number of beggars inside the train. Mothers with small children, men with only one leg or arm , perfectly healthy looking men sporting beards and dressed like sadhus - all stretching out their palms for help. Should we encourage public begging in passenger vehicles? This is an entire new topic and I really don't want to get into it. How can one eat and ignore the pleas from hungry people? Some passengers were annoyed, others, more seasoned travelers didn't mind or paid no attention. Some of them would even tap on your shoulders if you are caught napping.

Then the ticket examiner arrived and nabbed a group of students traveling with one ticket. They were escorted out at the next stop. The fare is so cheap ( a second class ticket from Palghat to Kottayam was only 104 rupees (about $2.00). I was surprised why any one not buying the ticket, thus taking a chance to get prosecuted for such a small amount.

I thought I should have a tea, as the train was approaching Ernakulam. We were travelling for about 4 hours now, and the heat inside made me very thirsty. Soon I heard the familiar call ''chaya chayeah..'' I looked up and found the vendor was holding his paper cups with his fingers inside the cups. I decided to wait till I reached my destination.

Apart from these insignificant matters, the journey offered no excitement. My fellow companion now got up to go to the wash room. A few minutes later he came back and resumed his sleep. This time he left his fly open. I moved away to another seat freshly vacated by some one else. Some of the passengers were still sleeping. The new window seat offered a good view to the running landscape. Green paddy fields were now dry and barren. The rivers with clean water were either dry or muddy, and those with some water were covered with the weeds. Kerala was badly awaiting the much needed monsoon.

In a few minutes the train would arrive at my station and probably my last train journey in Kerala would come to an end. My previous journeys,in the 1960s from Delhi/ Madras/ Bangalore/ Hyderabad/ Calcutta to Cochin were different. I think it was more enjoyable. It was certainly less crowded -beggars and vendors included. Gone were the days. India has traveled a long way in the last 40 years. People have better income and education now. Thatched huts were replaced by concrete bungalows. Most houses are well furnished with TV and video players. The old steam engines are replaced with diesel.And it reminded me that there is a hefty price we have to pay for the progress we make.

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