My West Side Story

The sun plays a cheeky game of hide and seek with clouds hovering above Thiruvananthapuram. Like any bustling state capital, this city has its own charm and character, its own cultural hallmarks. The clouds are an indication of the impending monsoon, which uses Kerala as the gateway for its entry into the Indian mainland. These are not clouds of gloom, but hope, of anticipation, of bursting into unparalleled joy of season’s first rain.

Welcome to this travelogue. It’s all about a staggering journey of 40 hours from Thiruvananthapuram to Ahmedabad all my train. Well I was not the one to enjoy this, but my friend surely did! Here it is straight from my friend’s mouth..

Pic by By Mohan K (originally posted to Flickr as Aakulam) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


At the Station

I arrive at Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station at around 3 in the afternoon. And like the city, the station too, is bursting with its own ornamental charm, with a look defining a combination of a regal yet rugged history.

Some 82 years ago, this building rose to host tracks and trains, passengers, their travels, journeys, hopes and dreams. It casts a monuments shadow upon the travelers walking into this architectural marvel sitting pretty with its rock masonry.

I rush to platform 5 where I must await the arrival of the Nagercoil-Gandhidham Express which will take me all the way to Ahmedabad – tearing through five states and clocking around 2,000km in almost 40 hours. Big number’s those. In my backpack, apart from the regular paraphemalia, areJack Keronauc’s On The Road and RK Narayan’s The Guide. Forty hours can be quite lonely while travelling alone, and it’s attest for man and his celebrated best friend, the book.

Image By Mail2arunjith (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Boarding the Express

Its 3:20 pm as I glanced at my watch, which will become a habit through the journey over the next two and a half days. A cool breeze is now blowing across the platform. From the corner of my eye. I can see a red engine making a quiet entry with a long trail of bogies following it with total surrender and clinical precision.

I board my designated coach, find my berth and settle down with my stuff in what has now become a mechanical ritual for us frequent rail travelers. I recline on my berth, extract On The Road and the travel begins – for me, as well as the protagonists of Keronauc’s masterpiece. While Sal, Dean and others travel across the roads of America in the late 1940s, I’m making a journey to explore the western flank on peninsular India, albeit not on the road, but on the track.

A couple of hours pass by as the train gets speed and momentum. But the bogie is largely still empty. The sun begins to make its retreat along the western coast and ghats, and I go and sit next to an elderly gentleman staring out of the window, holding delicately a look of meditative concentration on his face…

Pic By Nithinnandakumaar (I take it personnally) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Getting Company

‘Would you mind if I sit next to you, Sir?’ I ask, baring all my teeth in a wide grin. ‘By all means, by all means. Sure,’ the bespectacled gentleman responds. After exchanging a few pleasantries and introductions, we are engrossed in an conversation that’s hopping from one subject to another, just as the train changes tracks. The gentleman is Jacob Philip, professor of Physics at Cochin University of Science and Technology. He’s making a rather short journey to his home in Ernakulam. Well, it’s all of five hours, just one-eighth of my journey, I calculate quickly in my head. ‘Most passengers now are travelling shorter distances. You’ll see the real rush of long-distance passengers from Ernakulam,’ he tells me. He is right, for all I can see in the name of luggage with most people in the train are handbags, backpacks and briefcases.

Over the next three hours, as we savour the sights of a setting sun across farms and coconut groves, I tell the good professor that I hadn’t seen such a photogenic spread ever in my journeys. His lips break into a subtle smile.

‘Then you should have stayed longer. You’ve hardly seen the beauty Kerala possesses,’ he says, following it with an authorative advice of must-visit destinations on my next trip. The railway track is lined by coconut trees and thick green crust inching up the black soil. This green reverie is broken at regular intervals by small villages and settlements, a few farms and grazing cattle.

Rain in Ernakulam

I ask Philip about the overcast sky and what rain means to a state that receives plenty of precipitation. ‘It’s the pre-monsoon cloud cover and by next week we’ll start receiving good rainfall. We love the rain. Although persistent rainfall does make it a bit uncomfortable at times. In fact, our economy – from agriculture to electric powers depend largely on these showers,’ the professor tells me. Just then there is a slight drizzle visible through the window. Perhaps God was listening to our conversation.

Pic By Dhruvaraj S from India (Mazhayil….) [CC-BY-2.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Goodbye Philip

The scenes outside are changing continuously. Set on a canvas of a setting sun, I see small hamlets, coconuts and banana plantations by the hundreds and beautiful backwaters completing the breathtaking vignettes of Kerala through my senses. Some backwaters are of a scale that can fool that can fool a northerner like me into believing that they are in fact large lakes or sections of coastal rivers. But Philip is there to correct me. After passing through five halts, the train arrives at Ernakulam. Its pitch dark now and the motivation to sit next to the window decreases continuously. As I bid Philip goodbye, we thank each other for the time well spent and a conversation well made.

As this is a 40-hour journey, and every aspect of feelings in covered, it takes quite long to write. Please be patient about the next part. Till that your comments are welcome….