It took me 47 years to ride the pale green monster of the Chennai suburban transport, one of the excesses of the Colonial Raj, launched in the 1930s, that has stood the test of time and ravages of people and retained its old world charm amidst the swanky metro rapid rail that dot most of Indian cities’ skylines! Last week, I had the privilege of taking the local from the Park station (this reminds us of the monopoly board game, doesn’t it?) located near to the iconic Chennai central station
(that finally got a small dose of makeover!) to a suburb called Tambaram
and this Electric multiple unit service or EMU for short, took me to the destination in 45 minutes flat which otherwise by road in peak hour would have easily taken more than two hours.
The high powered escalator from central, across the main road to park,
was gratefully and gladly received by the travel weary lazy bone and soon I was at the ticket counter, and my mind travelled at the speed of the moving staircase to the exotic Malgudi days of our dear R K Narayan! Unfortunately, this post is bereft of the sketches and caricatures because I do not have the assistance of R K Lakshman! Soon, I was holding a ticket that had undergone a transformation to the digital version, but with faded print ink mentioning the terminus that had my fingers itching to pinch and zoom in….an inevitable outcome of the gadget era.
Excited like a school kid embarking upon a picnic clutching the “open sesame” password to the ride, that cost me a meagre ten rupee, and wishfully hoping that I was standing on the correct platform in the legitimate direction, I am sure my readers would now know my penchant for going round in circles…https://adsunsri.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/going-round-in-circles/
I was too embarrassed to expose my total ignorance of the cardinal directions, for even a rooster in a weather vane knows about them and so stood my ground brazenly and soon the commuter rail chugged in with bold front grills on the thick front glass, wide doors and the typical high pitched whining sound of the traction system. Since it was just before peak hour office and college rush, I used my dexterity to push myself in after all I was the clever clog, a prodigy of my smart mom who has grown up with Mumbai locals!
I surreptitiously eyed the compartment and found the seating arrangement was different, lots of space to stand and fling one’s arms around but limited seating chairs, all the same, I did manage to squeeze my frame into one that was a poor cousin of the couch and then it got through my head as to why the smart Chennaites preferred to stand! The people who made up the compartment were an all embracing mix of the vendors with their precious ware, ranging from fresh veggies and jasmine flowers to Chinese made head phones and mobile chargers, college going students precariously balancing their smart phones with the mandatory accompaniment of ear plugs dangling from one of the ears and sheets of Photostat notes that had hordes of circuit diagrams, ah I deduced like SH, there were engineering colleges toward that side. The heterogeneous crowd did have a few office goers with their trademark lunch bags strewn across their shoulders and ash smeared boldly on their foreheads, but the vast majority of the commuters, packed like sardines, were the daily wage workers, the masons, the plumbers, the tile fixers, domestic maids, factory workers who were drawn to the suburban like moths to a flame due to the low priced tickets.
The paradox called India was clearly visible in this cross section of crowd and they perfectly blended in.
The notable face lift or enhancement on the train was the digital display with audio announcements of the destination and the impending stations. Clockwork and meticulous to the second, the displays were in three languages, the vernacular Tamil, the national language Hindi and the Queen’s parlance and I patted my back to have the ability to read all three!
The names of the stations were a mouthful and rhyming; Chrompet, Saidapet, Chetpet and Minambakkam, Kodambakkam, Nungabakkam with Tirusulam and Pallavaram thrown in between. As I sat bemused at the tongue twisters and admiring the places’ nomenclature handed down by people who came out of God’s assembly unit early, the display screen cracked to life with the announcement of the next intermediary station as “Egmore”.
Let me put the commuter rail on standby mode for a few seconds and relate a funny anecdote, an amusing episode that happened to my dad as he travelled eons ago, as a student of Loyola college, on a similar suburban.
After witnessing the test match between India and Australia at Corporation Stadium at Madras in 1956, dad was returning to Loyola College hostel in a crowded electric train. While disembarking at the Nungambakkam station ,in the melee , he lost his ticket and at the exit gate, as his ill luck would have it, he was confronted by the ticket collector who demanded the journey ticket. He was rummaging his pocket searching for the ticket,when the collector asked him from which station he was travelling. In the excitement and being new to Madras, the name of the station viz, Egmore slipped his mind. Being a true student of world history, the first name that came to his mind was Egypt and he blurted it out.
The ticket examiner had a hearty laugh and let him off !
I chuckled at my dad’s quirkiness and pondered as to how much I had inherited the rich legacy, the assets and liabilities. My journey’s end came much sooner than I imagined and extricated myself from the crowd that had surged at the broad doors.
As the rail eased out to its next trip on the section, I marvelled at the network of these trains that covered around 900 kilometres with roughly 600 suburban services daily, that is phenomenal despite the fact that the dedicated dual tracks for to and fro on these 900 kms, is only 300 and the rest are shared with the main line EMUs called as MEMUs. They have journeyed a long way starting with the steam locomotives on meter gauge with electric carriages imported from England to 1.5 KV DC and subsequently to 25KV traction lines and coaches from the Integral coach factory based in Perambur on the outskirts of Chennai. Now, the suburban trains run on broad gauge and I am overawed by the fact that these services have almost been accident and collision free, though the human fatalities are high due to overcrowding.
My odyssey on the local was fascinating and engrossing; the vast multitude of Chennaites, in a cauldron of thoughts, ambitions and terminals, cheek by jowl in a crowded suburban, each one of them marching to a different tune, regardless of class, creed, religion, language, society and hierarchy!