Long Way Around

by Bharath Moro


Part 1

I am stepping out of the aerobridge at the Madras domestic airport when the phone whirrs in my trouser pocket. I quickly flip it open to see that it is my mother at the end of the line. I was planning on doing what I am about to do in complete secrecy but I feel guilty about lying the very first thing in the morning. So I answer it.

"Where are you?", commands my mom,

"At the Madras airport!"

"Airport?, I thought you weren't going to come in until the next week?"

"Well, that is true. I won't be home until the 4th of July"

"What? Are you mad? Don't play silly with me"

"No, I am not playing around. I will home only on the 4th"

I then proceed to explain in detail about what I am going to do in the intervening 5 days. I can hear a muffled curse and then “Do whatever you want, just be here on the 4th!. Having explained myself sufficiently, I get out of the airport and walk down to Tirusulam station. On the way, I play a game of first time tourist with the autowallahs who quickly give up after some choice Tamil is exchanged. Feeling smug, I wait for a local (or unit in Madras lingo) to Park from where I skip down the subway and enter the concourse at Central. My train the 6627 West Coast express to Mangalore is already on platform (having come in as the morning mail from MAQ) and presently is being cleaned. I head on over to Saravana Bhavan to bolt down some breakfast but quickly pull away after seeing the crowd. On the other side of the wall, the dept. catering shop is much quieter and serves delicious pongal and vadas for a quarter of the price.

Not soon after, Sridhar Joshi joins me and we proceed to the north of the station and deposit my rather bulky bag with his friend at the RRI cabin. Once free of this weight, we walk around what is decidedly the most grimiest part of the city in search of an ATM. We find one and I grab some cash. Sridhar hasn't had breakfast so we stop by at a small joint. Back at Central, amidst railfan talk and watching the busy shunting action, we pick up my bag and head to the First Class coach of my train. It is parked on pf1 sans loco. The FC is at back of the train and it is a bit of trundle to get there. Once inside, I find that the lights aren't working after much fumbling. Sridhar, who seems to know where the fuses for the lights are located, goes off and turns the knobs the right way. And voila, we have lights!

A short while later, Poochi Venkat with his trademark cap and wide grin makes an appearance with some batteries I had wanted. Batteries are a railfans blessing and a curse! We chat for a while on a host issues when suddenly there is a sharp horn blast and the train inches forward. Poochi and Sridhar scramble out. Half a platform length down, five RPF men board the coach. I am not amused and ask them their purpose of boarding. "Security", one particularly scruffy looking guy with a huge distended belly says! After negotiating the points we pick up speed as we pass by the BBQ trip shed. Nothing notable except for a JHS WAP-4 222xx.

Expecting a fast run through crowded Villivakam, I head to the door but am disappointed when we slow down considerably just before the outer. Necessitated by maintenance work, this slow pace continues till Avadi. And at Pattabiram, we suffer yet more delays while we wait at the outer signal and are finally shunted on to the slow lines. But the going picks up after this switch and we canter along to Arakkonam. Nothing much to note on the run, except the presence of several guard towers on the border wall separating the base of INS Rajali from railway land. One of the guard towers holds a surprise - the guard on duty is relieving himself from his 20ft perch. The shed at AJJ too holds nothing dramatic except for a green/yellow WAM-4 whose roof equipment and headlights are missing. On the way to a scrap yard perhaps?

All the slow running has meant that by the time we roll out of AJJ, we are about 12 min late. I laugh at myself for keeping time this way. sI am on a trip that has no fixed deadlines and no purpose and yet I keep one eye on the timetable always! Presently, the TTE appears and checks my ticket. I enquire about the rather empty coach (only about 10 occupants and I am the sole passenger to MAQ!). He says there is one other passenger allotted to my cabin but she is currently with her family at the other end of the coach. As if on cue, she makes an appearance. And its a typical Tamil "mami". Hair pleated and decked with flowers, forehead smeared with a large round kumkumam patch and the sari is tied the traditional way (sorry, can't describe it.. too complicated!).

Meanwhile we are clattering along featureless plain and after an impressive burst of speed sweep into Katpadi. Over to my right, the line from Pakala swings into view. I am hungry and head off looking for something to eat but the only edible (and fresh) items on sale are egg and chicken biryani. I grab a packet of the former and jump inside just as we start moving. Inside the confined space of the 4-berth cabin, the biryani smells wonderful and "non-veggy". Across the cabin, the old lady is already giving me the looks and when I finally open the packet, she flinches and pulls a bit of her sari over her nose. I am finding it difficult to contain my laughter!

After the late start at Katpadi, we are now clattering along at great speeds towards Jolarpettai. Small and medium size stations are dismissed easily and in a haze of dust. Geographically, the stretch is uninteresting save for the appearance of the Yelagiri hills towards the South East. The first of these hillocks make an appearance at Gudiyattam. Farm land growing brinjals and cabbage break the monotony of the hills and rocky foreground. Jolarpettai is uninteresting, not a single freight and no light locos around. Swinging out South West on a high embankment we make our way towards Tirupattur, outside of which there is sudden braking. As we come to a rapid stop, I notice a nasty sight - a severed buffalo head. The old lady almost peers out towards the rather dead head but I distract her with some completely out of place and decidedly stupid carnatic music questions. Thankfully, she buys into the ploy but in the bargain I get to hear 30 min of mind numbing stuff.

Not sure whether it is the biryani or something that I ate much earlier, but there is a growing queasiness in the stomach and predictably I head to the toilet. Returning, things have gotten worse - I have a huge headache and a growing fever. So, I force myself to sleep the headache and fever off.

When I wake up, we are in the middle of a dense forest punctured by tall hills. The hills aren't continuous, and look like some giant helicopter dropped them into place one by one. As I rub my fevered eyes, a station whizzes by and it is Lokur - start of the famed and oft discussed twin single line section to Danishpet. Expecting even denser forest and taller hills I prop myself on a shoulder but when Danishpet comes and goes, I am disappointed. The hills and forest peter out to rice paddies and sugarcane plantations dotted by thatched roof huts. In the distance, towards the west are taller hills, no doubt outer extremities of the Sivadi Ghats. Salem, too, comes and goes without any major sighting worth noting down. More rice paddies and sugarcane dot the otherwise featureless and bland run into Erode. The bridge over the river Cauvery holds no surprise - minimal water!

Erode is a longish halt (with a loco change) and shaking off the headache, I get down to fully exploit that. We are on an island platform and on the other side is the Mangalore-Egmore express. Curious (and bitten by the VSP bug) I snatch a look at the reservation charts. Lots of quotas and decent occupation, although the back of the train looked very empty.

Walking ahead, I see that our WAP-4 (22270) has been detached and a big crowd awaits the arrival of a diesel to take over. That turns out to be a very drab and dirty looking ED WDM-3a 14075. Inch by inch the crowd moves in closer as the loco moves towards the coupler. Even a determined railfan will find it difficult to get in front of such a crowd! The giant hook is lifted and plonked into place. Screws are tightened and break hoses are connected. We are now ready to leave and the crowd suspects that we just might! It quick dissipates leaving only me to look closely at position of the sander tube. I, too, make my way back but not before picking up some delicious and hot vadas which are too tempting to ignore even for someone with a dodgy stomach! Meanwhile, the train cleaning crew have given the coach a nice clean up but lose points in my book by spraying some atrocious smelling room freshner in each cabin.

The old lady opposite me seems impatient and is about to complain about the delayed departure when we start moving. As expected, pick up is decidedly slow and I can already feel the strain of 23 coaches on the WDM-3a. Things don't improve even after 5 kms and we are literally sputtering along at 50kmph. I hear the diesel on full song ahead but that isn't doing anything to the speed of the train!

After much huffing, we reach Perungudi (which has an odd flex vinyl printed station board!). Once the station is cleared, there is a perceptible improvement in the speed which leads me to believe that we have started the descent to Coimbatore but not before we stop for 2 mintues at Tiruppur. Like every city that is growing faster than its infrastructure can cope, Tiruppur is a mess. There are long traffic jams on the streets with car and scooter owners fighting over who is responsible for the dents in their respective vehicles. Gargbage is piled up everywhere, sewage is overflowing from open drains outside people's homes and are lights trying hard to illuminate the streets below. It seems like we never, ever learn from our mistakes.

Expecting a large commuter crowd to throng the FC coach, I brace myself. But my fears are unfounded as we leave Tiruppur much the same way we came - empty. Meanwhile, my fever has returned and I am finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake. I tell the old lady to wake me up at CBE when she detrains. She promptly does so and after thanking her, I shut off the lights and hit the berth hard.

There is an urge to wake up at every station stop and take a look but the body simply refuses to cooperate and as a I result when I wake up next morning, we are rumbling over a ferocious sounding Netravati river outside Mangalore. It is pouring rain outside and I have to wait for a good 10 min inside the stationary train to make a break for the sheltered part of the platform.

My original plans in Mangalore included a visit to the home of some good friends and a port side stroll but the heavy rain (which is pouring in ever greater quantities) and a scheduling error has meant shelving those plans. Instead, I am heading back to Shoranur on the 6608 Mangalore-Egmore express but that train doesn't leave until 6:45 am which is still good hour and a half away.

On Pf. 1, the concourse looks like it has just been bombed by the Luftwaffe with broken tiles, puddles of water and hanging pipes everywhere. Wary of the heavy commuter rush, I am keen to book a reserved ticket for my run to SRR but have difficulty in finding the current booking office. The enquiry counter proves useless when the man behind the grill says the reservation office opens only at 8, well after my trains departure! One general ticket purchase later, I am back on the platform trying to find a dry space to put my bags and substantial behind down.

I remember Mangalore station to be pretty with its distinctive tiled roof and carved wooden benches but of that nothing much remains. The tiles have given away to horrid corrugated iron sheets and the wooden benches replaced with cold, black granite slabs. The only redeeming features left are the art-deco style pillars holding the iron sheet roof and wooden gables crowning the sections.

After a mad scramble to get decent seats when the doors of the coaches are opened, we are on our way. WDM-3a 14081 sounds wounderful as it passes over a very swift flowing and muddy Netravati river. Once the bridge is cleared, the throttles are opened and a fast run to Manjeshwar ensues where we stop for one our numerous halts. The run from here to Ullal is probably one of the prettiest in all of IR. The sea is right next to the track and at some places the gap is less than 200mtrs from the water line. And to cap off this amazing run, Ullal station has a walkway that goes right into the beach! I want to be a SM at this station:) The area is so pretty that I can't add much else to what I jotted down in the log book, so here it goes

  • This amazing countryside follows us for the next 10-15 km, the shore dotted with small fishing vessels and palm frond huts.
  • After Kumbla, spot a tall, white and red light house breaking through a dense line of coconut trees. GOC WDM-2 16875 heads a passenger in the opposite direction.
  • After Kasargod, cross the Maveli Exp(normal). hauled by flat face "electricity counter" ED WDM-2 17519.
  • Scenery doesn't change much, thick coconut groves are all around, each with a bunch of houses nestled in between. Most houses have pretty sloping tile roofs and generous compounds. Cows graze the green pastures while farmers take a break from work because of the rain.
  • Nileshwar, a sentinmental stop for me. My first sighting of Kerala, over 13 years ago was here. It is still beautiful and enchanting. Small compact houses are on higher ground. Most of them have gentle firewood smoke coming out of the chimneys. Breakfast time!
  • Much of the crowd that has built up during the numerous halts now gets off at Kannur. Many people are waiting to board the sleeper coach. The TTE shoos them away.
  • Feeling feverish again, need to get some sleep(normal).
  • Wake up at Ferok which has an eponymous river flowing before the station. Ferok looks like a big town with tall industrial chimneys. Kadalundi is next, scene of the terrible distaster involving the Mangalore Mail.
  • Completely drained out now by the fever and fits of cold.
  • Wake up to find we are waiting at SRR outer! Wait for the rain to stop and make for the exit. Find a decent lodge called Apollo. Despite my worsening condition, I need to get on the SRR-Nilambur passenger. Else, this entire trip will be in trouble.

Part 2

Back at SRR, I notice that almost half the crowd at the ticket counter are for the passenger to Nilambur. And when the rake does come in, there is an extremely wild scramble to grab seats. I, of course, am in no shape to fight for such things and walk defeated the length of a rake when miraculously spot an empty seat. Which turns out to be a blessing because the crowd simply piles on as we near depature. Sharp at 14:40, ED WDM-2a 17375 wheezes out of SRR and climbs a small embankment that directs the Nilambur line into a thick grove of coconut trees.

The run isn't fast, around 60kmph, which it makes it very convinient to notice the landscape and other details. Not that there is anything very different about this part of Kerala! More coconut groves, sloped tiled houses and green paddy follow us almost throughout. Thick vegetation around the line means that I have to constantly duck my head inside to avoid being hit by a tree!

Our first big halt is at Angadipuram, where is a sizeable FCI warehouse right next to the station. While a sizeable crowd does get off, there are an even number waiting to get in! More beautiful but boring scenery follows, so break up the monotony I try and practice my hideous Malayalam on unsuspecting co-passengers. Soon there are fits of laughter as I fumble for the correct words and pronunciations:) A young school teacher, who has a very Steven Seagal like demeanour, joins us and I learn a great deal about the Malabar region and Mallapuram district in particular. He leaves at our next big halt - Vaniambalam.

The next stretch from here to Nilambur is very very pretty. The trackis lined on either side by huge teak, areca nut, banana and coconut plantations with an equal measure of tall rock cuttings thrown in between. I am keen to take in more but the rain is relentless and doesn't stop until we get to Nilambur. I am greeted by a giant rosewood tree just outside the station. The tree has been carefully preserved by the locals with a small board indicating its 200 year status.

My fever really has kicked in now and as soon as I buy the return ticket, enter one of the more less crowded coaches and hit the luggage rack. Not until we pull into SRR do I wake up(normal). Dazed and a with nasty headache, I realize that I need to get some rest but not before a stiff drink that help me sleep properly. I purchase a cheap bottle of local rum and head to the "Moon, Sun and Star Hotel" perched on a small hill opposite the station. I drink myself silly and hope that the fever clears off by the next morning!

Here my notes end. The rest of the journey went in a haze of sleep, fever, cough and cold. In hindsight I should have returned back to MAS as quickly as I can but being the stubborn kind I stuck to my original plan which went like this ERS-QLN-PUU-TSI-MDU-CGL-VDR.

  • The next morning I took the CAN-ERS express to Cochin where Jimmy and Binai played perfect hosts taking me everywhere that was interesting. After spending some time at the ERS diesel shed, Jimmy took me to the sad looking CHTS. What was once a proud and busy station was now deserted and run down.
  • The next day, Jimmy and I went around the whole of ERS trying to find an a decent place to photograph the (then) elsusive WDM-3D 11121. We did manage to get a decent shot of it in the end! We also toured the 'original' Ernakulam terminus and took in the sad sights of neglected railway history. When will IR wake over this part of its responsibility?
  • In the afternoon, I took a very late running 1081 from ERN to Quilon where I was met by Prof. Venugopal. Over some fine whiskey and spicy omlettes, I got another history lesson of Kerala and its railways. The good Prof. then put me on a bus to Punalur, the current terminus of the MG line from TEN. As with all Kerala bus rides, this was terrifying and exhilerating. The driver seemingly trying to break all laws of physics in his ascent into the Cardamom hills.
  • Found a decent lodge (Lovely Laxmi) bang opp the bus stand and slept blissfully. Next morning, wandered around Punalur catching a glimpse of the famous 'hanging' bridge before heading off to the railway station.
  • I won't go into the details of the beautiful Punalur-Shencottah section - look up on the trip report pages on the IRFCA server. Yes, it is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Made more magical by the monsoons. Yes, the famous viaduct comes and goes just as suddenly and Arayankavu is the prettiest station I have ever seen.
  • We did have more drama on the leg between Arayankavu and Tenkasi which I'll write in another report.
  • Bhagavatipuram has the most ridiculous caution board I have seen. It says "Ghat section ahead - 30kmph Day Time, 28.5kmph Night Time". I am not joking!
  • Tenkasi-Madurai is a drab line with nothing much to write home about. The only relief comes near Rajapalayam where some outriders of the Cardamom hills make an appearance.
  • Got to Madurai with much of the fever gone but still not 100% fit. Took an autorickshaw and went straight to Murugan Idli Shop - the original joint. Best idlis, sambhar and 'kaaram pudi' (Shanx are you reading this!) on the planet.
  • The next morning, boarded a rather empty Vaigai express hauled by WDM-3D 11102. Decent run till Tiruchi after which the entire thing got very boring. Surprisingly, the loco was changed at VM and WDP-3a 15501 stormed the VM-CGL section in 67 min.
  • Got down at CGL and took a local to Vandalur where my mom was plotting revenge. She greeted me with the words I did not want to hear at that time - "Time to get you married, boy"!

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