Chapter XII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

One Last Journey (May 1969)

~1800 hours: Decide to go traveling. Pack bed roll, including a spare shirt and a couple of cotton cloth-pieces, and fill water-carrier. Too late to go to Madras Egmore to catch the train there.

~1930 hours: Arrive at Tambaram station and buy III class ticket to Karaikkal (express to Mayuram). Wait on platform. Others waiting too. Too many others.

~ 1955 hours: Rameswaram Express pulls up at platform, Already full; passengers in most carriages refuse to open doors. Helter skelter up and down platform – an open door in the Karaikkudi through coach. Squeeze aboard.

~ Train moving. Am firmly wedged by bodies but can get a breath of air as train moves. But what devil is causing this airless stop at Guduvancheri home signal?

~ 2050 hours: Chingleput. Compartment clears enough to obtain reasonably comfortable standing space in doorway.

~ Black, silhouetted hills give way to moonlit flatness. Resonance of Palar bridge – sand underneath. Loops; tablet changing; the station peon holding a cane loop in one hand and a kerosene flare in the other.

~ Midnight: Villupuram. Cries of vendors, Upheaval in compartment (seats 17, actual load now quite comfortable at 46), succeed in getting two square feet of floor space; sit. Steam hissing about. YAM electric up front replaced by YP steam.

~ Curve left onto the main line. More moonlit flatness. Sugar cane, casurina. Head forward on knees; crick in neck; head backward against window; jolting sleep.

~ 0200 hours: Mayuram. Considerable upheaval. Compete with gent already sitting down who wants to lie, and obtain corner of seat. Small girl on seat opposite releases urine; pool forms on my former bit of floor. Vendors’ cries – caupee caupee tea – neon tube light – shunting engine closes in behind; cries of shunters, whistles, lamps. Backwards, points, forwards onto the back of the Mayuram – Karaikkudi Fast Passenger. Vendors’ cries, station gong, night.

~ Night rushing past. Tank engine up front enjoying the skip-stop.

~0300 hours: Peralam. No vendors. Chill night too. Out onto the platform. Three or four neon tubes; three wooden carriages shuttered on the bay platform. Fast passenger goes, receding red tail-lamp. Sit in a dark carriage; lower shutter, blump.

~ Mysterious hissing somewhere. Karaikkal locomotive.

~ 0330 hours: Man with key in hand walks down platform. Moon setting over paddy fields. Nuns nestling down opposite. Tamil nuns. Loud, humorous conversation in compartment next; one nun enjoying it.

~ Man with key reached destination. Response: more hissing. Back and forth, branch engine appears on far side of main line, moon behind, neon lights this side, selecting goods vans. Shuffles; disappears.

~ Jolt. Train made up, mixed. Engine hisses, wafting steam. Moon sets

~ 0430: Tattoo of station gong. Branch train leaves, curving towards the east. Magellan’s cloud ahead, then side on. Engine wafts a sausage of smoke across them. Fireflies dancing over paddy fields.

~ 0630: Karaikkal. Sun rising to the left. Resume coherent thought gradually.

Karaikkal, formerly French and still part of the state of Pondicherry, lay about a mile inland alongside a canalised estuary. From the station on the seawards side of the town one could see the lighthouse and hear the surf. The town itself was vaguely French-colonial, with straight rues, a small square with a residency building and an ornate red-plaster, Gothic church, but without the well-developed French quarter of Pondicherry town. Karaikkal station, too, was without the well-developed French flavour of that at Pondicherry. Its building was typical South Indian Railway while its track layout was complicated and neo-British, with stray dead-ends dead-ending off one another. Yet the locomotive shunting there, sending up straight white steam columns, did it not look like something off old postcard of some minor French line? For its little bent boiler nestled down between its driving wheels (0-6-0) while its inclined cylinders drove counterweight cranks outside its light plate frames. I for one had to peer closely at its builder’s plate before being convinced that it was a British – a North British – machine.

For the return to Peralam the train was again mixed, this time with the goods trucks behind the carriages, for that was more convenient at the junction. The light track ran almost straight across the paddy fields, with lineside posts recording the gradients meticulously – 1/250 against, 1/3000 against, the light grades of a delta as one goes inland. There were several wayside stops with name boards giving two alternative transliterations of the Tamil into Latin characters, the one English, the other French.

At Peralam the branch ended with a bay platform and a cross-over onto the main north-south line from Mayuram to Karaikkudi, the line formerly owned by the Tanjore District Board but operated by the South Indian Railway. Statistically, this was a line 127 miles long with 38 stations en route; allowing five minutes for an average station stop it was not surprising that trains took eight or nine hours for the journey. These slow services were the responsibility of ST class 2-6-4T’s, engines with small side tanks that provided little visual balance for their large rear bunkers. One of these now appeared with a northbound passenger approaching the platform in the reckless spirit of a suburban multiple unit and braking rapidly. It waited for people to run about, talk, load and unload, the men dressed in white and the women in colours, then was off up the straight to the next station. I was left with a half-hour wait before its counterpart came down; this was time enough to eat a rice cake or two and drink a glass of coffee while leaning against the refreshment-stall counter (washing hands carefully before and after at the tap provided); and to listen to the insects making noise in the trees and to the syncopated exhaust of the Karaikkal engine shunting.

When No. 635 down appeared it was not full; a hard wooden window seat was there waiting for me, lightly sprinkled with black grit of soot. We were given time enough to board, then the ritual: hitting of the station gong (a bit of old rail), SM’s green flag and whistle, guard’s green flag and whistle, locomotive’s endorsement. Like many Indian metre gauge engines this ST had a high pitched whistle which was overblown, which was all too easily done, simple screeched impotence. Yet, though poorly whistled, the engine could hiss, clank, plink and plonk to perfection and proved it as we travelled southwards over the paddy fields.

No. 635 down spent only 20 minutes at Tiruvarur, which is not long for such a complex place. Here the north-south Mayuram-Karaikkudi line crossed the west-east from Thanjavur to Nagapattinam and Nagore. Since this latter was part of the original (and originally broad gauge) line of the Great Southern of India Railway, the station layout was on the east-west alignment. It consisted mainly of a great island platform with two scissors crossovers giving four faces, the two on the north side for use by north-south trains and the two on the south for east-west. Here several times a day, of which 1130 was one, a grand four train cross took place, with each train spending a quarter of an hour while its engine cut off and took water and perhaps shunted through carriages from train to train. Meanwhile people changing trains would hustle and scurry about and those merely waiting for their train to continue would stretch their legs, buy fruit and tiffin and little brass tumblers of tea and perhaps pay respects at the small shrine beside the Non-Vegetarian Stall.

While No. 635 waited one could look at the east-west trains. Though they were also composed of old wooden stock, and when on the road were satisfied with an agricultural clunk-clunk speed, they were hauled by tender engines – B class goods 4-6-0’s and, more recently, the YL 2-6-2. Eastwards they went to Nagapattinam, the old Grand Southern terminus, where the former railway workshops are now derelict but where the old train shed remains intact. Despite its solidity, this station office had the air of temporary-become-permanent; it was scarcely ornate enough for the terminus of a nineteenth-century railway company. But in any case it was no longer the terminus. Curving sharply between the foundations of the lighthouse and the street, the line avoided the lighter-wharves on the creek and continued north along the sand dunes for several miles, running within sight of the sea. Its final buffer stops were on the bank of an islet, with the sea to one side and the peculiar pagoda-minarets of the Muslim shrine of Nagore on the other.

Until recently there were other wonders to be seen at Tiruvarur, for example, an ancient-looking 4-4-0 with outside cylinders, frames and cranks waiting at the head of a ballast train of black, low-sided four-wheel trucks. This engine, of class O, was built in 1920 – Oh, the formidable conservatism of the British! Until 1967 a close relative of this class worked the shuttle on the Nidamangalam – Mannargudi line, which branched from the east-west track half-way from Tiruvarur to Thanjavur. This E class locomotive was a 4-4-4T with an extended coal bunker but no side tanks. Along with two carriages, it was always ready waiting beside a shelterless earthen platform at Nidamangalam, reached At One’s Own Risk by crossing a yard of deviously connected loops. In motion down its eight mile branch the E had an Avonsidish chesty puff much gentler than the hissings of its successors in South India.

At 1140 No. 635 passenger continued southwards to Tiruturaipundi, there to terminate after an hours journey. This was the junction for Point Calimere. I suspect that this branch was built because the Englishman like watching birds at the Point and liked to reach it comfortably, not that that is exactly possible any more, since all the branch trains are now third class only. In any case their connections at Tiruturaipundi could have been better timed; I was left with a four hour wait before I could leave for the Point. But there was food to be sampled in the Vegetarian Light Refreshment Room, and good it was; there were notices to read in front of the stationmaster’s office (mostly about Purchase and Removal of Locomotive Ash, though there was one which listed the species and number of all trees growing on railway land between Mayuram and Karaikkudi); while best of all the carriage set I had come in stayed at No. 3 platform so that I could lie down on a seat and doze.

In due course the branch train arrived from Point Calimere and stopped at the middle one of Tiruturaipundi’s three platforms. Reserved for the ST-and-four-cars that worked the branch, this platform track was ballasted only with sand, for sand was the key to the character of the Point Calimere line. When the evening down train left, the third and last service for the day, it set out across the sandy edges of the Tanjore Delta, country too much on the fringe for any irrigation water to reach it, and too porous for irrigation to be of much use any way. The track had sunk deeply into its sand ballast which muffled the impact of the rail joints, steadied the sway of the carriages and stirred in the wind of our passage. Some of it got caught under the wheels as we passed – the rails behind us were dusty with crushed grains. As we approached the sea the sandiness increased till the bunds between the fields became miniature dunes stabilised by succulent plants and lines of palms. Eventually, around Vedaranniyam, a township with an ancient temple, the cultivators gave up and the railway ran embankd over saltings.

For these last few miles the train travelled due south, with the sea to the left and the Vedaranniyam salt pans to the right, and beyond them the sunset. By full daylight these pans were a white and black wilderness; white salt and black bunds, black brine storage pools and black balancing poles for lifting brine from the pools to the pans; but now with the sun red and the salt pink, why, were not the balancing poles like cormorants watchful over a shining, desert sea?

Yet then a dark, tangled scrub of thorns closed about the train – the top of the sand dune that forms Point Calimere. The southern tip of the dune was a flat square mile of stabilised grey sand heavy with the mixed aroma of salt sea and growing plug tobacco. There, with shelving, dissolving littoral ahead and to left and to right, lay Point Calimere station. The ST used the equilateral turnout to run round for its journey back to Tiruturaipundi while I had a swim in this calm, warm corner of the Bay of Bengal; took tiffin at a small café and slept in the large station waiting hall. The hall was built to accommodate those who came for a ritual swim on certain lunar nights. For my lack of much company I gathered that I was not receiving any major astrological benefits by my visit.

The train came back next morning, having left the junction before sunrise. Even at this, the pleasantest hour of the morning, Point Calimere station was sleepy, so the ST train ran round quietly to return me to Tiruturaipundi. There it made a rapid connection with No. 135 down Karaikkudi Passenger, a train which, ST and six carriages, was not much different from the branch set I had just left. Most of the way to Karaikkudi we steamed across paddy fields, but at one place we skirted tidal flats and creeks while towards our destination the country changed.

This was the beginning of Ramnad, the land made sacred when the god Rama tarried there on his way to Ceylon, and a singularly unprepossessing land too. Its red lateritic rises were barren apart from a dwarf thorny scrub; its tanks were dry and its irrigated fields meagre. Here, on a gently sloping natural pavement of red ironstone pebbles two railways had encountered one another, the Tanjore District Board line (prolonged this far only after Independence) and the Indo-Ceylon main line heading from Trichy towards Rameswaram. Since Karaikkudi had become a junction only recently, its layout was spacious. On a rise a mile away the double storeyed building of a new polytechnic (this unpromising district was the home of a caste of bankers who had endowed their native place) justified the bus that met all trains.

At Karaikkudi I had a two hour wait, one hour till the southbound Trichy-Manamadurai railcar arrived and the northbound Mayuram passenger left, and one hour till the railcar waited time. As an Australian come to India, I had missed the railcar sadly; after all, rail motors of various kinds have served my native country for sixty or seventy years. India had never used them very much – a few on narrow gauge and now some Australian cars on broad gauge and these few Japanese on metre. It is partly that Indian passenger loads are usually enough to fill a train, but still there are districts where a rail car service at greater frequency would help in meeting bus competition. The failure to provide it has in part resulted from concentration on more pressing needs, but also derives from the British tradition, for Britain was not converted to the railcar till after she had left India. But perhaps the new light motor train built in the Eastern Railway workshops for the Burdwan - Katwa line, using indigenous bus engines, may be a portent of things to come.

As for the present railcar, it had a pressed metal body tucked inwards into its frame, painted carriage-brown with a dull cream band and enclosing a saloon with 70 hard wooden third-class seats. It was operated coupled back-to-back with a second car. Going to Manamadurai it buzzed along merrily enough, though with a full load of villagers and villagers’ baggage aboard, it was somewhat sluggish even on gentle rises. Worse than this, though not relevant to this trip, was that these railcars, despite their being timetabled for light duties, seemed to break down a lot, getting replaced by a sprightly combination of YP and three carriages.

Since this Manamadurai which I reached after sunset had no especial provision for spending the night, either at the station or in the town, I took the connecting local to Madurai itself, returning the following morning in time to catch the Rameswaram Express after it had come overnight from Madras.

Reaching Manamadurai the Express exchanged its Pacific for the YL 2-6-2 which had brought the connecting local from Madurai. The straight track ahead was sleepily undulating, crossing country sufficiently wetted by the summer thunderstorms to be scruffily green, yet without any water in its tanks or in its patches of paddy field. In addition to pilgrims bound for Rameswaram, the train carried a payload of brightly-dressed, loudly-talking village women making their trips to market – for it was an express for fare-table purposes only. Thus we rolled down to Ramanathapuram, the largest town hereabouts, whose name would translate into American as Ramalord City. This township lay on the border between the last despairing paddy fields and the sand dunes of a low peninsula of India jutting out towards Ceylon.

If, after traveling a long flat run out of sight of hills, one strikes a low swell in the ground, that swell looks impressive. But surveyor’s pegs are honest, so let them correct the impression; the gradient of the hill we attacked side-on leaving Ramanathapuram was just 1/1000. Yet this old dune country was different from what had gone before. Though there were occasional patches of closely cropped grass, the sand was uncultivated, being left mainly to bushes with murderous, brittle spikes of weathered grey and to palmyras whose little spiky topknots were sufficient to shade the whole of their dark trunks, for by now the sun was vertical.

On either side of this sandbank of a peninsula the old, stable dunes sloped away into the sea. We saw the Bay of Bengal first, green-grey and still, with a lagoon beside us where men were wading about to net fish, then climbed a little to find the Gulf of Mannar to our right, along with the railway dockyard installed to look after the Indo-Ceylon steamer. From 1915 to 1965 the railway ran the steamer between Dhanushkodi Pier, projecting from India, and Talaimannar, where it connected with the Ceylon broad-gauge for Colombo. In 1965 a cyclone washed Dhanushkodi Pier away, and because of the weakening of the Empire and of demand for an Indo-Ceylon service, it has not been replaced. Instead, the Shipping Corporation of India runs a bi-weekly boat from Rameswaram to Talaimannar, a service, incidentally, not very well timed to connect with Indian trains; meanwhile the railway dockyard was using its equipment to look after the bogies of waggons.

Mandapam lay almost at the tip of the peninsula, an unsheltered and windy flat, though the summer breeze was gentle and did no more than rattle the palmyras. This was the end of the road, and the tourist buses whose cargoes were visiting Rameswaram were parked in the station yard. It was also the end of the road for the YG class, which was too heavy for the Pamban viaduct; one of them was parked along with several YL’s at the loco shed.

Released by the station gong, the Express freewheeled down to the tip of the peninsula, passing an old temple (one swore one could smell the bats) and so on to the Pamban bridge. Being over a mile long, the viaduct had well nigh 150 spans. Under them the green tide ran quite strongly over a confused mixture of reefs and concrete blocks, including the remnants of some of the girders that had been blown into the sea during the 1965 cyclone. Since then a wind gauge has been installed at the midpoint of the viaduct, but this noonday its two contrary pairs of cups were circulating but languidly. The train crossed in the same mood – slowly, with special respect to the lift spans of the ship channel. The counterweights of these Schulzer spans were housed in towers over the tracks, with little winding houses beside; such was the portal to a holy, sandy island.

Round a bend onto land and the track was pointed straight at Dhanushkodi and the end of India. But after Pamban station the Express turned aside onto a branch-become-main and crossed the corner of the island. The bare sand dunes, the unexpected glassy hollows and the dark trunked palms both coconut and palmyra combined under the strong sunlight to make scenery with the unreal three-dimensional look of a stereoscopic photograph.

Even so mundane a place as Rameswaram station contrived to look more than real: with its dead-end sidings for holding pilgrim specials and its sandiness it hearkened back to something British; it was a tropical version of All Hallows on Sea. But here people came, not for the sea itself, but to see a God.

And now, having participated in the ancient Indian tradition of travel from one end of the country to the other, is it not fitting to stop at a place of pilgrimage, a magic island without road access, where the god in the temple looks endlessly out to sea and knows it is the end of his country?