The 16-coach express drifted gently to a halt in the long platforms of Kanniyakumari station in the state of Tamil Nadu, pulling past the Pilgrim’s Kitchen, up to the row of STOP signs at the platform head that marked the southern extremity of India’s vast rail network, barely a mile from the southern extremity of India itself, the southern tip where the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea finally come together. This was the end of the Jayanti Janta Express’ three-day journey from the gothic glories of Mumbai’s former Victoria Terminus, but I was an interloper, hopping aboard for just the last 127 kilometers of its 2,100 plus kilometer odyssey. The pantry car had long since closed and even the normally ubiquitous chai-wallah had made just one desultory trip down the train. By the time we reached Kanniyakumari, just a handful of passengers remained in the air-conditioned coaches.
I had hopped aboard the Jayanti Janta at Varkala, a quiet, white-sand-and-red-cliff Keralan seaside resort where I had slept off the jetlag and adjusted to the near 30-degree heat. Two days earlier, I had flown down the Euphrates valley and the Gulf, the route seemingly marked by the flaming beacons of oil and gas flares, pausing briefly at the Qatari capital of Doha, one of the group of city-states who have added further wealth to that which oozes from their ground by re-inventing themselves as twenty-first century caravansaries of the air for travellers from Europe to the Asian east. Beyond Doha, the smaller plane picked its way cautiously over the wall of thunderstorms seemingly guarding the Indian coast, which stained the cloud-bank below yellow, passing over the tiny sea-ridge outcrop islands of the Lakshadweep archipelago, the lights of its few houses flickering bravely amid the dark nothingness of the Arabian Sea, 200 miles from the Indian shore.
Everyone promises you a culture shock when you land in India. They clearly never landed at Thiruvananthapuram, a city that everyone – other than airlines and railways – still calls by its pre-1991 name of Trivandrum. The only oddity, leaving this somnolent modern airport in the pre-dawn, was the vast, silent crowd waiting outside the door for arriving passengers, who parted just as silently to let me through. No touts, no overly-enthusiastic taxi-drivers. It was almost disappointing. I walked through the quiet streets to a little suburban railway station at Pettah that I had picked out on the map as being within easy reach. It was the morning after the election night before in Kerala, among the first states to vote in the general election, the streets and houses still adorned with posters and flags, overwhelmingly bearing either the sickle-and-corn of the locally dominant communist party (Kerala was, in 1957, the first place ever to democratically elect a communist government and has been doing so on-and-off ever since) or the floral logo of the BJP. Big bundles of newspapers were being delivered to cafés and shops along the main road, men sitting cross-legged on the roadsides patiently cutting open the rope-tied packages.
Trivandrum Pettah station may have been small, but it came fully equipped, in its red-tiled house, with station master, booking office and light vegetarian refreshment room. Monkeys chirruped in the palm trees all around; would-be passengers dozed leaning on the wooden barriers of the booking office, waiting for last-minute ‘Taktal’ long-distance tickets to go on sale at 8am, wadges of notes at the ready for this competitive sport; the platforms were industriously swept by men with brush brooms, while others studied the early editions studiously on the station benches. My own short-distance ticket easily procured, the refreshment room supplied a bargain breakfast of puri and dahl as the light slowly appeared in the sky.
The hour’s journey north up the coast to Varkala was undertaken in the open doorway of sleeper class on the Punalur-bound Passenger (i.e. stopping) train, alongside schoolchildren hopping a few stops up the line to classes and bleary-eyed travellers who had spent the night crawling around every wayside halt in India’s southern tip. Out of the city fringes and into the rural heart of Kerala, the communist logo became still more frequent, whole villages swathed in the red flags left over from polling day. At each station and halt, the Trivandrum-bound platforms teemed with leather-satchel-carrying men and with women – often carrying bundles of plantain or wood on their heads – in every colour of sari possible, awaiting the packed southbound stopper. At Kochuvali, the first introduction to the staple of travel on slow Indian trains – the long wait in the loop while the be-garlanded Chennai Express overtook us, blasting through the centre track as passengers alighting from our train nonchalantly crossed in front. With the express gone, the interminable, breathless station announcements restarted, merging with the loudspeakers of a neighbouring political rally, until our engine mournfully hooted, a few dalliers hurriedly reboarded, the guard showed his green flag and we creaked up off the line again.
The line curved through palm plantations, over lilly-choked rivers and forested lakes, coconuts stored in the water in circular enclosures, wisps of diesel smoke in the morning air from the loco ten coaches up front. At Verkala, a white Ambassador taxi swept me through the narrow, twisting lanes, honking on each corner, past the bustling temple and its pool to a cliff-top guesthouse hidden in the trees, the drumming and flutes from the temple drifting upwards from far below, replaced when it paused for breath by the bleating of local goats. From the guesthouse, precipitous steps wound down the verdant red cliffs to the smooth sand below, scattered with deep red boulders, full of air holes and with the consistency of cement. Even on a calm day, fierce breakers rolled over the steep sand – and with the water at 18 degrees, a wonderful temperature to paddle in and to feel the sand sucked powerfully from beneath my feet as the sea rushed out again. Tiny crabs scuttled in front of the waves, disappearing neatly into sandholes as the water approached. This was where the sub-continent’s signature red earth, which Gandhi and others so frequently eulogised as a symbol of Mother India, met the ocean.
Scrambling over an artificial rock barrier at a headland took me from near-empty beaches populated only by a handful of bikini-clad Europeans and pasty Englishmen losing at beach cricket to local kids, to an area of sand bustling with Indians, some demurely paddling with saris hiked to mid-calf, others performing a scattering of ashes into the sea after last rites had been performed at the temple up the road. The temple itself sat on a hill, its inner sanctums closed to non-believers, but the whole area bustled as preparations for a festival two days hence took hold, first the reading of vedas relayed by loudspeaker, which then evolved into the performance of ragas, almost hallucinatory in their repetivity amid the heat of midday. Below the hill was the temple’s huge, picturesquely decrepit and overgrown bathing pool, busy with men immersing themselves on the open ghats and women queuing to enter their screened-off section, An unpromising dingy entrance led to a bamboo-roof shaded terrace overlooking the pool for an excellent south Indian thali, the spices tempered with the liberal use of coconut.
As dusk fell, no fewer than four falcons dueled over the guesthouse garden and the cliffs, while the sizeable fleet of tiny rowed fishing boats set out from the neighbouring beach to cast their nets just offshore in the gathering gloom. One-by-one, each boat’s lights were lit, tiny pinpricks on a sea turning from gun-metal to rose as the sun set, the dark revealing, on the horizon, the lights of far greater flotillas of off-shore fishing boats, resembling a great city stretching silently across the western horizon.
On the first floor of Kanniyakumari’s echoing station, I woke the sleeping retiring room attendant and acquired a room in exchange for the princely sum of £2.50 and – for the first of many times – the supplying of every detail of my life to date on a carbon copied form. The room was basic, but had a fan, clean en-suite facilities and a view over the station’s booking hall, crammed with sleeping pilgrims and waking men in Nehru hats. As a bonus, the room had no fewer than sixteen light switches, which many would consider a slight overkill for a room with just one lightbulb.
Wandering towards the sea, among the dusty backstreets I came across a square dominated by the most astonishing white wedding-cake of a church, named Our Lady of the Ransom, with shrines set all around the square, the church’s spires towering high over the low surrounding houses. A place of Hindu pilgrimage it may be, but Kanniyakumari wore its multi-faith heritage on its sleeve. Beyond the church were brightly-painted, multi-coloured fishermen’s houses, narrow lanes leading down to the beach where, drawn up on the sand, were tens of traditional wooden fishing boats, in bright blue and many feet long, for the most part newly built after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out most of the fleet here, along with 250 people killed in the town. And a few hundred meters away across the water was the striking sight of Kanniyakumari’s twin islands of Pitru and Matru, topped to the left by the domes of a mandir commemorating Hindu reformer Vivikenanda and to the right by a forty-meter high statue of Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar, who is believed to have meditated on these rocky outcrops. The tiny islets were the true southern point of India.
The ferry terminal was the usual Indian riot of Notices (I decided early on, that because the notices involved much capitalisation and were Very Important Indeed, that Notices in the Indian context should be capitalised), which would have taken far longer than the short ferry crossing to read. The general rule: if there is something that under some obscure set of circumstances someone might need to know – put it on a Notice. Trilingually, naturally (in Hindi, the local state language – Malayalam or Tamil this far south – and English). More often than not the Notices would be hand-painted, with a remarkable uniformity of typeface achieved, regardless of the alphabet in use, whether you were in Tamil Nadu or Kashmir. India is a nation of Notices and Indians a people who therefore ignore Notices. If it said ‘No Photography’, out came the cameras and iPads; ‘Keep Silence’, everyone talked; ‘Registered Capacity: 150’ was simply a challenge as to how far you could exceed it. And I couldn’t help but wonder when the last time anyone wrote anything in the complaints books whose locations were advertised without fail by Notices in every office, shop, restaurant, hotel, auto-rickshaw and train. Complaints in the sub-continent are very much made verbally.
Ferry ticket purchased, an official of the Poompuhar Shipping Company Ltd tore a big hole in it, we all shuffled to the end of a corridor where another official tore a smaller hole, in case we’d managed to smuggle someone into the tightly sealed corridor. We then sat in a long crocodile, until a third official, ignoring the enthusiasm of the half-naked devotees on their way to the Vivikenanda memorial, languidly opened a gate and let everyone down to the quay. Being the last permitted through, I missed out on the lifejackets that everyone was donning, which were so old and bulky they had probably last seen use in filming Titanic, and looked like they’d be more hindrance than help if the rusty, wallowing ferries came to grief. Once aboard, everyone studiously ignored the Notices telling us not to stand or take photographs and off we chugged to the larger, mandir-topped island of Pitru.
Relived of a further 20p for admission and also relieved of my shoes for reasons of religious correctness, I tiptoed up the baking basalt steps to the memorial’s courtyard, further steps guarded by gleaming, polished black elephant sculptures. Corridors of white paint had been applied to the rock to provide cooler pathways for the barefoot to the key points of interest.
These did not include the most southerly point of India, a location I had to work out for myself with the help of a Google Maps printout and a carved compass in the memorial courtyard. Once I found it, there was of course a Notice. It told me that ‘The Place Beyond The Railings Is Out Of Bounds For Visitors’ and that ‘Ladies Latrines’ were to the left. In fact, the true southerly point of the nation may have been just beyond the sign marked ‘Ladies Only’, in which case I can only apologise for my lack of completeness (the strict truth, and possibly the reason why so little is made of the spot is that the Indian-owned Nicobar Islands, hundreds of miles away across the Indian Ocean stretch further south, but these are mainly inaccessible, particularly to non-Indian travellers). Regardless, it was a fine spot, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meeting seamlessly, fishing boats with deep blue sails scudding across the small, lighter blue waves. In either direction, the palm-fringed shores of the mainland curved away towards the north, the Tamil Nadu shore studded with wind turbines. The cliff below the mandir housed a row of bookshops hewn out as little caves, neatly numbered from one to seven. Numbers 2 and 5 were carefully marked out as ‘Bookshop (Novelty)’, in case anyone should accidentally stray into one of those seeking a devotional work.
Back on the boat for the thirty-second trip to the neighbouring islet of Matru, I submitted to wearing a lifejacket and felt inordinately silly in it. Up another flight of basalt steps, shoes off again, then round and round inside the Thiruvalluvar statue’s cool, dark base to emerge on hot marble at the viewing platform by the saint’s oversize feet, for another exceptional view of the town, coast and Pitru.
Here the ‘to-do’ thing was to place your smallest child next to the statues big toe for photographic purposes, ignoring the ‘No Climbing On The Statue’ Notice. It made no difference that this Notice was enforced by a man with a whistle. Returning through the statue’s base, you passed numerous examples of Thuruvalluvar’s wisdom, which included tips on how a fox was more useful than a war elephant if fighting in a quagmire; and the advisability of double-sourcing all your intelligence findings.
Returning to the mainland, Kanniyakumari’s sea front boasted a strong contender for India’s ugliest temple, a vast, featureless concrete block decked out in candy-rock stripes, not that hugely befitting, perhaps, for the spot where some of Gandhi’s ashes rested before they were scattered into the two seas. Nevertheless, the temple’s forecourt was, as usual, the centre of life and commerce, the place to buy a delicious sharp under-ripe mango spiced with chilli, along with a cup of chai, the latter from a man whose chai-mobile was a bicycle that primarily consisted of rust.
Beyond the temple was Kanniyakumari’s headland and a few tiny, but immensely popular beaches, with large breakers surging over their protecting reefs. The commercial photographers doing a roaring trade along the beaches and promenade must surely be praying devoutly that the selfie does not reach Indian shores anytime soon.
Below the truly awful tsunami memorial – a stylised blue wave – was a little pagoda-like structure where crowds began to gather on the tip of India, to watch the sun set into the Arabian Sea while the moon simultaneously rose out of the Bay of Bengal, directly over Thiruvalluvar’s head. For the first time in India, someone begged money from me – a small girl carrying her still smaller brother; the most grinding poverty is well disguised in rural southern India. Moments later, a lady named Gita entrusted me with her tray of hairpins while she went to buy chai, having obviously judged that I was both an unlikely customer for or purloiner of her wares. In the end, the angle of the April sun was such that it ended up setting into a waterslide rather than the sea, but it hardly spoiled what can only be described as the serene freneticism of the scene.
After a paneer dopiaza in a hotel-that-is-really-just-a-restaurant (a common feature across India), I meandered through the fishing quarter, gazing over to the floodlit islands beyond the twinkling coloured lights of the beached fishing boats. In the backstreets, meals were being prepared, children played in the alleys, chickens were being plied with scraps and men sat in circles under the trees, playing cards or mending nets.
At lighted shrines to the Virgin, groups of women, saris over their heads, knelt and chanted, while the evening service at Our Lady of the Ransom was being relayed throughout the quarter on loudspeakers, a contrast to Varkala’s broadcast ragas. The service must have been overflowing on this Saturday evening, as devotees knelt in the square outside the church as well as inside, auto-rickshaws weaving their way around them. It all made for a fine evening stroll, barring the attractive stray dog who adopted me – belying its calm exterior, it soon became apparent that I was its human shield, allowing it to start vicious, unprovoked attacks on less mobile neighbouring dogs. Eventually I lost it through a ruse involving buying mineral water and a long wait for change (there is a conflict between rapidly spreading ATMs, none of which dole out any denomination of note below 500 rupees, and a hatred on the part of retaillers of any note of greater value than 50 rupees). Dog-less, I retired to my retiring room, safe in the knowledge that while my train to begin the journey north was at stupid-o-clock, it would be leaving from the bottom of the stairs.
At 5:30am, a single headlight illuminated the tracks into the platform as the locomotive dragged in the coaches that would form the Jayanti Janta Express to Mumbai, causing some of the sleeping huddles on the platform, camped around their belongings, to stir. The reservation-less raced for the single General class coach which was immediately filled to overflowing, while the remained of us sauntered up the platform, past the pantry car where kitchen hands, stripped to the waist, were already labouring over huge pans. A young lady in a bright turquoise sari halted by each door, first applying a liberal helping of paste to the carriage side, then affixing the three computer-printed sheets detailing the allocation of each berth in that coach throughout the three-day journey. How a reservation system based on sticking pieces of paper to the outside of trains that travel at (relatively) high speeds through monsoon, wind and searing heat has survived is anyone’s guess, but ‘modernisation’ would be the end of the line for the job of the the young lady in the bright turquoise sari.
There was my name, in English and Hindi, my age and gender, beside berth 23 in two-tier air conditioned, booked in far-away Wembley by the remarkable Dr Dandpani of SD Enterprises (Indian Railway Agents for the UK, Ireland, North America and Australasia) – the exact seat I had been allocated when I travelled from Varkala yesterday. At least I could check if that mouldering apple core had been removed (it had).
Within moments of starting – bang on time at 5:45 – round came my first cup of 7 rupee Indian Railway chai. As we rattled up the branch line towards Nagercoil Junction, the volcanic hills that form Kanniyakumari’s backdrop began to emerge against the dawn light, alongside the closer fronds of palm thickets.
We were named as an Express, but in a country where every train, no matter how lowly, has a name, that was no great shakes. At the bottom of the pile came the Passenger trains, which despite calling religiously at every single station and tree, would still cover huge distances, often extremely slowly indeed. Then there were the unadorned Expresses, which would have some air-conditioned coaches and miss at least a few of the stations. Above them were the handful of remaining Mail trains. And further up the scale came a huge and often un-discernable range of other expresses: Super-Fasts, which allegedly averaged more than 80km/h, Garib Raths, which wonderfully translates as ‘poor man’s chariot’, and provides cheap, fast three-tier air conditioned travel; Shatabdis (meaning ‘centenary’ and introduced to mark the 100th birthday of Nehru) which are very-fast day-time trains; Jan Sahatabdis, cheaper versions of the above (‘jan’ means ‘peoples”); Rajdhanis, fast over-night trains; and theoretically at the top of the pile, the Durontos, translating as ‘restless’ and travelling huge-distances supposedly non-stop, right up to the near 3,000km from Delhi to Ernakulam. The upshot of all this being, that almost whatever class of train you are travelling on, there’s another with priority over yours breathing down its neck, with priority over you at the next loop.
Barely had we picked up our heels than the Jayanti Janta Express ground to a halt among the many sleeping rakes of coaches at Nagercoil Junction, before we took off again up India’s west coast mainline, past fields of stubble grazed by endless herds of goats, overlooked by sharp volcanic peaks. Round came the travelling ticket examiner (or TTE to his friends, of whom he has many, especially when someone wants to board a supposedly full train or upgrade out of General class) in white trousers that shone, starched with creases that almost crackled as he proceeded down the carriage, examining tickets minutely and marking off hos own version of the reservation sheets by the door with pen and ruler.
Through the early morning forests and plantations of the western extremities of Tamil Nadu we went, honking through the smaller villages, pausing briefly at the slightly larger ones under the huge yellow signs giving their names in English, flat-topped Hindi and curly Malaysam. When we stopped, old men brushing their teeth on platform benches would pause, brush in mouth, to stare at the two-tone blue coaches in front of them, as though a train was the last thing they expected to interrupt their morning rituals. Kulitturai, where we waited for fifteen minutes to cross a trainload of cement on the single line, boasted a Combined Tea and Fruit Stall and mynah birds hopping about on the platform. Orders were taken for breakfast, and within what seemed like seconds, the pantry car had rustled me up a pretty passable massala dosa, complete with coconut sambar in little tinfoil bags, accompanied by another chai – the chai wallah was now a familiar face, though it took determination to stop him as he hurtled breakneck along his rounds, seemingly mainly set on getting from one end of the train to the other in record time rather than selling any of the stuff.
Beyond Parassala we re-entered Kerala, immediately noticeable from the sudden emergence of sickle-and-corn and hammer-and-sickle emblems on homes and shops, though the election posters were slowly disappearing. Trivandrum came upon us stealthily, the density of houses among the trees growing slowly, the occasional bit of BJP grafitti, unknown in rural areas, a handful of half-finished tower blocks breaking the general Keralan rule of not building above tree-top height. A lengthy crawl and we entered Central station, early, all our delay from the single track having none-too-mysteriously disappeared – Britain clearly exported the concept of timetable padding along with the railways themselves. Soon after, we were passing the familiar low tiled roof and Vegetarian Light Refreshment Room at Pettah and onto the run towards Varkala. I stood at the open door, watching the lush, watery landscape slip past at 80mph, until the on-train engineer whose sole responsibility appeared to be to keep the two air-conditioned cars cool asked me to move so he could get to the control cabinet.
North of Varkala, we swept past more lakes and through stations, each with the stationmaster/duty stationmaster/deputy stationmaster smartly presenting a green flag to the Express. Before long we were crawling round an unfeasibly sharp curve into Kollam Junction, round the back of shacks and bungalows, egrets grazing with calfs among the litter and auto-rickshaws, parked up awaiting their next shift. One, it seemed was preparing to transport a four-foot tall silver Ganesh that was sitting on the back seat. Beyond Kollam, the forests became denser and stretched further into the distance, interspersed with water and occasional patches of irrigated farming plots, each divided up by little channels into squares, the smallholder’s house sitting in the centre of each square. We reached sleepy Kayamkulam Junction, where the line to Ernakulam divides to run either side of Vembanadu Lake, the Jayanti Janta veering right on the inland route towards Kottayam.
The ‘Express’ was now stopping at almost every station, little sun-baked places among the palmed trees. The lush green of the paddy fields was now interspersing the forests, dotted with the white specks of egrets and the dark hulks of water buffalo. To underline our new lowly status, we were held for quarter of an hour in Mavelikara (‘Indian Food Corporation: Providing India with Food Security’) to be overtaken by another Mumbai-bound train, a Garib Rath Express, in a flash of green coaches and diesel fumes. Up chalked the delays, more and more leisurely became the stops and by the time I hopped off into the heat of Changassery, a station that looked set to disappear at any moment under the sheer quantity of lush vegetation, we were the best part of an hour late.