…. and from the Malabar Coast to the Coromandel Coast. The Anantapuram Express pulled out of Thiruvannanthapuram station at 4.30 in the afternoon, twenty minutes late, and headed south west to Nagercoil Junction, a little short of the southern most point of the sub continent, before swooping back north east through the famous temple cities of Madurai and Tirruchchirappalli towards Chennai on the Bay of Bengal 16 hours or so later. We had tickets as far as Chengalpattu, an hour short of Chennai, the best on offer in 2nd Class AC sleeper, 699rps for Lynne and, inexplicably, 833rps for me.
For the the first four hours of the journey the carriage was half empty and quiet but at Tirunelveli everything changed. Suddenly we were surrounded by clamour and bustle as the train filled up. In the compartment opposite the two young people sitting there were joined by three generations of a family who squeezed themselves into the two remaining seats. Babies screamed, men shouted into mobile phones, passengers argued or called farewell to relatives out on the platform. Bulky cases and cardboard boxes tied up with ropes piled up in the crowded gangways where passengers attempted to reach their seats, some with suitcases and bags and some with the food they had stepped out on the platform to buy. Food sellers with bags of samosas and foil containers of rice and sambar, and chai wallahs with portable urns of hot milky chai, squeezed through the mayhem, keen to make their sales and be off before the train departed.
If this was second class where everyone ought to have a reserved sleeper, goodness knows what it was like further down the train.
But just as suddenly, everything resolved itself. The guard sent two generations of the family – along with the screaming baby – off down the train somewhere leaving granny and grandad to sit cross legged on the seat eating idlis and sambar, the gangways miraculously cleared, bags and boxes were crammed under seats, people began to make up their couchettes with the sheets and coarse blanket provided. Granny and grandad each donned a modish headscarf cum nightcap, curtains were drawn and lights were dimmed and soon there was nothing but quiet conversation, a soft belch and gentle snoring from behind the curtain opposite where grandad was now sleeping, the rumble of the wheels and the mournful hooting of the train’s whistle as we moved through the dark countryside towards Chennai.
We pulled into Chengalpattu Junction the following morning just as the sun was coming up and took a tuk tuk to Mammalapuram, 600 rps for the 45 minute drive, checked in to the Mammalpuram Heritage and took breakfast – idlis, sambur, vada, chutni, tea and coffee – and set out to explore.