November 6, 2009

Dream Run

India Today Travel Plus has a November '09 issue highlighting railway journeys. I have an essay in there, about travelling the Konkan Railway route south along the coast from Bombay into Kerala.

Appended below. Any comments, as always, welcome.


At Panvel station, where my train stops on its clickety-clackety path south, there are three poles near one end of the platform. By the light of a solitary bulb, I see that one has a sign that's bent and twisted. As if someone has been bashing it purposefully. The sign says "Please Be in Que". I imagine someone got sick of being in Que and wanted to get out. Or perhaps what he really wanted was to be in queue. And to express his frustration, he pummeled the Que sign.

Reminds me of a Tshirt I used to have. It had several sheikhs on it, and it said "Aap Qatar mein hai; You are in Q." (If you don't follow, you betray your youth. Get some old fogey like me to explain trunk calls).

But this is, of course, not about my Tshirt, but about Panvel station. Yet this train of thought -- forgive the pun -- is a reminder of why the railway means such charm. If you simply keep your eyes open, there are thought trains everywhere. I'm on a leisurely ride down the coast through Karnataka and Kerala. The track trails through truly lovely country: hills to the east, glimpses of the sea to the west, palm and paddy all the way. And yet on this trip I am reminded again of something I've come to understand through years of train travel: the scenery is almost secondary. It's the little things, the nondescript sights, that give the journey romance.

Like this beaten-up sign on a pole at Panvel station. Incidentally, the second pole has a plastic bag hanging from it, stuffed with several loaves of bread. The third has seven gleaming silver locks attached. And then we've left Panvel and I'm wondering who or what hangs bread and locks from poles.

Early next morning, we are jolted awake by loud calls of "Murdeshwar! Murdeshwar!" We are pulling into that town, but it is before 6 am. Why do the two men alighting here need to alert the whole compartment to their departure? But they do, and are off the train before I can comprehend what's happening. Trying to sit up, I bang my head on the middle berth.

But over the next half hour, as I rub my aching head, as the train moves through this coastal stretch of Karnataka, as darkness turns to misty daylight, I'm grateful to the pair. For there's a certain "Swami and Friends" quality to what I see through the window. Mist everywhere. Paddy fields so passionately vivid green that my heart nearly stops in wonder. Dark-bodied but white-winged egrets in elegant flight. Palm trees, mango trees, tiled two-storey houses here and there. Streams silver-grey and clear as a mountain spring; I can see clear to the bottom as we rumble over.

Crossing a river, the rising sun silhouettes several bare-bodied men in boats, black sharp-cut shapes against the water, long poles spearing into the pink sky. A pair of drongos on a wire watches them closely. Then reality bites. On a small platform on the riverbank, carefully positioned so that the instrumental part of his anatomy overhangs the river, squats a bare-bottomed bald man.

I have to restrain myself from shouting: "Goooooood morniiiiiing Karnataka!"

Then we plunge into darkness again. A long tunnel, and as ever in long tunnels, a small cacophony of whistles ensues.

As soon as we emerge, there's a small squat square building, by itself in the middle of a field. In prominent letters just below the roof is the lone word "COMPUTERS". Nearby is a fenced-in compound, with "VISALAXI" carved on the gate. The bungalow there is wreathed in smoke, great huge clouds of it, seemingly static around it. If I didn't catch the fleeting aroma of something cooking, I'd think the place was on fire.

Perhaps the lonely COMPUTERS building belongs to the Moodalakatte Institute of Technology. It's a sign for this local MIT that alerts me to our arrival in the not-yet-bustling metropolis of Kundapura. At the station, my coach rolls to a stop next to whole banks of seats and benches, laid out neatly on the platform as if in an auditorium. Is this entertainment, Kundapura style? Do folks here dress in their finest, buy tickets and take a seat of an evening, watching trains parade past only feet away? When do they applaud, I wonder? If the train executes an especially elegant entry, or delectable departure?

At Mangalore, a large stone tablet is painted with these words and these words only: "550 miles from Madras." Just out of curiosity, I searched for a tablet that would tell me how many miles from -- why not? -- Johannesburg. No luck.

Sitting on a bench only feet from the Madras tablet is a slender young woman who, judging from the way she is dressed, is heading for nuptials. (Hers). But she looks distinctly woozy. Out of the blue, she rushes to the edge of the platform, her mother in tow. She throws up onto the track. She's bent over for a long time, gold jewelry dangling as she retches. Mother strokes her back gently, whispers in her ear.

I want to be flippant and say, "Come on, the guy can't be that bad, can he?" Sense prevails and again, I restrain myself.

Chugging into Kerala now, I notice something I never have before. (Gotta love the railways for that). You know how every bit of railway property is inventoried: sheds, platforms, coaches, everything. But get this, the railway also keeps track -- forgive the pun again -- of curves in the track. Every single curve, however gentle, begins with a small yellow sign something like this: "CURVE #19. L: 50.7. R: 1750. SE: 40. D: 2. KM 775".

So if I were you, I wouldn't be thinking of stealing any curves.

Suddenly, striding confidently along on the parallel track with no houses to be seen, is a tall girl in an orange and red salwar kameez. Taking the shortcut home from school? A short while later, I see a young man in an electric blue shirt tending green fields. I doze off, and when I wake some indeterminate time later, I see a young man in a blue shirt tending his green fields. How curious, I think, two identical scenes. The third time, reality penetrates. We are actually stopped at a tiny station, and it's the same young man in the same green field. We remain there, inexplicably, for over half an hour.

Speaking of gold ornaments, Kasaragod station has a massive hoarding for Malabar Gold ("Beauty Meets Quality"). It features a fetching portrait of Sania Mirza, decked out in gold and holding a case with more gold gee-gaws. It also features one of those multiple-chinned Malayalam film Lotharios, with a moustache large enough to hide mongooses in. He leers over Sania's shoulder and somehow it's enough to turn me off Malabar Gold altogether. Not quite an advertising triumph, let's say that.

At my destination, Thalassery, I find a hotel, shower and emerge to search for dinner. The End Point restaurant, sadly, is closed. Nevertheless, it announces that it is an associate of "Arabian Buns".

No idea what that is, but somehow it fits right in. Bread on the pole in Panvel, Arabian Buns in Thalassery. I could do this again.


  1. Lonesome Traveller.
    That's what this reminds me of.
    Lonesome Traveller. By Kerouac. Empty fields with a train in the distance. The landscape more real than humanity itself.
    What an amazing thing travel is, you don't just hop on a train or an aircraft- you go inside yourself too.
    You remember those lines from Shelter From The Storm? "Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there, with silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair"- its like the woman came up from nowhere, from an expanse of broken yellow. In here the women are dressed differently- one is a drunk bride, another's a faceless schoolgirl but its all the same.

  2. Thank you Orange Cat, for those connections! Especially with the young woman waking along the track, that's how I felt -- I've turned to look out the window in the middle of nowhere, and here's this girl walking along.

    What an amazing thing travel is, indeed!

  3. Mangalore was part of Southern Railway (HQ: Madras). Now, The SR, SWR and Konkan Railway meet here. The line south of Mangalore is part of SR and hence the Madras milestone.

  4. what a great post Dilip! I've always wanted to do this particular section of the Indian Railways; went up the length of Kerala till Shoranur a couple of years ago and it was just beautiful.

    More train travelogues, please :)

  5. Did you have to spoil an otherwise nice piece with an uncalled for and uncharitablke reference to Mohanlal, one of the finest actors in India whose acting skills make even the best in Bollywood green with envy? When you see a half naked ShahRukh or Salman on similar horadings peddling cellfones and Korean cars, woiuld you have the balls to say they developed their six-packs in gay gyms?

  6. There is no reference to Mohanlal. I didn't even know if that was Mohanlal, nor do I know now.

    I'm unable to see the connection to either balls or gay gyms.

  7. " of those multiple-chinned Malayalam film Lotharios, with a moustache large enough to hide mongooses in. He leers over Sania's shoulder..."

    wak! sacrilegious! ultra-dismissive! contemptible north-indism. anti-obesism! :-)

    Its sadly and funnily true that most south-indian male stars success can be rated by tape-measure around their girths.

    But more seriously in terms of acting calibre Mohanlal can hold his own against bad /shahen /other kinds of shah, and various other assorted bollywood royalty.

    On that ad, I've often wondered which aspect he represents. From the lack-lustre performances on court, I think its "quality".


  8. Dilip, I wanted to review your book on my site - can you email me at as I can't find your contact anywhere on here... thanks, piers