June isn’t the best time to go traipsing through the southern depths of India. Geography and meteorology should have told me as much. However, the lure of travel after three months spent rather quietly in my remote corner of West Bengal was too strong for vagaries of the Indian climate to weaken: so a cloudy, muggy morning found us in Kolkata, crossing the Vidyasagar Setu over the Hooghly into the city to take care of some business, and then the stately Howrah Bridge, to the railway station.
Calcutta, at its best, is very sticky; on a day when the rainclouds were gathering fast and thick, the weather was almost unbearably humid. Throngs of people waited at the terminus, wiping grime away with red cotton towels or nipping in for quick baths at the not-so-clean facilities available there. Train travel in India is an arduous task, with innumerable delays, unscheduled stops and disturbances involved- you almost need an intrepid heart to embark on a train journey that lasts longer than twenty-four hours. You have to pray for good company on the train: no wailing babies or snotty children or snoring men or people who insist on eating everything that emerges from the pantry and displaying the masticated contents of their mouths during their incessant conversations with friends/family. Train journeys were fun once, when you knew endless hours of play and ice cream with cousins waited at the other end- the years have swallowed up the thrill and now present an unattractive picture of practical concerns.
The name of the Coromandel Express conjures up serene visions of a palm tree-lined island, idyllic and pristine, with the grey-blue waters of the Bay of Bengal indolently lapping the beaches. The train never passes along the coast, but courses through lush, verdant valleys watered by the Godavari and the Krishna and the thin ribbon of the Mahanadi, past emerald fields and rolling, sharply rising hills. It covers four states in its journey, travelling through Orissa and Andhra Pradesh on its journey from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, a route that is quite a treat for the eye.
The train pulled into Chennai Central on a surprisingly pleasant, breezy evening (which made me wonder what all the fuss about the horrid Chennai weather was all about- hasty judgement!), just about 30 minutes late; almost no delay in the mammoth Indian Railways’ system. We had a few hours before we took the train to Madurai, so we stepped into the city to be welcomed by the typically southern fragrance of jasmine flowers in the air. A short distance away rose the structure that houses Moore Market, a sort of flea-market that sells about everything from books to parakeets. Not finding much of interest, though, partly owing to our fatigue, we returned to the railway station to wander amidst another multitude of waiting people and munch on murukku. People slept on the floor on newspapers and thin sheets, oblivious of the noise, or drank innumerable cups of coffee. The train to Madurai arrived on time- a ‘special’ train for the vacations- and we were rather glad when we were finally on the last leg of the journey, coasting towards our destination.