by R Sivaramakrishnan
Glad that the rain gods had spared Mumbai during our stay in August, of the deluge they had threatened the city with only the previous month, my wife and I reached Dadar Jn. by a taxi 90 minutes before the Chennai Mail was due to depart on the 30th. I could not but help reflecting how angelic the autorickshaw- and taxi-wallahs in Mumbai are, compared with the devils in Chennai and Pondicherry.
On platform 5, watched the Siddheswari and Kokankanya expresses and then the Pandharpur Passenger arrive from CSTM and depart. Our Mail was on time, but had just been preceded by the Amritsar Express ex- platform No. 7 in the adjoining terminus. Boarded our sleeper coach to find two middle-aged men stretched on our lower berths. They were commuters returning home late after a tiresome day's work. One of them graciously vacated, but the other would not budge â€" he curtly asked me to occupy an upper berth. He was too hefty for me to challenge and so I had to sit up on my wife's berth till Karjat arrived, when he got up and went away. I immediately dashed across to occupy my rightful berth. We were running a few minutes late, as our progress up to Kalyan Jn. had been kept in check by the Amritsar Express. It was dark outside and in the moisture-laden air, nothing was visible. Giving up all thoughts of gaining any glimpses of the ghat section, I stretched myself and went to sleep(normal). Came Pune at 4 a.m. and we were rudely awakened by three men who were accompanied by eight women, bound for Tirupati. Though I do not understand Marathi, I could grasp that they were claiming the lower berths that we were sleeping on to be theirs. They had been on RAC, had been allotted berths in the last minute and had been "assured" of two LB's. I showed them our ticket, where it was all in print: berth nos. 41 and 44, both LB. Their contention was nos. 41 and 44 were UB's. My reasonings passed over their heads. Finally, one gentleman came from the next compartment and, after listening to their arguments in Marathi and my counter-arguments in English, luckily ruled in my favour. Back to sleep with the realization that berthrights had to be constantly defended as hard as our freedom, I was wondering whether that was the reason for berths being sometimes referred to as births.
Woke up at 7 a.m. just as the Mail entered Kurduwadi Jn., passing between the remnants
of the overbridge on which the erstwhile n. g. line made its way to Pandharpur, a sad reminder. Our Mail was received on the Nn. side of the main island, and looking at the old, basalt office structure, I could see that it had not changed much from what it was in 1930:
Only the crowd of pilgrims was not there this day. Instead under the roof of the recent extension of the platform squatted a stout man in his forties, both legs and the left hand gone, trying to light up a beedi clasped in between his lops with a matchstick from a box held in right hand, even as a railway worker was berating him for being in the station premises. Beyond him, on the track at the other side of the island, a women in her thirties, but already a hag, was collecting discarded polythene water bottles; and right inside our carriage, an urchin swept the floor clean with a piece of cloth and extended his palm towards us for coins as recompense. I was left pondering what globalization and the 9% growth rate of our economy would bring to them as to millions of others whom we have no time to think about. I could see little change in the countryside, its people and their countenances since I first travelled this section forty years ago. True, factories had sprung up over the landscape, huts projected TV antennae, and a group of milkmen waiting at a level cross had slung their milk cans from the handlebars of mopeds instead of bicycles. But they still wore white and saffron dhoties, and shirts, headcloths or caps typical of Marathis â€" and could easily have emerged from the crowd at Kurduwadi Jn. seen in the above image.
The weekly LLT-Madurai Express arrived on the other side of our island and was allowed to proceed ahead of our Mail, just after the Chennai â€" CSTM Exp(normal). was received at the next island platform. My wife looked at me in askance, since I had told her that our Mail was the oldest train on this route. Well, I explained, it had undergone few evolutionary changes just like the hoary cockroach: it has shed just 100 minutes of its travel time in the last 40 years, despite doubling over segments and diesel traction; its timings are too sacred to be tampered with.
There had been no examination of our tickets overnight; the first Travelling Ticket Examiner appeared only after Kurduwadi and was followed by a succession of four more. To every one of them, the Pune men bound for Tirupati complained about my having appropriated the lower berths allotted to them and remained unconvinced even after everyone of them pronounced that nos. 41 and 44 were the LB's and were ours. The fifth TTE, a youngster, demanded of everyone who had availed of senior citizen's concession to produce evidence of age; I showed him a laminated, Xerox copy of my moped driving licence and that satisfied him. But that left me wondering whether I had suddenly started looking younger, for this was the first time in the years since I started availing of the concession that I was asked for proof of age. Moving over to the next compartment, he did not accept the proof offered by another passenger, leading to an argument over what constituted an acceptable proof of age and the hapless man ultimately paying the difference between the normal fare and the one under concession. I was happy that the rule had been amended this way for collecting only the difference; I still recall the Goanese lady in tears who was at least seventy by her looks, found travelling without documentary proof of her age some years ago on the Dadar â€" Chennai Express and was imposed a hefty fine by a TTE besides collection of the difference; the TTE on that occasion imperiously told those who intervened on behalf of the lady, "Rule is rule."
There were no rains as we moved on open 'black' cotton soil territory, bare now with occasional golden yellow blooms of sunflower. But the sky was overcast and the air cool. The Mail picked up some speed and our carriage started rocking even though our carriage was passed for 110 kmph and had undergone the periodic overhaul; I clocked the speed at just 84 kmph, on this occasion and on the subsequent ones when it started lurching violently from side to side. Was it because we were occasionally taking curves and descending at 1 in 100? This revived questions in my mind about the stability of our rolling stocks at "high" speeds.
People â€" students to their schools and colleges, men to work - were getting in and out at the many stops our Mail made: clearly it was serving as a morning local around Kurduwadi, Solapur and Gulbarga.
Just past a large concrete sleeper pressing unit at Mohol, still using firewood to meet its thermal requirements, I could see doubling activity going on at a hectic pace: men with crowbars and spades, women transporting gravel and burden, while supervisors gave directions. In some sections the earth was just being evened out, in some others the earthwork completed, on yet others the rails laid and ballasted; some pillars were being erected while girders placed on a few for the new 5 × 20 M bridge for the double across R. Seema. On a few stretches even crossed diesel-hauled goods trains on the double; and in some places, the work was yet to begin.
The old but famous textile mill, large and well-treed behind a compound wall just to our right before we entered Solapur looked desolate, perhaps mourning the suicides among the farmers who had burnt their fingers raising cotton and falling into debt. Doubling was yet to be taken up beyond Hotgi Jn. At Baroti, men were sporting the characteristic Maratha caps; but at the next station, Dudhani, the name on the board was in Kannada: we had entered Karnataka, and the divide was visible. The local English daily that I purchased later at Gulbarga, however, was even-handed and carried news from all over South Maharashtra, North Karnataka and West Andhra Pradesh, and I was getting confused between the ministers of the different states whose speeches peppered the pages. At Gangapur Road there was the usual line of autorickshaws and vans, besides a bus or two, just outside the station, all decked with saffron flags, waiting to transport pilgrims to a holy ghat on R. Bhima 15 km to the S. We were running one hour behind schedule. Wadi Jn. has never ceased to fascinate me, but this mid-day it was all quiet and seemed sleepy. I too went to sleep, heavily dosed with analgesics to suppress the pain of a bad molar tooth.
I woke up as we crossed R.Tungabadhra, where some pillars had been erected for the double, and entered Mantralaya Road where our carriages were watered. I instinctively gazed to the east, where, 12 km. away, past low scattered hillocks, on the banks of the river that we had crossed, lies Mantralaya which I had been to over 15 years back. It was in this village, then known as Mantsala or Manchala, that Raghavendra (1601-71), the Madhwa saint, shed his mortal coils. The village had been granted by the Nawab of Adoni as an endowment to maintain the mutt and the temple. In 1800 the East India Co., which had abolished all Imam lands, asked Sir Thomas Munroe, Governor of Bellary, to resume the village. Munroe came to Mantralaya, reverentially removed his boots, took off his hat and approached the Brindavan (tomb) of the saint. Raghavendra is said to have emerged from his tomb and conversed with Munroe in perfect English about the irrevocability of the endowment: he was visible and audible to Munroe alone and not to the others around. At the end of the discussion, Raghavendra disappeared into the Brindavan; Munroe returned to his office and wrote out an order rejecting the proposal to resume the endowment. Well, we would not believe it if this story had been narrated by an Indian. But it has been recorded nearly 200 years ago by W. Francis, I.C.S., in "Madras District Gazetteers", Chap(normal). XV â€" Adoni Taluk -Vol. No.1 - Bellary, Govt. Press, Madras, p(normal). 213 of 1916 reprint, and the page is reproduced in
At Kupgal, I watched with fascination a troop of monkeys, squatting or gamboling on the adjacent track; two babes, clinging fast to their mothers' bellies, looked at us sideways, equally fascinated by us. Buffered by a lot of recovery time, reached Guntakal Jn. just a few minutes behind schedule. I had to walk a long way on island platform no. 5 to locate a water tap and fill my bottle. Then on, I could see that iron ore traffic had declined somewhat since I went to Mumbai in July end, but traffic in cement and other goods had increased. At Gooty dusk descended. Went to sleep at 2115; could sense our Mail being held up at various stations for crossings. Awoke as we reached Renigunta at 0105, ten minutes ahead; almost everyone got down, apparently for Tirupati, bound for the famous pilgrim centre of Tirumala, uphill above the serpentine ridge that terminated to the WNW of the junction. Left Renigunta 15 mins. late. There was some moonlight that lit up the landscape around Nagari Hills, passing which I strained my eyes peering between the hillocks to guess how from SW the proposed line from Ranipet would be making its way through to Nagari.
We were at Perambur just 15 minutes behind schedule and then the ordeal started: over the last 6 km, which our Mail was having 40 minutes to cover, including recovery time, we were held up at six signals for periods ranging from one to 13 minutes, so that we crawled into Chennai Central 35 minutes late. What a way to treat a hoary Mail!
We made our way by a city bus to Ashok Nagar, whence caught a bus reaching Pondicherry at 11 a.m. on 1 September, tired like dogs.