Another Shatabdi

An account of a journey made on the Shatabdi Express from Mysore to Chennai in March 2017 with Anita for company and Black Ice from AC/DC on the cans.

The ride from the Tibetan settlement to Mysore was a quick one, as the road was relatively clear, it was a Sunday morning and the traffic seemed a little lighter than usual, although I knew that being in India things could change very quickly, that from almost out of nowhere you could suddenly feel you were slap bang in the middle of the busiest place in the world. We had a short stop at the Anapoorna, a well used restaurant which was by the side of the road in Hunsur, a town about halfway to Mysore from Bylakuppe. There both Anita and I had a double coffee which tasted pretty good – hot, strong and sweet – in the mid morning highway heat. It would keep us going until lunch time in Mysore that as for sure.

By 12.15 we had indeed reached the Sandalwood City, and we were in plenty of time for the train which was not due to depart for another couple of hours. It meant we were able to go straight to the Shree Devi restaurant, an old favourite of mine as far as eating in Mysore was concerned, and which served up Andhra style cuisine both veg and non-veg in generous quantities. The Shree Devi was half empty as it was still pretty early in the day as far as lunch in India was concerned. It would not be full for at least another hour or so, as it was seldom before 1.30 or even 2 in the afternoon that things got busy.

Anita and I ordered a small chicken byriani each which came on a plate, from which we both transferred straight onto the big banana leaves that had been placed upon our table. We both ate our chicken byrianis with our hands, which was the custom in South India, they were served with a hot gravy, yoghurt, a salad of cucumber, onions, a slice of raw carrot and a wedge of lime. Needless to say it was all absolutely delicious as the chicken byriani at the Shree Devi always hit the spot as far as I was concerned and this time was no exception. Guess the only downside was that it was so damn good I should have ordered the large byriani instead of the small one, but there you go, you can’t get it right all the time. The difference between the large and small chicken byriani in the Shree Devi by the way is that with a large you get four pieces of chicken and with a small you get two.

By the time Sonam Tashi’s driver dropped us off at the railway station it was just gone one in the afternoon which gave us around an hour or so to wait until the Shatabdi was due to depart in order to take us on the 8 hour cross country rail ride to Chennai. The platform was very clean, not too busy, with spaces still available for me and Anita to be able to sit on the benches with our small cases set down on the floor in front of us. I knew from past experience that we would only be able to board the train about 20 minutes or so before it left the station, but anyway, the thing was at the moment, the train coming from Chennai, which would be the one used for the return trip, had not as yet arrived in Mysore. This made me wonder if we were going to be running late that afternoon, as usually when I rolled up at the station in order to catch the Shatabdi, the train was always already there. Still, there was a first time for everything and of course a train arriving late was not exactly unheard of in India.

The station was pretty hot as it was now early afternoon, the sun was shining bright and hard, almost to the point where it was blinding, and as it was difficult for me not to squint my eyes tight to see what the hell was happening, I kept my shades firmly on. At least this time around I was not in a foul mood, which had most certainly been the case last year when standing on the platform, when the realisation of having screwed up my booking had hit home big time and caused me to behave badly.

I remember a year ago flipping back a bottle of water at a drinks vendor on the platform when he tried to charge me 5 rupees more than what I mistakenly thought I should have paid for it. It was embarrassing really, even to think about it now still made me feel uneasy over how quickly I had lost my cool in the heat, especially since I had been on my way to an ashram. Just was simply the case that the heat of the moment that had caught me out big time. I had then had to stand there on the platform in the hot Indian sun for over an hour, racked with guilt and shame over such loss of control over my behaviour. At least this time sitting next to Anita on the platform bench there were no such incidents, it was just a question of waiting patiently for the train to arrive, for it be cleaned up before it was ready for us to board for the ride back to Chennai.

Whilst we waited on the platform before we could board the train, which by now had rolled up into the station, probably a bit behind schedule but maybe not that much after all, Anita was quite happy to engage in conversations with people on the platform who were waiting there as well. She had a gentle way which often resulted in her having friendly encounters, which quite honestly was a million miles away from how I usually went about things. I would not bother to speak to people unless spoken to, or unless it was so damn obvious that something needed to be said it would have been simply too rude not to open my mouth. This meant of course that I spent the vast majority of my time in situations not saying a single thing for hours as, I mean, what would be the reason for people to want to speak to me for, especially if I showed no inclination to speak to them?

On this occasion Anita spoke for some time with an Indian man who was sitting close to us and he told her that the journey he had made on the Shatabdi from Chennai to Mysore a few days ago had not been all that comfortable due to the fact that the a/c had not been working in the compartment in which he had been seated. He told Anita it had been distinctly uncomfortable, as on the Shatabdi trains there was no chance whatsoever of being able to open any windows in order to let some air in and I could just imagine what a sweat box the compartment would have turned out to be an hour or so into the ride.

It immediately made me worried and paranoid that Anita and I would also end up in a compartment that had the same problems, no fuckin’ a/c in other words, that we would have to endure a hellish 8 hour ride to Chennai in the heat, and in the process getting our little trip to Tamil Nadu off to the worst possible start. The man told Ada he had applied for a refund of some sort on his ticket, as he had clearly paid for something which the vast and mighty Indian Railways had not in fact provided, namely some decent a/c, but he didn’t sound too confident he would succeed in getting anything back from them in the form of some kind of refund.

With about 20 minutes to go before the train was due to depart the passenger sheets were pasted to the outside of the carriages. Anita and I duly checked off our names to find, as expected, that we had seats together in compartment C3 as per what had been printed on our reservation slips given to us by Sunil back at Mahaveer in Kushal Nagar. Not long after that the doors were opened from the inside by the train guards and we were able to board the Shatabdi, locating our seats with plenty of time to spare before departure. Fortunately it seemed like there was no problem with the a/c, things were pretty cool temperature wise, although we did learn later that those people who were in compartment C2 were not so fortunate and had to endure a bit of a sweatbox of a journey all the way from Mysore to Chennai.

At 2.15 the train slowly pulled out of the station, eastbound in the direction of Bengaluru which was our next stop, our only stop before we reached Chennai lying at the end of the line later that evening. Soon enough we were making our way through the eastern districts and edges of Mysore, through scenes I had seen many times before, the dusty outer reaches of this really rather pleasant Indian city. By the time we got to Srirangapatnam, about 20 minutes further down the track, Anita was sitting comfortably by the window with her head in a book, Lion, of which a pretty good film had recently been made, well in fact the first part of the movie was good but then the second part which featured Nicole Kidman had been rather boring and in my opinion badly sucked.

In the aisle seat sitting right next to her, I took out the mobile phone I used for listening to music along with my pair of purple Skull Candy headphones that I had bought from TK Maxx a few years ago for just 24 quid. What I chose to stick on the cans was AC/DC’s 2008 Black Ice produced Brendan O’Brien and which had come out a full 8 years after Stiff Upper Lip in 2000. Probably chose it because it felt good to listen to cuts such as Skies on Fire and Stormy May Day as we passed through the dry, hot, parched countryside of that part of Southern Karnataka lying between Mysore and Bengaluru. The electric noise generated by those twin guitars of the Young brothers, the gravel rasp of singer Brian Johnson seemed somehow to be more than appropriate when there was the heat, the fire, the almighty power of what was one of the better albums in the AC/DC canon coming through the cans, and certainly one of their best sounding as the production was simply top notch.

The ride east from Mysore to Bengaluru was a non-stop affair with the train only slowing down slightly as it passed through the stations of Srirangapatnam, Mandya, Maddur, Channapatna and Ramanagara, all places I had been through many times before, either by road or rail. During this stage of the journey the Shatabdi catering staff, guys wearing brown uniforms with the word Wheels and wheel logo printed on the their backs, came down the middle of the carriage dishing out various items of food and drink to the passengers.

First of all we got a bottle of drinking water, which was standard as far things went on a Shatabdi, then a carton of mango juice which was also standard, then after the juice, a little a tray of snacks which consisted of a vegetable samosa, a vegetable sandwich in white milk bread – a bread found in all bakeries in India, or virtually all – tomato ketchup which was to be used with the samosa, a little bag of Bombay mix or something similar and finally a sweet cake which was something like halva. This tray snack was not so standard and all in all not too bad at all. Apart from the little bag of mix, I ate everything else on the tray within about 5 minutes flat, not realising I was still hungry after my chicken byriani from a couple of hours ago. The food on the train was of course something which the Shatabdi was noted for and I was expecting more to be served up to us once we were on the Bengaluru to Chennai leg of the journey, namely a full-on Indian meal which could sometimes be good, sometimes not so good, depending on how warm it was by the time it got served.

As the train began to hit the outer western edges of Bengaluru things slowed down considerably, very considerably in fact, allowing us ample opportunity to look out the window at the staggering piles of rubbish that were piled by the rail tracks. There really was such a ridiculously huge amount of it that, when combined with the people, the tightly packed houses and the traffic on the narrow city streets, all seemed to fit together perfectly. The picture would somehow not have been complete if those mountains of rubbish had not been included, there really was something incredible about it, simply could not have been any other way. I joked to Anita about the uselessness of ever remonstrating with people by telling them to put their rubbish in a bin, when all they would do was simply turn around and say that was exactly what they were doing. The world, the earth, the country, the ground that these people were living in and living on was the bin. In India it was as simple as that and if you had an issue with it then that was your problem.

By the time we pulled along the platform in Bengaluru we were running around 15 or 20 minutes late, as the crawl into the station had been a slow one from the city’s western edges, but that wasn’t really a problem as the only place we were going to was the end of the line, so we got there when we got there. Just as I had expected, the compartment soon filled up considerably once the train had slowly rolled into Bengaluru central, all the same when we pulled out of the station at around 5 or just after, there were still a few empty seats which was different to the previous year when doing the same trip, as then the train had simply been packed to the rafters. By now it was getting late on in the afternoon and we had another 5 hours or so of travelling ahead of us, before we were due to reach Chennai at around 9.15 pm.

It just so happened that this time around there were quite a few periods in which the train slowed down to little more than a crawl, starting not long out of the east side of Bengaluru and it soon became clear to me that we were not going to arrive in Chennai on time that evening. Must have been the signals or something like that which were causing the problems. For me at least, it was just a question of trying not to get too restless, not too impatient and to try to stay in the moment, to be at ease with whatever feelings of boredom might come along. Yes, to stay in the moment, not to wish to be in a situation different to the one in which I found myself. That was the name of the game, I guess that was why I heading back to the ashram, to take in more of that patience, more of that calm, to hopefully integrate those qualities into my life and I guess if that was the case there was no time like the present if I wanted to get started. Meanwhile Anita sat next to me, seemingly unperturbed by the slowness of events, quite happy to either read her copy of Lion or play around on her Samsung phone as the hours slowly rolled on by.

All the same, what turned out to be a prolonged stop at a place called Kalpadi Junction was a bit of a test for me, as by this point we had been on the train for well over 5 hours since leaving Mysore and it was completely dark outside. Fortunately it was now that the main meal was served which took some of the edge off my boredom. Things started up with that Shatabdi classic, a cup of tomato soup and a couple of bread sticks with a little plastic tub of Amul butter in which to dip the breadstick, and also a sachet of pepper to sprinkle into the cup of soup. I have got to say that I have always without fail enjoyed my cup of Shatabdi tomato soup and this time was no exception. Under the circumstances which we found ourselves in, by way of being stuck at Kapaldi Junction for what seemed like quite a long time, the entertainment which drinking that cup of soup provided was simply outstanding.

As expected the main meal which followed the soup consisted of various vegetable curries, rice, pickles, chappatis, curd and then, as something of a bonus, a small carton of Joy ice cream which was actually the perfect way to finish off a railway meal. The main course was OK if truth be told, no more than that, it was more or less hot, and I guess it had been loaded onto the train at Kalpadi Junction quite some time before the Wheels boys had then set themselves in motion by way of dishing it all out to their Shatabdi passengers. I managed to get through most of it, the best thing was being able to mix the rice and curd together in order to form a dish known as a rice bath, which tasted pretty good. Anita made a good fist of eating her meal as well, and like me she thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream desert, which we both then got to wash down with a cup of hot, sweet Shatabdi coffee.

The previous year whilst making the same trip, I had not bothered to have the meal on the train and then nearly had cause to regret it. This was because by the time I got to Woodlands later that evening, Woodlands in Mylapore, the Chennai hotel in which I was staying, I only just had enough time after checking in to slip into Vrindavan, their excellent vegetarian restaurant within the hotel compound, and where I was able to eat some dhal and naan bread. This was because the hotel restaurant closed at 10, as did room service, which meant on that occasion I had made it by the skin of my teeth in order to get some food.

Therefore this time around I told Ada in advance that it would be a good idea to eat whatever food was on offer on the Shatabdi, because if there were any delays there was a strong chance we would not make it to Woodlands before Vrindavan closed for the night. Turned out this is exactly what happened due to the train being holed up at Kalpadi Junction and then moving slowly, slowly, very slowly for quite a while after that. It meant that in the end we did not pull into Chennai central railway station until just before 10 pm, way too late of course to get to Vrindavan, to get across Mylapore. So yes, this time the final couple of hours of the journey did drag on a bit it, especially once the sun went down and there was nothing to do but sit and stare out of the windows, where the darkness outside was only occasionally broken by starkly lit stations which we passed through as the Shatabdi rolled along the tracks on its way to the coast.

Best part of this stage of the journey for both me and Anita turned out to be observing an Indian gentleman and his mother sitting at a table diagonally facing us on the opposite side of the carriage. Well, I can only assume that the old lady was his mother as it would have been pretty incredible if she had turned out to have been his wife, but then again you never know. Whatever the relationship between them might have been, there was no doubt that she was ancient and it seemed that the rigours of the train journey were taking quite a bit out of her, just that simple rock and roll motion of the train on the tracks seemed to be enough to punish her frail body. When she wasn’t sleeping she was either eating from a very clean plastic tub of rice she had brought along with her, food which looked very tasty indeed, drinking from a bottle of water by holding it above her head and pouring the liquid straight into her mouth, or else fussing over her son and asking him a steady stream of questions.

The son, if that indeed was who he was, seemed to take it all in his stride, and treated her with love and patience as she was obviously very, very old. When he was not being called upon by her, he was using his time on the Shatabdi to go through a bunch of what looked like official reports of some description, all of which he had spread out on the table in front of him. He would read through the pages of these reports and often make notes in them using a very sharp pencil. It was conceivable they were Indian Railways reports, he looked like the kind of man who was dedicating his life and knowledge to such an institution and by the way he went through those papers it looked like he was being very methodical.

There was something about that little scene – the mother, son, the man and his reports – which was old style India, harking back to a more gentle time when people were polite and more peaceful than they are now. The man also quite frequently received calls on his mobile phone, possibly they were calls from whoever was going to be meeting them when the train reached Chennai. In that old school way of his he would reply in the affirmative to whoever the caller was, by way of saying “ok, ok”. At the same time he would waggle his head, so that it appeared he was actually saying no instead. In fact the man used the word “ok” rather a lot, an awful lot, and on one occasion his phone conversation went something like this –

“ok, ok”
(waggle of head)
(waggle of head, waggle, waggle)
“ok, ok, ok, ok”
(waggle of head, waggle, waggle, waggle)
“ok, ok”
(final waggle of head, waggle, waggle, before the end of the conversation).

Well, it amused both Ada and I immensely, as we sat there listening to him during that final part of the journey when, other than that and despite my best efforts to try to stay in the moment, things were getting rather tedious, very tedious as a matter of fact. There was no harm in us observing the couple, and naturally it would have been fascinating to have stepped into whatever his world was beyond the train carriage, as I am sure that he treated whoever the people were in his life with gentleness and consideration. He just looked like that kind of person.

The train was now running at least 30 minutes behind schedule and this was a bit of a surprise in as much as on all previous Shatabdi journeys I had made on that route things had always been pretty much bang on time. We were finally able to tell that we were beginning to hit the outer edges of Chennai, these days a vast Indian mega city, when we saw commuter trains standing at the stations we passed through. Although it was a Sunday evening and getting late, quite a few of these trains were pretty full, an indication of how these days in India, when it comes to the big cities, there does not seem to be any quiet times, that things are on the go 24/7. As we rode through the Chennai hinterlands each time I looked out of the compartment window I always seemed to see a red cross shining out into the night, red crosses on the churches, lots of churches standing there in the South Indian darkness. Christianity was big in Chennai with the religion having had a long history in that part of India, Chennai quite possibly being the place of its first arrival in the country many centuries ago, courtesy of St. Thomas.

Just before 10 pm we finally pulled up alongside the platform at Chennai central station and got off the train, a good 30 minutes or so late, but of course in the great scheme of things that was next to nothing by Indian standards. Just as I had expected, the station was extremely busy and to think it was late on a Sunday evening, when in most other places things were winding down for the night, made it seem a total joke. There were quite simply thousands and thousands of people around, and the noise and overall level of hectic busyness was tremendous.

The platform was soon full of passengers disembarking from the Shatabdi and, very annoyingly, the platform was also full of obstacles which were right in the way of everyone. Obstacles such as huge piles of cotton sacks, cardboard boxes seemingly strewn all over the place at random and other such paraphernalia. It made our job all the more difficult as we tried to make our way to the main concourse entrance whilst pulling along our cases behind us. It was ridiculous really, but there you go, no one else seemed to give a monkeys and carried on as usual. That was India for you, where things such as making it easier for people were at times given zero consideration. In truth I would never have really expected it to be any different, I had been around the block in India too many times by now to be really that upset about it.

The header image for this article is a photograph of Mysore station taken by the writer.

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