Thursday, November 05, 2009

A day with the South West monsoon

The 4:15 am Parasuram Express was a ghost train as it out of sighed out of Mangalore Central. As it rumbled across the Netravathi in the pre-dawn darkness, white tubelights within throbbed down upon the few sleepy faces that populated the largely empty train.

I was on a journey that’d let me see all of Kerala in the rain. I wanted to see the South West monsoons at their most bountiful, draping what is perhaps their favourite region in India. I hoped to view India’s most popular tourist state from a vantage point that it’s not been seen from too often – the train footboard.

As the train sped southwards in the darkness and persistent rain, name boards on wayside stations switched from Kannada to Malayalam. Hoardings for Hoorulyn brand burqas and New Age brand dhothies appeared by the trackside. Silhouettes of the first coconut trees surfaced from the shadows, dwarfing and sheltering all other vegetation.

What remained unchanged were the inundated fields and gushing water bodies. Unchanged too was the violence of even the smaller streams that furiously tossed about branches and other remnants of vegetation.

The Parasuram express is named after the man who, according to legend, carved out Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea. Even though it plies a distance of 634km from Mangalore to Trivandrum, it is practically a series of short distance trains. People hopped in and out of it every hour or two – with hardly anyone traveling more than 3 or 4 hours.

Nearly all the somnambulists from Mangalore got off at Kasargode, 46km away. Folks who replaced them would alight in another two hours at Cannanore, 86km further downstream. Purposeful office goers boarding there would go an hour or two till Telicherry or Calicut, only to be replaced by college students and work delegations headed to Trichur. This relay would go on until the last cohort of office returnees alighted in Trivandrum, 14-odd hours from the faraway mists of 4:15am.

Around Bekal, 65km from Mangalore, tearing streams occasionally revealed just a little glimpse of the open sea. Just as the train put on a burst of speed, the green of the coconut groves abruptly gave way to a vast openness. Just a few hundred metres away was the open sea, its greenish-blue stretches merging into the inky twilight sky far, far away. The two or three minutes of this proximity seemed to last forever. Inevitably, the train swerved inland and moved on, ruthlessly pushing back the view until it was a mere memory.

Cannanore, 130km from home, came at 7am. The folks who entered were already the fourth set of people on the train. Calicut, best known because it was Vasco da Gama’s port of call, came by at 8:35am, 221km into the journey. The day was just beginning for the folks coming in freshly bathed and breakfasted. I was already a long way into my day, as I tucked into the thankful warmth of upma and watery tea.

Past Calicut, there was water everywhere. Lakes and water bodies had encroached into flooded fields. Often, there was just a continuum of water punctuated by stubbles of grass within. The rivers swelled, lapping up bridge spans. The Thootha and the Bharathapuzha had water rushing almost right under my feet.

Yet, there was no despair around. In Bihar two monsoons ago, I saw refugees from the rain shivering in shacks by the trackside. There was none of that here. Houses stood steady. Schoolkids waved happily to the train. Women unmindfully waded through water-logged verandahs. Everywhere along the route, groups of men crouched under umbrellas, intent in games of cards.

The railway was never alone. Often, coconut groves cocooned the track tightly on either side. Houses had the railway tracks for their front yards. Hillocks loomed alongside the tracks after Shoranur, 307km into the ride. The infrequent clearings, water bodies and fields felt like an opening up, a relief from being accompanied all the time.

Lunch came by at 1:30pm in Ernakulam, lesser half of the better known Cochin. I had the hobson’s choice of any dish as long as it was badly-cooked biriyani. As Parasuram lurched out of the city limits, the sun came out briefly. Waterlogged rice fields stretched out in the fuzzy light. Their silver surfaces carried imperfect reflections within them.

Pepper and rubber trees surfaced. Town names grew longer. Attempts to register Tripunithura’s name made me nearly miss the sight of the pagoda-like station building that stood in proud isolation in the downpour. At Mulagunnathukavu, I didn’t stand a chance of noticing any detail of the station.

Kottayam came at 3pm, and looked like a forest-town. Passengers, of course, continued their in-and-out-of-the-train medley. Soon, the Parasuram express entered Alleppey district, which has most of the backwaters that Kerala is known for. Most backwaters are canals that branch out from Vembanad and Ashtamudi lakes. I’d see the latter lake shortly, which gets its name from its octopus-shape.

Dirty grey clouds loomed above. The Pampa river was an unassuming, modest stream, but as full and overflowing as the other water bodies. In two weeks it would host the famous boat races at Alleppey.

Thick threads of rainwater sheeted down, forming a near-opaque curtain in front of me. Canals and rivulets surged ahead with vehemence, with none of the languidness suggested by the word ‘backwater’. Metres away from the deluge, I gratefully held the hot tea in my chilly hands at Kayankulam at 4pm. It was 529km into the day by now.

The train skirted the Ashtamudi lake, which, perhaps by its enormity, gave the impression of placidity, even in the furious rain. The contours of the lake curved away tantalisingly. But the train persisted in bestowing its attentions on it. After perhaps two kilometres or so of this futile courtship, the Parasuram express impatiently swung away. It clearly had no intention of following the footsteps of the Island Express, which had plunged into this lake in 1988.

This rejection, of course, wasn’t the end of the world for Parasuram. It cavorted with the Kilimukkam lake, rendered wetter by the pouring rain, and caught a glimpse of the lake dissolving into the immensity of the sea. This lake too, of course, turned out to be unattainable for Parasuram.

After another stroll amid coconut groves, the inevitable happened. The grey that had filled the sky all day turned just a shade deeper – a foreboding of the arrival of evening twilight. Thatched roofs, copses and rivulets gave way to concrete buildings, shops and traffic filled roads. Trivandrum, the end of the journey was nigh. Fourteen odd hours by greenery, in the rain didn’t quite seem enough.

The Parasuram express squeaked into the solemn, majestic stone buildings of Trivandrum Central. The square, clean-cut edifice seemed to have come too soon, as it rounded off a day spent in the abundance of unspoilt, newly washed stretches.


Ashwin said...

Great piece! Enjoyed reading this..

QKumar said...

Thanks, Ashwin. Glad you liked it.

Geetika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
QKumar said...

[Gee] - Yes, it is tempting to hop off at every station, take a walk in every town. Better still, to spend a day at each place.

One practical compromise perhaps is to take a series of passenger trains to destination, and change trains along the way.

I tell myself I'll do at least a few such slow trips sometime.

And, changing your plans? I thought you were coming here anyway.