Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The rain train – travelling through Kerala in the monsoon

(This piece appears in the Jan 2011 issue of India Today Travel Plus. There is no direct web link to the piece. This is a part of the special year-end edition - India, the all weather country. It has pieces on each state in India in one of the 4 seasons. This piece is about Kerala in the monsoon).
(14 hours and 600km in pouring rain - on spending a day with the South West Monsoons.)

Day tripper

Mangalore Central wears a disembodied look at 4am. Crowds of sleepers sprawl across the floor in uneasy half-sleep, whom you have to adroitly sidestep to make your way to the Parasuram Express.

The Parasuram Express is usually mostly unoccupied. Because of its 4:15am departure, only the most intrepid or desperate board it. The few sleepy faces inside are invariably foraging for their last fragments of sleep, as they moodily fight the bright white tubelights throbbing down.

In spite of its early morning discomforts, the Parasuram Express remains the best way to see all of Kerala in the monsoons. Every year, when the South West monsoons reach India, the rains hit Kerala first. From June to September, India’s favourite tourist state is embraced by near-continuous rains. One way to experience the monsoon is to reach any town in Kerala and watch it pour down. Another is to take a day trip across Kerala, and watch the rains drape the state all along the route. The best way to do the latter is to take the Parasuram Express from Mangalore to Trivandrum.

This isn’t for everybody, though. The train can look forbiddingly spooky in the pre-dawn. The journey can seem like forever – it’s 14 hours and 634 km in non-stop rain. You’re likely to be sleep-starved and exhausted by the time you reach Trivandrum late in the evening. It isn’t an easy ride. But if you hop on for the ride, you can see one of India’s wettest regions from a viewpoint it’s not often seen from – a train door.

Sea sighting

Soon after the Parasuram rumbles across the Nethravathi river outside Mangalore, it picks up speed and decisively cuts through the pouring rain.

There is no border to demarcate Karnataka from Kerala. But name boards on wayside stations switch from Kannada to Malayalam. Hoardings for Hoorulyn brand burqas and MCR brand dhotis surface. Silhouettes of the first coconut trees emerge from pre-dawn shadows.

Soon, the darkness lightens, but visibility is muffled by sheets of rain. Inundated fields and gushing streams become slowly visible. Even small rivulets furiously toss about branches and debris of vegetation dislodged by the rains.

Near the fort town of Bekal, around 5:30am, tearing streams occasionally reveal a glimpse of the sea. Soon, the green of the coconut groves abruptly gives way to a vast openness. Just a few hundred metres away is the open sea, its greenish-blue stretches merging into the inky twilight sky. Inevitably, the train swerves inland and moves on, ruthlessly pushing back the view until it is a mere memory.


The Parasuram express is named after the man who, according to legend, carved out Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea. Though it plies a distance of 634km from Mangalore to Trivandrum, it’s practically a series of short distance trains. People hop in and out every hour or two. Hardly anyone travels more than 4 or 5 hours. Office goers, college students and work delegations replace each other in a relay until the last batch of office returnees alight at Trivandrum, a world away from the faraway mists of 4:15am.

Water everywhere

Though it’s soon light, the sun never really comes out amid the grey-white skies. At 7:30am, Parasuram reaches Mahe, an erstwhile French colony and now part of Pondicherry. At 8:35, it reaches Calicut, best known for being Vasco da Gama’s port of call. All along, I have seen nothing but torrential rains swathe train platforms, grounds, roads and rivers. Some wetness invariably manages to trickle into the compartments. By then, as I'm joined by freshly bathed and breakfasted co-passengers, I'm already a long way into your day.

There is water everywhere. Lakes and streams encroach into flooded fields. Often, all you can see is a continuum of water punctuated by stubbles of grass within. The waters of the Thootha and Bharathapuzha rivers lap up bridge spans, flowing seemingly right under the train’s wheels.

In spite of this inundation, there is no despair anywhere. There are no refugees shivering in shacks, as you come to expect from TV news coverage of floods. Houses stand steady, their sloping tiled roofs brushing off torrents. Schoolkids wave to the train, happily jumping through puddles. Women unmindfully wade through water-logged verandahs. Everywhere along the route, groups of men crouch under colourful umbrellas, intent in games of cards.
Lunch arrives at 1:30pm in Ernakulam. The menu has just vegetarian and chicken biriyani, both badly cooked. Both are warm, though, which is all you really ask for amid the dank wetness everywhere.
Town names lengthen. Attempts to register Tripunithura’s name can result in nearly missing the pagoda-like station building standing in proud isolation in the downpour. At Mulagunnathukavu, you don’t stand a chance of noticing anything about the station.
Sometimes, the sun comes out briefly. Waterlogged rice fields stretch out in the fuzzy light, their silver surfaces carrying imperfect reflections.

Pepper and rubber trees surface. Kottayam comes at 3pm, and looks like a forest-town. The pouring rain forms a screen alongside the train. Pattering sounds carry a dull familiarity.

Amid backwaters

Soon, Parasuram express enters Alleppey district, which has most of the backwaters Kerala is known for. Canals and rivulets surge ahead with vehemence, with none of the languidness suggested by the word ‘backwater’. The Pampa and Kallada rivers are full and overflowing with violence. The Pampa plays host to the Nehru Trophy boat races every August further downstream at Alleppey. But in the fierce downpour there are hardly any boats by the trackside streams.

Parasuram then skirts the Ashtamudi lake, which is the centre of Kerala’s wetland backwater ecosystem. Perhaps by its enormity, the Ashtamudi gives the impression of placidity even in the furious rain. The contours of the lake curve tantalisingly away from the train. Some way ahead, the Kilimukkam lake melts into the immensity of the open sea.

Another Twilight

After another stretch amid coconut groves, the inevitable happens. The smoky grey that fills the sky turns just a shade deeper – a foreboding of the arrival of evening twilight. Thatched roofs, copses and rivulets give way to persistent concrete buildings, shops and traffic filled roads. Trivandrum, the end of the journey is nigh. Fourteen odd hours by greenery, in the rain approach their end.

The Parasuram express squeaks into the solemn, majestic stone buildings of Trivandrum Central, whose square, clean-cut edifice rounds off a day spent with a newly washed state.

(The first and fourth pics in this piece are by Arun Rajagopal.)

1 comment:

Pendaftaran CPNS said...

Nice report, so complete of all info about that monsoon