BANGALORE: For the first eight years of my life, the only thing I knew with surety was where I would be spending my summer vacations. In the first week of April, my father, mother and I would pack up and leave hot, humid, Thrissur and spend a miserable five hours on the hot and misleadingly named Venad Express, a train that perpetually gave way to other trains like an unsure motorist on an express highway. Our destination was never discussed as there was only one possibility — the village of Ennakkad, my father’s hometown.
Not that the train journey wasn’t interesting. In fact, some of my most traumatic experiences as a child have come during this unavoidable train journey. We would board the train in the late afternoon or evening, depending on how late the train was. Inevitably, during those days, we would be in the general compartment. This meant that we would either be standing or sharing our bum space with some random stranger. But this second situation would come about only if I were extremely lucky. Amma always got first preference and me the last. Since this was the start of the summer holidays, there would always be other noisy, irritable families with small, irritable kids all around.
Every time we passed the AC compartment, I itched in my uncomfortably tight jeans to ask my father why we never went in the AC coach even when there seemed to be lots of empty seats in it.
Eventually, I had the privilege of travelling in the AC coach, and I took much pleasure in sitting at the window and looking down on other children and other families who could not afford to travel in style like me. But this was a few years afterwards, and by then I was a hardened veteran of the general compartment struggles. It was like I had earned my right to travel without sweating profusely and having to wiggle my bum uncomfortably to place half of it on the wooden seat. The boredom nearly killed me the first time I travelled in what I had previously thought of as style and luxury.
Nothing, however, matches up to the incomparable thrill that I regularly experienced when the whistle blew and the train slowly chugged into action. Many years later, when I would board a long distance train, or bus or flight, I would be held in the thralls of this very emotion that had its birth in the majestically slow start to a tiresome journey.
Just when the train would actually start gaining some speed, we would draw up on Irinjalakuda, an insult to train stations worldwide if there ever was one. This was followed by a succession of wannabe towns and stations. By the time the first station of any note came rushing past outside the window, I would be completely exhausted and leaning sleepily on father’s chest. However, as it happened, this station was Ernakulam Junction, or as the locals knew it, Ernakulam South.
The best thing about this station was that a lot of people would get off here and I could sit properly. The second best thing was that my father would be suitably moved to buy some refreshments, and this invariably meant cutlets. There are many good things in life that are available cheap, but a four rupee cutlet (with tomato sauce) on a Venad Express takes some beating. I have kept myself alive on whole train journeys by convincing myself that the next station would bring forth a vendor of cutlets. As I grew older, my sanity hinged more and more on these tiny joys.
The other interesting thing that happened here was the reversal in direction, literally, of the train. I would be treated to the spectacle of the train engine running off in the opposite direction, of the one we had just arrived from, and (unseen to me) attach itself to the last coach.
After a break of 10 minutes, we would be off again, with a fully recharged me bouncing up and down the compartment. In about half an hour, we would come to that part of the journey which most thrilled the children- the train would pass under two enormously long tunnels and small babies would start crying and I would laugh aloud with glee and earn a strict rebuke from mother.
I like to think that Kottayam is a wonderful place where achayans drink chaarayam in palatial houses in the heart of mist covered estates and everyone gets their share of beef fry. But the truth is that outside of my alcoholic friend Jithin Jacob, nothing useful ever came out of it.
But it also possesses the most interesting train station outside of Shornur, because of the seemingly interminable pipes that run parallel to the coach windows and which leak water on to grateful beggars.
Worried by my longing look aimed in the direction of the leaking water, my mother once gravely warned me that if I ever drank that water I would die a most painful death brought about by a combination of cholera, dysentery and bad Karma.
One time when I was 19, I jumped out of the door just to stand under a leaking water pipe. I even drank some water after rudely pushing a beggar away. Regrettably, it tasted like normal pipe water. I never even got a mild cold. To say that I was profusely disappointed seems to be missing the point, but I certainly was a downcast teenager that day. Kottayam, however, also meant that our destination was less than an hour away.
We would soon land up at Thiruvalla, the place from which my grandfather hailed. Thiruvalla was the final hurdle for me. Once we had passed Thiruvalla, I knew that nothing could stop us. Kottayam, Changanassery, Thiruvalla, and finally, magnificently, Chengannur. It was deliverance itself. Deliverance from the tyranny of having to sit in an overcooked compartment, from the stiflingly stale and humid air that choked the occupants of its coach, and most of all, children like me.
Chengannur is a bustling little town in Alappuzha with a considerably large train station for its relative size. It is so brilliant that it even has a tunnel that runs right underneath the rails to the exit on the other side.
I have walked dozens of times through that tunnel and not once has it remotely looked like it would collapse and bring down a confused train compartment upon my overtly excited self. Back when I saw it for the first time, Chengannur seemed a bit stale in comparison to Thrissur but then it was merely a stepping stone to the paradise that was Ennakkad.
Ennakkad is about half an hour by auto from Chengannur. And boy, was that fun. There is a feeling I get when I step into my room and lie on my bed. I don’t know what it is, but if there ever was such a thing as a perfect feeling, this is it. It comes to me every time I go there. It feels like I am home.
Hrishikesh Varma blogs at hvrhome.blogspot.com