There are some things that belong to your RAM and there are quite some others that take refuge in your ROM. The Girls’ trip to Thanjavur is essentially a Read-Only Memory. The one that you wouldn’t forget even if your volition forces you to.
One bright Saturday afternoon, The Girls were whining over the infamous rice and sambhar from the rather famous South Indian mess. It was like the eruption at Pompeii, when Varsha said ‘travel’ and I said ‘Thanjavur’ and Karthika said ‘tonight’. Post the pre-planning deliberations, we ran to the library to grab some tickets online. Karthika’s thriftiness wasn’t late either and we booked only return tickets to Chennai. We decided to take the train to save 100 bucks! Indian Railways. I didn’t have a voice there, for my account was left with INR 44.09 (the least I could do was recharge my phone).
Thanjavur is an ancient temple town, which in the traveller’s language translates into ‘be ethnic or don’t come here’. To live up to the occasion, we decided to wear sarees. Once inside the knots and loops of a saree, we realized that we couldn’t move an inch. Wearing a saree is partial mummification. You are denied breath, movement and the ultimate idea of being carefree. Thus, saree was returned to the closet, where it would lie for another three years.
Uzhavan Express departs at 10:50 pm. Taking this into account we reached the Chennai Central at 10: 35 pm and waited in the abnormally long nocturnal queue for tickets, only to realize five minutes later that Uzhavan Express departs from Egmore. I still haven’t been able to recollect what happened in the next few minutes. There was some bargaining, an auto ride and something related to potato chips and Little Hearts cookies. And then we were in the train.
The general compartment in the Uzhavan Express was a refugee camp. There were women sleeping under the berths, infants in makeshift cradles of cloth hanging from the ceiling, and a lot of other people trying to find some space to locate their bodies. Karthika mooted the idea of ladies compartment and linked it with safety (I still haven’t forgiven her for this cruelty!) Once inside the ladies compartment, our lives were never the same. It was a labor ward within a refugee camp. Babies wailed one after another and women shouted at each other, while we stood clueless to make sense out of the chaos.
Samuel wasn’t the same Samuel you’d meet in IIT Madras. That day, for the first time in our lives, we saw her raising her voice; demanding to an old lady to remove the luggage from the berth. Sadly, the consequences were too bitter. All the women joined the old lady to shout at Samuel. I have never laughed so well in the recent past, to see Samuel being attacked in Tamil. Her bravery was aptly rewarded; we were forced out of the seating area to the space in front of the toilets.
At 1 am the ruckus calmed down and The Girls sat near the compartment doors near the stinking railway toilets along with paavam cockroaches and rats. At 2 am, another party of women and children entered, squeezing the life out of us. Occasionally a baby shat and the entire area reeked of filth. If it were not for Varsha’s tiny perfume bottle, I’d have been dead. Allergies and filth make the perfect couple. By 6 am I was half dead. Not able to withstand the torture any more we got down at Kumbakonam. That was how we were ‘lost’ in some shady town of southern Tamil Nadu.
I couldn’t say who was more peaceful; Karthika or Buddha. She brought us into another of the realities of life. Well, after all she helped us save 100 bucks. *Applause* If there was one night when we all laughed like bewildered fools, it’s definitely the Uzhavan Express Thing. And that’ll go down in history as a ‘never again’ endeavor.