The Kanyakumari Express

by Joe Morris

View out of the Kanyakumari Express, around Southern Andhra Pradesh
View out of the Kanyakumari Express, around Southern Andhra Pradesh

Victoria Terminus, if you come at it walking in from the north, does not initially appear to be the grand old cathedral of a building that it actually is. The business end of it, where the long distance trains originate and terminate, and where tickets are booked, is a thoroughfare filled with billboards ("Oxyrich Bottled Water 300% More Oxygen Than 16 Other Leading Brands") and a large archway with a massive digital clock. Only if you walk back out from this and around to the side of the building -- and keep walking and walking, it's probably half a mile long -- it then becomes all gothic stone and archways, with steel and glass pods that stick out every hundred meters or so, a shameless mating of bauhaus with ancient rock.

I went to Victoria Terminus (more commonly known just as "VT") three times before I actually was able to buy the ticket that I wanted. On my first visit, I found the part of the building that housed the offices where tickets are sold, and figured out the process for how you get a ticket. The first step is to find a "Trains at a Glance", which is a publication the size of a thick magazine with the Indian railways logo on the front, a friendly blue elephant waving a hurricane lamp. The next step is to figure out which train is appropriate for where you want to go; there are tables that describe this, but the instructions are limited, and I didn't actually realize that I hadn't fully figured out the system until I was a thousand miles from Mumbai (more on that later). For each train, it also lists all of the stops, and the times that it arrives at each station. After ascertaining the number of the appropriate train -- 1081, the Kanyakumari Express, in my case -- you take a number, and stand in front of a bank of monitors, each of which iterates through a set of ten trains, and shows how occupied each train is for the next month. A train goes through the stages of booking from open (green) to "Reservation Against Cancellation" or "RAC" (yellow) to "Waitlist" (magenta). RAC tickets give you permission to board the train without a seat assignment, and as far as I could make out from the description, hope that the conductor finds someplace to put you. You then fill out a blue ticket request form, to indicate the desired train, day, and class of service, and take it to a ticket window.

The computer running the monitor that would normally show the Kanyakumari Express had crashed and was permanently displaying the status of the Coimbatore Express instead. I complained to the Stationmaster, whose office was surprisingly vacant; he wobbled his head, asked what train, and promised to fix it. Wandering around the station further, I discovered that there was a special "Foreign Tourist" window, up the worn white marble stairs from the monitor room; it was closed, and there was a dejected Spaniard standing in front of it, evidently hoping that it might re-open off schedule.

The next day I came back; the train was waitlisted for a week out. There was a queue of seven other foreigners at the Foreign Tourist Window. The two at the tail were a pair of English women. We chatted for a while: how are you, how long have you been in India, where to next. One of them, with a group of three other women -- only two of them were at the station, one of them just having returned from a mad dash to fetch passports from the hotel, since there was a large sign indicating that it was necessary to have a foreign passport to buy a ticket here -- indicated that they wanted to go to Jaipur, in Rajasthan.
White-knuckled grip on the rail, looking at big rocky formations in A.P.
White-knuckled grip on the rail, looking at big rocky formations in A.P.

"We have got to get on this train tommorrow, or I don't know what we're going to do," she said.

"What's wrong with the day after tomorrow?"

"We've been here five weeks and now we've only got nine days left and all these things that we want to see. We have every day planned out, and if we can't get this train... well, I don't know. There's a wait list of over 250 people for the train we want tomorrow. I hope they can do something here."

Inwardly, I gloated at the wealth of time at my disposal, but to her I just replied sympathetically, "Well, I hope you get it then."
Passing a village on the train.
Passing a village on the train.

As we were saying this, a short, pudgy man wearing a grubby undershirt walked up to the side of the line, next to me and within less than a foot of the back of the neck of the other woman, literally breathing down her neck. He let out small grunts every few breaths and had a dirty porcine look, like he had just come from rooting for mushrooms in the fields. The Englishwoman looked over her shoulder with a look of discomfort; this was in flagrant violation of the Western concept of personal space. The proper thing at this point, in retrospect, would have been for me to point out that he was clearly in line behind me. Instead, I blocked him out, making sure to keep stepping forward faster than he was. He stayed right with me, and the result was that he was now standing two inches from my back. He hadn't shaved in several days; he brushed his cheek against my shirt and the stubble pulled at my shirt.

"Excuse me, but I think you were in line behind him," said the first Englishwoman.

The pig glanced at her and grunted. Two other young, well dressed Indians who were behind him translated this; he grunted again, glanced about nervously, and stepped back about four inches.

We shuffled forward at a ponderously slow rate, with little grunts and hot breath at my back the whole way. Each ticket purchase took about five minutes, although the two in front of me were swift: the group going to Rajasthan needed to go to Churchgate station to buy tickets, about two miles away, since it was "Western Railways", another division of Indian Railways, and the other woman and her boyfriend had not filled out their ticket request forms completely and stepped to the side of the window. I stepped up and handed over my ticket request form, which asked for a 3-tier air conditioned ticket to Ernakulam, which is in the middle of the coast of the state of Kerala, to the south.
Martha, Josemy, and Jose, the familiy with which I shared a compartment on the tain.
Martha, Josemy, and Jose, the familiy with which I shared a compartment on the tain.

The man behind the counter studied my ticket request for a moment.

"When are you wanting to go to Ernakulam?"

"On the 5th, if that's possible, or the 6th."

"Foreign Tourist tickets we only sell the day before. If you want to go to Ernakulam on the 6th, you show up here on the 5th."

As I hesitated for a moment with this new information, the ticket seller made a waving motion with his hand and the pig took this as a cue to make a dive for the counter, like a halfback ducking into the endzone, except with more grunting. I wandered off, wondering if there would actually be a ticket on the day before; both Naipaul and Theroux had pointed out how many tickets are reserved on Indian Railways for tourists, politicians, and other priveleged groups, so I figured the chances were good. Still, it seemed strange to force people to wait until the day before. Reaching the ground level, I regretted not watching to see if the pig had actually managed to buy a ticket, but it was too late.

Several days passed, and I talked to Amar and Sharek and saw Diwali fireworks. The manager of the Hotel Lawrence -- a great budget hotel, with all the stuff that matters: clean showers, mosquito-proof screens, competent management, a touch of old world charm, but no extraneous expenses -- confirmed that as a foreigner, I could get tourist-reserved tickets, but only the day before, or the same day if the train left in the afternoon. The Kanyakumari Express departed at 15:35 (the schedules were all in 24-hour format), so I showed up at the tourist window five minutes after it opened on the day I wanted to go. I by now knew the system; I filled out my form, and explained it to two young Korean menbehind me, and then one of them explained it to a group of four college-age Korean women who showed up behind them. The women were giggling, and they all wore surgical masks, in an attempt to ward off the diesel exhaust that wafted through Mumbai's streets.

I got my ticket without a hitch; I ate lunch, got my bag from the hotel and showed up at the train station an hour ahead of time. The car of the train was thouroughly blue: blue seats, blue drapes, a blue fan. There was a chain under the seat for locking one's bags; it was covered in blue vinyl. The car was in good repair, but there was some rust on the outside, and a thin layer of grime on the inside. The grime didn't look like the kind that could be washed off; this was embedded from decades of service in a dusty country. The car was two-tier air-conditioned, or "2AC", which is somewhere in between first and second class; each (blue) compartment had an upper bunk and a lower bunk on each side, holding a total of four people. It seemed like the upper bunk people got the short end of the stick, since there was no window up there; but I had no cause for worry, since I was in a lower bunk, and the only one in my compartment. Looking around, both inside and out of the train, and everything was as if it were part of a set for a movie that was taking place twenty or even forty years ago. Only occasionally would there be a clue out the window that would break the effect, like a man wearing Nikes.

The train pulled out of the station, and I watched as the railway yards of VT rolled by. There were ten or more parallel tracks, and people seemed to be using them as a sidewalk. There were ordinary Mumbai residents in polyester pants and shirts, street urchins, soldiers, a dozen railway workers, and a smartly dressed businessman with a briefcase; all were walking on the tracks like they were a main thoroughfare. Although the sun would be up for another three hours, the outside world appeared to be bathed in a roseate glow of sunset; Indian Railways had tinted the windows pink. We passed mirror images of my train, with the cars clearly labelled: "2 Tier Air Con", "3 Tier Air Con", "Sleeper", "Pantry", "Luggage". Luggage cars were white with red stripes, and they appeared to be the newest of the bunch. I found it hard to imagine the need for a separate luggage car, much less a shiny new luggage car, since there was quite a bit of room under my seat.

Indian Railway employees started to walk through the car. The sheets-man brought me a package of bedding wrapped in brown paper, inside which were nice thick sheets with the date of manufacture sewn into the edge; none are more than two years old. The chai-man stopped and offered me tea. The conductor stopped in and checked my ticket. Each of them completes his task, wobbled his head affirmatively, and moved on. A pudgy boy in a blue striped shirt from a few berths forward walked past more than once, eyeing me curiously, and finally stopped and asks, "Where're you going?" I tell him, and he goes back to his compartment. He was back a few minutes later, and plopped down on the same seat with a loud fart as he did so; after a minute or two of watching me read my book intently, he walked away again.

Fifteen minutes later, there were big cement block buildings with hundreds of anonymous apartments each; they could have been tenements, but some of the buildings were painted haapy pinks and yellows, and there was decoratively patterned Indian clothing hung out to dry from most of the windows. Half an hour after that, the urban jungle started to thin. There was a small brown thatched hut in a gap between some of the tracks, with thin white trees poking out of the roof and a goat tied up out front. In the strip of land at the border of the tracks, there were short seedlings, some kind of crop being grown. Half an hour after that, and there was green, swampy wetland outside, the first land that I had seen in India that was not being used.

The pantry car started to send forth emissaries, droning the names of their wares in monotone chant, like Benedictine monks: "chaiiiicoffeeeee, coffeeeeeeechaiiiii", "samosaaaay", "pakorrrraaaaaaay". Unlike the Mumbai hawkers, I found it to be a pleasant sound, even when they started the next day before dawn. I bought a bottle of water, the label on which stated: "Process: filtration, reverse osmosis, UV sterilisation, micron filtration and ozonisation", and then in another spot: "100% bacteria free, by process RO (American)". I decided it was probably safe to drink.

At Kalyan Junction, a family of three moved into the remaining berths in my compartment. The father was short, with a thin face and wiry hair, streaked with silver, that was carefully parted; the mother was dressed in a sari, with wide bulging eyes and an otherwise pleasant, even happpy, face; their daugther was probably about sixteen, wearing a blue-gray salwar kameez. She was fairly pretty, and seemed intelligent, but she also has a kind of callow, wide eyed manner. The train journey seems to be a big event for her. They spent several minutes moving in and chaining their hard-side suitcases underneath the seat. They finally settled in, all three sitting across on the opposite lower berth.

I had a wad of trash, and I asked the father if he knew where I could dispose of it. He led me down to the end of the rail car and pulled open a battered, unlabeled metal door that contained a trash can. I thanked him. He put his arms at his sides and pulled up his hands, palm down, and beamed broadly; it was the slightly effemiate gesture of a Dravidian genie granting a wish.

We returned to our seats, and the father interrogated me with the standard questions: where are you from, how long will you be in India. The reply "nine months" to the latter question brought him up short: I was here studying with a university, right? No, just wanted to see a big chunk of Asia without being rushed. I realized I didn't know his name, and asked him.

"My name is Jowse," he replied.

"I'm sorry, did you say Jowse?"

"Jowse; it is a Latin American, Spanish name, Jowse. J-O-S-E Jowse."

Here was a quick summary of Indian history: a man with a Portugese Catholic name, with an anglicised pronunciation. I wondered at what point Indian mothers had continued to give their children Portugese names, but forgot how to pronounce them. I explained how a Spaniard would say his name; he seemed to either not understand or not care. His wife's name was Martha, and his daugter's was "Josemy", which he later explained was a fusion of each of their names. I also told him, in response to his inquiry, that I was going to Ernakulam.

"We are from Trichur, two hours north of, Ernakulam," said Jose. "The day after tomorrow, we will get off of the train, Trichur, at four in the morning. Two hours after that, six in the morning, you arrive at, Ernakulam. Trichur, two hours, then, Ernakulam."

He paused each time he said "Ernakulam", and then he rushed through the actual name, so that it came out "Ernaggilam". And while many Indians will repeat an important word -- saying "pen pen" to ask for something to write with, for example -- Jose took this a step further and would repeat phrases, sentences, even whole thoughts.

Jose and Martha exchanged a few words in another language, and I asked what it was.

"We are speaking in, Malayalam," replied Jose. "All on this train are going to Kerala where we speak, Malayalam. We are going to Kerala so, we speak Malayalam."

I went back to reading The Old Patagonian Express, with which I was almost finished; Theroux was now with the aging Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, and was reading him Poe and Kipling. At one point they discuss the Nobel Prize in literature, for which Borges has been nominated, and Borges had just insulted Tagore, a Bengali poet, from eastern India -- Tagore got it [the Nobel] and he was an atrocious writer. He wrote corny poems -- moons, gardens. Kitch poems. -- when I looked up and realized I was about to miss the sunset; with the pink windows, it didn't look much different, except that the sun was lower in the sky. We were at the Karjat station, and there were green hills in the distance that recalled my fathers slides of Machu Picchu. The station was almost deserted, except for a few dogs flopped indolently on the platform. After we pulled out of the station, it turned into borderline jungle, with deep underbrush and vines hanging from the trees. Fifteen minutes later there were farmed fields, separated into vague grids by short walls of hay, with more of the machu picchu hills behind. The train went through a short tunnel, and when we popped out on the other side, there were stonework arches worthy of Southern France, sometimes short but more often a eighty feet high. There are several more tunnels; then we were in a gorge; suddenly there is a canyon on the east side of the train, plunging hundreds of feet to the rain forest floor. It was the sort of place where tigers pounced and king cobras slithered. The highest trees sprouted up like small broccoli bunches, but each with its own texture and shade of green. There is a big white house perched on a distant cliff, sticking out against the green.

I finished the remainder of The Old Patagonian Express, and then visited the bathroom, which was a squat toilet, from which eminated the sound of clacking wheels: the waste went straight out onto the track. There was a sign: "Please Avoid Using the Latrine in Stations."

I returned to my seat. It was only seven o'clock, but I was still tired from being sick and the rocking of all vehicles -- boats, cars, and trains -- has always had a strong sedative effect on me; so I unwrapped my blanket and October 2001 Indian Railways sheets and curled up. The family ordered dinner, and I fell asleep to loud slurping sounds and murmuring sounds of Malayalam. I woke up briefly at nine and the train was black and dead quiet. Dinner, it seeemed, put Indians to sleep.

I woke up at dawn. There were cultivated fields of sunflowers in full bloom; more green swampland; crops low to the ground; a two-story stone turret standing all alone. Marichethal was the next station. It was small, with roofless, abandoned buildings. Jose, Martha and Josemy pulled out sandwiches and eat them for breakfast. They did not close their mouths when they ate, and it made disturbing smack smack smack sounds as all three of them munched away. I had previously found Josemy to be rather pretty, but the sight of halfway chewed bread in her maw utterly demolished the attraction.

The fields out the window became more and more agricultural, with bulls pulling plows. At the next station, a boy came in selling stubby Indian bananas, which were each about the size of a Twinkie. Martha bought a hand of them; I held up three fingers, got three bananas, and gave him ten rupees. The boy started to turn away, and I put out a hand to try to stop him, but Martha got him first, addressing him in an upbraiding voice in -- Malayalam? Hindi? -- and then turned to me.

"You can get many more for that price," she said.

"I'd rather get change," I said, and then, like an Indian, repeated the salient word: "Change?"

"No, you should get ten rupees' worth, then eat for whole train ride." More stern words from Martha to the boy. He counted off twelve bananas and hands them to me. Martha chastised him one more time, and he reluctantly counted off three more: one and a half bananas per rupee was apparently the going rate. I peeled one and ate it in two bites; it was like a North American banana, but sweeter.

I walked down the length of the train as far as I could go, and reached a corrugated tin wall. I stood around, looking out the door, when a railway employee addressed me.

"You" -- mumble mumble -- "train?" he asked.

"I'm just looking at the train," I replied, pointing at my eyes.

"You " -- mumble mumble -- "car?"


He pointed back. I gave up and walked the other way; there was nothing to see there anyway. I walked back through my car, past my compartment and through to sleeper class, where the windows were open and the wind swirled through the compartment. The people who rode here have three bunks to a compartment; there was still a bench at the bottom, and one bunk hanging from the ceiling, but from that dangled hooks from which the third bunk, presumably, hung at night. The weather was perfect, and I breathed in the fresh air. It was also crowded and noisier. The people in second class looked like life has been harder on them: there was a wild haired old woman with a red and gold nose stud and a wooden staff, looking like a witch come in from the wilds, and a man who was missing a leg and limping on crutches. I came to the pantry car, and it was possible to go no futher -- the kitchen blocked the passage -- so I stopped at the last doorway and looked out. There was no barrier of any kind, I could have jumped out if it struck my fancy.

I walked back to my compartment, made short work of the remainder of The Old Patagonian Express, and started in on The Brothers Karamazov. It had nothing to do with India, trains, or even travel, but I had been meaning to read it for the last several years. I read for an hour, and then set my book down to look out the window. The woman from across the aisle, wearing a pink and red sari, came across and sat on my bench, picked up my book, and started to flip through it. She did this without speaking a word, and she was flipping through it mindlessly, without reading any of the words.

"Uh, hello?" I said.

She looked at me with an ingratiating, vacant smile and made a noise that might have been a greeting.

"Do you like Russian novels?" I asked. It was an inane thing to say, but she was still sitting there flipping through my book, back to front, front to back, and I felt the need to say something.

"Ah, well, excuse me," she said, and moved back across. "Excuse me" would have been a good way to start out, I thought, and stretched out to put my feet out to the end of my bench. Moments later, another woman who was with her sat on my feet, with her crying baby in her arms. I was just starting to wonder if this sort of imposition was commonplace on Indian trains, or if I was being taken advantage of, when a man sat down on the opposite bench, and Martha shooed him away. I glared at the woman on my bench until she moved, and Martha then closed the curtain on our compartment. The pink sari opens the curtain, and asked, can she sit here for two minutes? I can see that the baby has spilled some kind of food on their side of the aisle. Two minutes only, I reply. She cleaned up the mess from on our seat and then left; I made sure to keep the curtain closed as much as possible from then on.

There are brown fields out the window, which are separated by a haphazard grid of green grass; it's like a crazed chocolate mint dessert. There are occasional trees, with tiny trunks supporting wild poofy green afros.

I slept for an hour, and when I woke up, Martha immediately wanted to talk to me.

"There was a mouse, or rat, running," she said, pointing from their side to mine. "You should look, maybe behind your bags." She made a gesture that I should move my bag.

As I started to do so, all three of them pulled their feet. Martha and Josemy looked fairly frightened. This was India; there were supposed to be rodents. I was happy to see that the country was now prosperous enough that people were disturbed when they were in their rail car. There was a sheet of metal behind the area under my seat, but there was a space where a rat could go through. It was long gone.

Jose started to explain things to me that went by out the window.

"This is a neem tree, you see, neem tree. It has bitter seeds, good for health. It is in the Ayurvedic texts. A bitter seed, good for health. Neem tree. Here is paysaam, a drink that you can get. Only in good hotels, payssam."

"You can eat it with a spoon," added Martha.

"This is Andhra Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh," said Jose.

I started. I thought I was heading down the west coast of India, in Karnataka or perhaps Goa. Andhra is far to the east.

"This is what?" I managed to get out. I fumbled for my Indian Railways map and unfolded it.

"Andhra Pradesh, here, look," explained Jose. "We go through Andhra Pradesh, then to Tamil Nadu, then back to Kerala, for Trichur and then, Ernakulam. So this is, Andhra Pradesh. There is other train, which goes to Goa then Ernakulam, coast train, Trivandrum express. It is a newer train, faster train, Trivandrum express."

I explained that that was what I thought I was on.

"If you take that train, you would be in Ernakulam in six hours from now. This train, goes to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, then Kerala. It is old train, slow train. We only bought tickets two days ago, so, only on this train. When did you buy tickets?"

I explained the tourist ticket scheme; I could have gotten on that train, I just didn't read the schedule very carefully.

"Ah, well, next time, next time. If you were on that train, from now," Jose held up his watch and made a motion to indicate the hour hand moving, "eight hours, tonight you would be there. Next time you take Trivandrum Express."

The striped shirt farting boy returned and sat on my bench, obviously still intent on talking to me.

"Do you follow cricket?"

"No, but I follow football," I replied. This was not entirely accurate; I was just making conversation. I had watched part of a Manchester United game two days ago at Nirav's friends' place, but that didn't really qualify as "following".

"Ah, Renaldo is my hero, you know, Renaldo?"

I had to admit that I didn't really; my bluff had been called.

"Brazilian football player, Renaldo," said Jose. I nodded in agreement.

"You are speaking all languages?" asked the pudgy boy.

"No, no," I laughed. "Only English, French, some Spanish. No Indian languages."

Jose asks the boy what languages he speaks.

"Tamil, English, Malayalam, and Hindi," said the boy, counting them on his fingers. A voice called him back to his native compartment, and he excused himself and left.

"You are playing sports in school? Football?" asked Jose.

"No, windsurfing, though. You know windsurfing?"

Jose and Martha smiled blankly. Josemy, as always, was looking down.

"Sailing, do you know sailing? It's like sailing."

"Sailing, yes, sailing. And fishing, you are fishing as well?" asked Jose.

"Um, no. No fishing. And then there is surfing, do you know what that is? Surfing?"

More blank looks.

"I guess not. You get a long board, a long foam board about this long, and stand on it. You stand on it in the ocean, where there are waves, and ride them in, whooosh!" I stood up in a surfing stance, arms out and rocking slightly. I was hoping that possibly some old surfing movies might have made it to India to help me out, but evidently not: Jose still looked confused. I gave up and sat down.

"I am old, fifty five, and did not have these when I was in school. We have football, sometimes cricket. At school, we had one small ball, one big ball. Just football and cricket."

Lunch came, for which the orders had been taken half an hour before. We ate; within an hour, almost the entire car was in silence. Jose, Martha, and Josemy took to their respective bunks and slept. I went back to reading Dostoevsky. Fifteen minutes later, a small gray ball of fur scurried from my bags to Martha's, so quickly that I would have missed it if I had blinked. I pulled my legs up and kept reading; a doctor was talking to a monk: The more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular. I might have gone to the cross for human beings, had that suddenly been required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in a room with someone else, and I know this from experience. How about two days in a train compartment? Looking down the hallway of the car, I could have done a lot worse for company.

The family woke up after an hour and a half, and Jose pointed out that we were in Tamil Nadu now. There was a thick, many-layered blanket of clouds outside, which were both in the sky, and reflected in the rice paddies on the ground. Steep green hills reached up, with deep valleys in between: you could film a Vietnam war epic here.

I went back forward to second class and found an open doorway to hang out of. The tinted windows of 2AC looked were a sepia print, but this was Kodachrome. The air in 2AC was thin, only halfway air-conditioned, but the air outside was warm and thick with humidity; it recalled the same kind of transition I had experienced many times when getting off of an airplane in Florida, going from home back to college.

Out the doorway, a pole went by every five seconds, like a telephone pole, and they seemed to be right in front of my nose. In between these, there were men working on piling rock next to the track, and villagers walking by with water, hay, and other burdens. There were rice paddies next to the tracks, and several miles away there rose red cliffs that levelled out to mesas, and then enormous red blobs of rock; it was as if pieces of Colorado red rock and been lopped off of the Rocky Mountains with a giant scalpel and scattered here, on the green carpeting of Tamil cropland. Some hills are covered in greenery, but even these had streaks of red where landslides had exposed the rock.

The land was suddenly gone from under my feet and the bogie was flying through the air. Alarmed, I stepped back, bumping into a man behind me, and then approached the door again, timidly: we were going over a chasm on a bridge; I could look down and see a stream and smooth rocks below us.

We reached the far side, and soon after it started to rain. The first couple of drops hit my hand and stung like being shot with a low-powered BB gun, and I was forced to take a step back from the doorway. I stood watching the rains pour down onto the plains for two minutes, and then the man from the closest upper bunk came down to close the door: he was getting soaked. The train door was solid, with only a tiny window. There was nothing to see, so I headed back to my compartment.

Pulling out my Indian Railways map again, I started to plan future legs of my journey: how would I get from Kodaikanal to Pondicherry by rail? There were several possible routes, one through Trichy and one through Madurai. I asked Jose and Martha.

"You can go first to Trivandrum, then back, same track, to Coimbatore and then to Kodaikanal," said Martha.

"There is a bus service from Ernakulam to Kodaikanal, maybe a bus from Ernakulam to Kodaikanal," offered Jose.

Neither of these answers fitted my question. I tried to explain again that I was interested in how to get from Kodaikanal to Pondicherry. A woman, who turned out to be the mother of the chubby boy, was walking by; Martha stopped her and said something in another language.

"Her husband was for several years from Kodaikanal, you can ask him."

A walleyed man came by several minutes later, and began to converse with Jose in what I presumed was Malayalam.

"We are soon going through Coimbatore, and you can go from there to Kodaikanal," said Jose. "But it will be late at night, and now you are thinking of going to Ernakulam. So now you should not go to Coimbatore, and go to, Ernakulam. Then you take a bus from Erkakulam to, Kodaikanal."

This kind of route planning continued for five or more minutes; Jose, Martha, and the man who had lived in Kodaikanal were running me all over Kerala and Tamil Nadu. From there, it degenerated to general travel advice.

"Taxis are no good, take the busses. The busses are, fixed price," said Jose. "Buses will not cheat you like taxis. If you take a taxi, you make sure you pay the right price, the taxi drivers will cheat you."

"When you need directions, you ask at a hotel; never ask people on the street, they will give you the wrong answer. Always ask for directons at a hotel," added Martha.

It was like Polonius times three; Hamlet never had it this bad. Fortunately, Jose and the newcomer started in on an animated conversation in Malayalam, and then Martha looked out the window. As soon as it seemed safe to do so, I started back in on The Brothers Karamazov.

At four o'clock that morning, the family made a quiet commotion as they picked up their bags and prepared to leave the train at Trichur. I looked up sleepily.

"Now it is four; at six, you will be at Ernakulam. Half and hour and we are at Trichur, then two hours, and it will be Ernakulam," said Jose.

"Mmmm, okay," I replied, and dropped my head back into my pillow.

"You sleep! Are you sure at six you are awake and leaving the train?" asked Martha.

I assured her I would. The train came slowly, slowly to a halt at Trichur, as it did at all stations. It was sometimes difficult to tell exactly when the train had stopped, without looking out the window. They got off the train in a rush, although it stayed in the station for another fifteen minutes.

At the next station a man got on, locked up his suitcase, and flopped on to the opposite bunk. I slept for an hour, but then woke to watch the dawn rise on the palm trees and green plains of central Kerala, and at six, right on schedule, I got off at Ernakulam. As I rode in an autorickshaw to my hotel, dodging and weaving through traffic, I thought not for the last time about how nice it was to be on rails.

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