By Radha Nair
First published in Hindustan Times (Mumbai edition), 26 February 2008.
TRAVEL ALWAYS HOLDS a lot of excitement for me. Equally, soaking in the atmosphere of an almost forgotten tiny station is also most enjoyable for me.
I had been sitting on a hard bench for an hour on the Feroke station railway platform. It had been raining heavily. Then it changed to drizzle.
Rain water sloped down the tin sheet awning, and fell in liquid ropes to the uneven ground. It collected into small pools, or dribbled into the cracks, which had been widened by blades of grass springing up in gleeful green.
The platform was quite empty except for a stray dog, which came up to me wagging its tail and settled down close by, looking up at me hopefully with huge mournful eyes.
The faint light cast by the few lamps on the platform, set widely apart on tall wrought iron poles, spread slippery, silver shine on the rain washed rail tracks. In the shadows, a man leant against the closed doors of the waiting room.
In the hush, I heard the coarse scratch of a match, and turned to see in its brief flame, a face time etched and worn. He cupped the flame against a gust of wet wind. Soon only an orange dot glowed in the darkness.
Just behind me, the station master’s room blazed with light. He was busy answering the wireless. He buttoned and unbuttoned his black coat in impatience. The train from Ernakulam to Mangalore was late. Just then the phone rang. He grabbed it. He called out, “Velayudah” !
Soon Velayudan, emerged from the gloom, gathered up the thick cotton sheet which he had spread on a bench, and drew it close round his shoulders. He knotted his turban tightly round his bald head. He took the green signal lamp and walked to the dark end of the platform. As he swung along, the light from the lamp cast a greenish bloom on the rough stones of the station walls.
A metal rod was struck with such force that it set my teeth on edge. The beggars who slept behind the fenced-off side of the arched entrance leading to the platform, mumbled in their sleep and turned on their sides. This station had been their sanctuary for years. They had nowhere else to go. Their best friends were the trains which passed through, night and day. The sharp whistle, the hiss of steam, the surge of passengers, and the way the ground shook, when the iron horse thundered past... this was the music of their lives.
Through the curtain of rain, I looked at the shimmer of lamp light from the opposite platform. Some people scrambled down from that platform and ran across the lines just before the train arrived, to clamber up again to safety onto the platform where I sat.
These people always loved this little nocturnal flirtation with danger. Whatever else there was on hand for them, it could wait. But this wild dash over the rail track, just minutes before a train arrived, held some adrenalin pumping, important moments for them.
One single clang reverberated across the silent platform. I could make out nothing in the dark. Then a faint whistle floated through the air. A beam of light cut through the sooty dark. The shuddering sounds of the approaching train made me look more carefully.
Soon at the far end. I could see the engine, followed by the curve of compartments behind it, as it took the sharp bend. Faster and faster it came, until it swept in most dramatically into the station and past me, in one earth shaking, blurred rush of sound and movement.