The train pulled out of the maternal Chennai central station with a metallic groan. I checked my watch and to my surprise, and contrary to Gopala Pillai's long list of Warnings and Expectations of India ("6 of 38 - Trains in India are never on time"), the departure was on the dot. "Train No.6319 - Chennai-Thiruvananthapuram Mail; Departure: 1855" said the functionally complicated Indian Railway timetable. I remember Gopala Pillai shaking his head resignedly and murmuring under his breath, "Meant for geniuses" as he tried to comprehend the manner in which the time table was set out just after a cousin's cousin had delivered it on his return from India.
Gopala Pillai was my old PSA buddy. Our friendship went back to the early fifties, through the thick and thin of times, before Singapore as a nation was even dreamt of. We had planned this trip to India for over six months; mine, after more than a decade and his, after a year. There was only one last minute and rather unexpected hitch. He died. His death, which came three days before our flight to Chennai was of course a set back. I was in the mood to cancel the whole thing and call it fate when Ajay, an Engineer with Singapore Telecoms, clasped my hand in his and said, "You go, Uncle. Achan would have wanted you to."
"Once in a while one has to get away from the inhumanly clinical cleanliness of Singapore, my dear Keshu" Gopala Pillai used to say shaking his index finger and with much emphasis on the word "has". Then he would declare lying back in his easy chair, his hands behind his head and looking straight into my eyes, "There is much humanity in dirt and grime, dear Keshu. Much humanity." But my Singapore tempered senses was not prepared for the extent of this "humanity" in Chennai. I would have preferred it a little less humane and a little more clean. So after a shorter than scheduled stay in Chennai and a proportionately longer stay at Thirupathi it was time for this trip to Thiruvananthapuram where my only surviving brother was.
As the train picked up speed, I surveyed my fellow travelers in the first class compartment. A youngish looking man, clean shaven, wearing a spotless white kurtha pajama was occupying one of the window seats, while the other was taken up by a North Indian (I guessed) in shorts and a tee shirt. I assumed both to be in their early thirties. Both of them had their faces buried behind some reading material, which gave me the impression that they would rather be let alone.
"Keshavan Nair, Male, 66 and Gopala Pillai, Male, 68," the black coated ticket examiner said settling down beside me. I could see in the dim light that his eyes were bloodshot. I gave him my ticket and said, "Gopala Pillai is not coming."
The ticket examiner looked at me from head to toe and sized me up. For a
moment, I got the feeling that I said something wrong. Then to my relief,
his face put on a toothy grin as he said, "Your friend, not coming? Cancelled
trip?" I nodded my head. "So I will give this berth to someone else,
OK?". I again nodded my head as he returned my ticket. He seemed incredibly
Then he called out the names of the other two as they gave him their tickets. A "Sailesh Chatterjee, Male, 31" and a "K.Patel, Male, 34".
Looking for a space to keep my single Delsey suitcase bought exclusively from where-else-Mustafa, I peeked at the space beneath my seat. There was just a family of distinguished looking cockroaches convening around a large piece of banana fritter. Seeing the way their antennae were shaking about, I guessed they were discussing something of great importance; possibly the Impact of the Asian Economic Crisis on Railway Food Quality. Being a reasonable man, I decided not to disturb them and kept my Delsey on the small side table meant for keeping lunch trays. The two other suitcases that were under the other seat, I guessed, belonged to Chatterjee (the kurtha man) and Patel. It was then that I noticed that, like mine, both had signs of international travel. The one with Patel's name had a tag telling me it came from Durban and the other had Los Angeles written all over it.
The night came and went silently (by this time the rhythm of the train had merged into a background quiet). No words were exchanged between us fellow travelers while each of us went about our business of bed-making and preparations to sleep. Neither did any one come to claim the vacant berth.
The morning unwrapped itself through the brown barred windows of the compartment, and with it woke noises. Of stations, and coffee vendors, Appam & Mutta curry sellers, Mathrubhumi-Manorama men. "Thrishoor aayi. Erangu, erangu," someone said from the neighbouring compartment. I stepped on to the platform to stretch a numb leg and stifle a yawn. After the steaming coffee that cleared my senses and some blocks in my bowels, I decided to return to my seat and wait for my turn to the toilet.
"Lock the door please. People will start cramming in," Chatterjee's
face peeped out of the upper berth. The r in "cramming" rolled artificially.
Although the word "please" was there, it seemed to me that he said
it more out of habit than as a request. His tone was gruff. I locked the door.
Almost an hour had passed when Patel emerged from his upper berth, a frothy toothbrush sticking out of his mouth and a towel hanging from his shoulder. He appeared to be in a great hurry and was somewhat irritated for having to unlock the door to get out of the compartment. Less than a minute later a man holding a half-naked toddler stood at the doorway.
"Excuse me. This seat vacant?" he asked. Since the sun was behind his back, I strained to make out his face. He stepped in and sat facing me before I could reply, and set the bare-bottomed kid on his lap. I sized him up as the ticket examiner had sized me up the previous night. He must have been in his late fifties, a thin broken down man with a face that could smile easily and a mouth that occupied most of that gaunt face. His eyes held the promise of anecdotes and endless tales of wit. He was wearing a soiled cotton dhothi and shirt that looked as if the wrinkles on his skin had somehow spread to his garments. He also had a towel hanging loosely from his shoulders.
"Prem Kumar," he extended his right hand while the other balanced
the kid on his lap. His face was beaming like the morning sun outside.
"This is a first class compartment," Chatterjee cut in from above.
"Oh! I know, saar," Prem Kumar's teeth were still in display, "I am a first class passenger."
For a person his age, his name, I thought, was very unusual. If someone had
asked me to pin a name for a face like that, I probably would give him a Ganapathy
Iyer or a Ramanatha Iyengar but never a Prem Kumar. Never a Prem Kumar. His
parents must have been way ahead of their time.
"Actually my seat is in the next compartment. Gokul's mother (he tapped the kid's knees) is giving milk to the baby, you see." he gave a peck on the kid's cheek. I noticed the kid too had the same ear-to-ear mouth as the man. As the child breathed, a bubble of snot waxed and waned from his nostrils.
"My Gokulu caught a cold last night," the old man said as he wrung
the snot out of the kid's nose and wiped it on his towel.
"I am going to put all this yellow stuff in a little bottle and sell it as 'Gokulu's Glu'" Prem Kumar laughed a narrow laugh as he looked at my face for support. I smiled in return.
"Keshavan Nair, Tampines, Singapore," he read the label on my suitcase. The "pines" of "Tampines" rhymed with "lines".
"It's pronounced Tam-PEN-IS," I corrected him, giving emphasis to pen-is.
"Penis?! Aiyyay! That is a vulgar word!" Prem Kumar slapped his forehead and started laughing. I could feel blood rushing into my cheeks; my ears suddenly felt hot.
"That is pronounced PEE-NIS not PEN-is," said Chatterjee amusedly as he stepped down from his berth.
"Very confusing, very confusing," Prem Kumar shook his head, "Pines is pronounced as Penis, Penis is pronounced as Peenis."
The three of us laughed as Patel walked in looking fresh and relieved.
"So you are from Singapore - hope I have pronounced that right,"
Prem Kumar said looking at me.
I nodded with a smile.
"Tell me about Singapore, saar. My son had been there once. For a conference. He tells me it is the cleanest city in the world. Is that true?"
"It is clean," I replied, "But I don't know whether it is the cleanest city in the world. I haven't traveled that much."
"Any way, tell me more about the place, its people and so on." Prem Kumar seemed genuinely interested. The kid on his lap looked at me with his bare-bottomed blankness.
I told him about my Singapore. About how a pleasant contagion starts unfailingly
in the dying weeks of every July, invading the outer walls of every building,
spreading like a red-and-white pox and reaching a climax of high fever on
the 9th of every August month. About how her people stand patiently in queues
overnight to get a ticket that would give them the chance to sing the Majula
together making every hair on their skins stand in salute to the fluttering
flag. Of the great strides we made since nationhood. Of the harmony of her
people despite the great diversity in race and religion. Of the leaders and
their dreams. I could have gone on and on if it wasn't for little Gokul, who
suddenly started sucking his thumb.
"Oh-Oh!" Prem Kumar said looking at the child, "Gokulu, are you hungry?" then turning to me he said, "doesn't utter a word, the child. Sucks his thumb when hungry. Hold your story where it is, while I get some milk for the poor boy, OK?"
He was back before I could utter Prem Kumar; holding the boy in his left hand while his right hand held a milk bottle to the child's mouth. He seemed such an expert at this, as though he has raised many grand children before Gokul.
Our little chat took us from Singapore to South Africa to the US and finally to Indian politics. Patel and Chatterjee were also roped in by Prem Kumar. His anecdotes on the political set up of India regaled us to no end.
Ernakulam came and went, and by that time we were on first name terms. Just
as the train neared Changanassery, I noticed a little puddle forming beneath
Prem's feet. The child's urine had traveled along the folds of Prem's dhothi
and trickled down the tip. Prem quietly lifted the child up, "Should
not jerk the boy. It will disturb his peeing," he said. Somehow, a jet
of urine fell on Chatterjee's suitcase on the floor. He was visibly annoyed.
"Please point it somewhere else," his voice was shrill.
By then, the child stopped his fountain. Prem quietly set the child on the seat and with his towel, he wiped Chatterjee's suitcase clean. He then got down on all fours and wiped the floor with it.
"I hope it's clean enough," Prem said, wiping his brow. "May not be Singapore clean though," he added with a chuckle, looking at me.
"It's almost time," he suddenly said getting up with the child and leaving the compartment.
After the train had pulled out of Changanassery, he returned to our compartment
minus the child.
"What happened to your grandson?" I asked, "Fell asleep?"
"Grandson?" he looked puzzled for a moment, "Oh! You mean Gokulu. He is not my grandson. He was just the child of a fellow traveller like you. They alighted at Changanasserry," he said.
"Come to think of it, I miss him already!" he said quietly.
The words of Gopala Pillai rang in my ears. Strangely, I understood him better now.