Travelling to Tamil Nadu (Friday 28th to Saturday 29th April)

When Mood Music
2006-04-28 23:59:00


"" Gautami, Suriya, Bobby, Laxmi, Rajesh and Dhanush
"" Bobby, Gautami, Suriya and Laxmi

I can’t remember much about this journey. I know we (I, Laxmi, Rajesh, Suriya, Bobby, Goutami and Dhanush) took trains from Margao to Mangalore (i.e. south along the west coast from Goa to southern Karnataka) and thence to Salem in Tamil Nadu. The first train officially departed Margao at 1.35pm. (In reality, it was an hour late, leading me to worry that we’d not make our connection.) Just before we left, Bobby announced that she and her children would leave the second train at Coimbatore in west Tamil Nadu: Ravi had changed job, which necessitated them moving house, so she had to attend to that and would probably miss the wedding. I was quite saddened by this – I’d been utterly smitten by Dhanush and Gautami.

Suriya and Bobby had spent a lot of time making food for the journey: lemon rice, chapattis and mango chutney, all of which were delicious. Reserved seats were wonderful – no overcrowding, no insane fights to get through the doors, space for luggage, fold-down tables, the works!

"" reserved-seat carriage

We made our connection at Mangalore in plenty of time and I was introduced to the delights of three-tier sleepers. The carriages are divided into booths (not compartments: there are no doors). In each booth, the seats (which are perpendicular to the carriage sides) double as bottom bunks. The seat-backs swing up to become the second tiers and the third tiers are at about head-hight. Across the aisle from the ends of the three tiers, parallel to the carriage sides and perpendicular to the three-tier bunks, are two more bunks: one at seat height and one at head-height. There’s no luggage racks but there are chains under the lowest bunks to which you can lock your bags. The bunks have some padding and are covered in vinyl – just what you need in this climate!

I don’t know how we wangled getting a complete booth to ourselves: the numbers on the beds didn’t quite tally with the numbers on our ticket. Bobby and Dhanush* were on a bottom bunk, with Gautami above them and Rajesh on the top bunk. Suriya was on the bottom bunk across the booth from Bobby and Dhanush, Laxmi was above her and I had the top bunk. There’s absolutely no privacy: not even curtains separate the bunks in a booth from each other and there’s only a wire mesh divider between booths at top-bunk level. Indian Rail doesn’t provide bedding** so most folk slept in their clothes. I had a sheet sleeping bag so I crawled into it, changed into lycra shorts and bedded down: I think I even got 5 hours’ sleep.
*under-5s don’t have need tickets and so don’t necessarily have their own seats or bunks
**Well, it may do in 1st class sleepers

The high spot of the journey was eating banana bhajis (slices of banana coated in gram-flour batter, then lightly fried) bought from a vendor at one of the stations. The bananas here are short, thick and not as sweet as ‘UK’ bananas but very filling. By the way, a banana tree isn’t a tree at all, it’s an annual grass. So don’t tell them your guilty secrets.

The low spot was the difference in opinions between Bobby and I on corporal punishment of children. I think it’s always unacceptable. I’d be interested to hear the views of any parents out there.

Bobby, Dhanush and Goutami were met by Ravi: he’d started growing a beard, and joked this was in my honour.

"" Bobby, Dhanush, Ravi, Gautami, Rajesh, Suriya, Laxmi
"" I’d had a hair-cut and beard-trim. I felt almost presentable.

By now dawn had broken and we were travelling through Tamil Nadu’s plains. There were some wonderfully wierd trees and in the distance, some attractive hills.

"" Tamil plains


Tamil Nadu is in the grip of election fever. The main parties seem to be the MDMK and the AIADMK: two factions formed from the pro-Tamil/Dravidian, anti-Hindi and central government DMK party. One of the recurring images is of Jayalalithaa, leader of the AIADMK.

The parties appear to be falling over themselves to offer the electorate more and more subsidised or free rice, free colour TVs and other largesse. From what I’ve heard* this largesse may only go to people who actually vote for whoever wins**. No-one I’ve talked to can say accurately how whoever forms the new state government will pay for it. (Most don’t seem to understand the question!***) A few are downright cynical about whether it will actually arrive. Suriya’s brother, Gopal, suggested Delhi would subsidise it. If so, this seems remarkably unfair on the rest of India and seems to fly in the face of the independence part of the Dravidian parties’ policies.
*I may well have mis-understood
**in which case, so much for secret ballots
***It’s quite possible this is due to the way I ask it.

Congress seems to have an alliance with the MDMK – their posters feature Kalaignar Muthuvel Karunanidhi. I can’t say the images would make me want to vote for him. I’ve seen lorry-loads of people being driven to rallies and party symbols* painted on just about any wall that’s available. I haven’t been able to find out whether the parties pay people for the use of their walls. I have been told that there is no limit to election spending.
*MDMK is a sun rising between two hills in red and black, someone else uses a multi-coloured mango and AIADMK uses two green leaves.

At Salem, we overloaded an autorickshaw and put-putted our way to the house where Suriya’s middle daughter (Nitya) lives with her husband (Balaji), their one-year-old son (Kaushik), Suriya’s husband (Rangan) and Suriya’s brother (Gopal). Gopal’s a (retired?) electrical engineer and Balaji works nights at a courier. Nitya was obviously queen of the house, despite being only 17.

Again, I was given a fantastically warm welcome. For example, I was given one of the two beds in the house: everyone else apart from Gopal slept on mats on the floor. I did say that I was happy to be like everyone else and that I certainly didn’t want to put anyone else out of their own bed. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t gel with Gopal (a clash of mannerisms: he didn’t do anything that was actually bad).

"" Priya, Kaushik, Suriya and Nitya

Suriya had brought some brandy for her relatives (it costs twice the price in Tamil Nadu that it costs in Goa). Balaji gave a quarter of his bottle to Rangan and/or Gopal (I didn’t see who took it) and then invited Rajesh and I to drink with him. Someone had prepared a lot of pakora and rice, so once I’d put a decent lining in my stomach and was sure I would be safe, I joined in. (Rajesh managed to refuse all offers of alcohol.)

Balaji would pour a finger of brandy into a plastic cup, then fill the cup with water. I was dubious about the water and didn’t like the taste of this mixture anyway*, so I slammed half-finger shots, followed with cups of water from my filter bottle. I also kept on eating to make sure I got no more than merry. (This was a mistake in that later Suriya and Nitya would try to force-feed me a full meal. At each meal this week I had to repeat that I was full, that more food would spoil my enjoyment of what I’d already eaten and that perpetual argument about it was very unpleasant.)
*subliminal tastes make me yearn to taste the undiluted thing

By the end of the session Balaji and I had got the bottle down to about half-empty. Balaji then showered and went to work, while Suriya, Nitya, Laxmi, Priya, Rajesh and I went to the city centre so that Suriya could buy Kaushik’s birthday present, a wee trike.

"" Kaushik

This was the first time I saw a Tamil temple close-up. They’re fantastically ornate and I may go back to Tamil Nadu just to photograph some.

"" A temple in Salem



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