The author hops platforms at the Madurai railway junction and finds it is a hotchpotch of colours, sounds and emotions, just like the city.
I hear the train whistle, as I swerve into West Veli Street. “Gaadi number ek -do -chhe -teen -aat Pandian superfast express ek number platform me khadi hai” — a sonorous voice announces, in a heavily South-Indian accented Hindi. I am at the Madurai junction – not to catch a train. But to watch how others do it!
“Hurry up…,” a mother nudges her daughter. A billowing handbag slung over her shoulder makes it droop as she strides ahead. A man drags a huge suitcase in one hand and his little son in the other. Others mill and dash around with bags, water bottles, food parcels, slung over every possible part of their anatomy.
A big family of uncles, aunts and children sit around devouring puliyodharai and lemon rice. Not too far away from them, a Gujarati family dig into paapdi, khakhras and murmuras. A small boy hums ‘chikku bukku rayile…’; sadhus in saffron break into a bhajan with accompanying cymbals…
The evening sun bounces off the glass façade of the station, the bell chimes at the small Ganesha temple maintained by the porters union, the coolies in red uniform unload bundles and parcels off a wooden sledge as stray dogs meander through groups of people squatting on the platform and piles of bags.
Policeman Mariappan is strict at the baggage screening counter. “Cigarette lighter not allowed…,’ he whisks items away from passengers. The metal detector beeps each time a person walks through. In the lobby, kids hop on to the weighing machines emitting fluorescent lights in moving circles. A conservancy worker sweeps the floor, another chases a rat and a group of passengers rest under a whirring pedestal fan. A few foreign tourists click pictures.
In the midst of the seeming chaos is a hark back to history. There are black-and-white photographs of Gandhiji’s arrival and stay in Madurai. A plaque explains the Mahatma’s Madurai connection. Next to it, are photographs of Swami Vivekananda when he visited the city before and after the Chicago conference.
I join the long queue at the ticket counter for a platform ticket. “Five rupees,” says the man and hands out a pink slip of paper. In the adjacent queue, a quarrel erupts between two passengers. Ganesh, the RPF personnel steps in to quell the clash. “It’s tiring to maintain peace and order in such a big station,” he sighs. Though Madurai is a small town, its railway station comes under grade A1 and has eight platforms.
It’s close to 8.30 p.m. and people rush to the platform where the Pandiyan Express is ready for departure. Two men in uniform check passengers for tickets. On platform No: 1, a number of brightly lit restaurants offer their wares. Arya and Asin grin from back-lit ad boards. A vendor rings a bell to get people move out his way, as he pushes his cart laden with chips, biscuit packets and rail neer bottles. Another calls out ‘vaazhapazham’. A yellow trolley zips by, ferrying an old man.
Another announcement echoes through the station. People surge to the touch screen to know their PNR status. Some squint at the reservation list stuck outside the coaches. Ticket Examiner, Ramasubramanian arrives just in time, clambers on board and chains his suitcase to the side lower berth. “This is my routine route. Pandiyan is one of the busiest trains and it’s difficult to get a confirmed ticket,” he says. He directs a set of pilgrims bound for Rameswaram.
Guard Navin Meena, who has been posted at the Madurai station for the past one year answers calls on a walkie-talkie and writes down the departure and arrival records of trains on a form. “We have safety equipment inside the suitcase,” he explains, pointing to a dozen other such locked iron boxes lying on the platform, with names of loco-pilots painted on them. “In case of emergency, I light a fuse that is visible for one kilometre.” He hopes he never has to use them.
Soon, the whistle blows, the signal changes from red to green and the train moves. Passengers press their faces to the grill windows to wave at friends and family. There are a few teary eyes and a few young boys cheer their friend going to Chennai. In the nick of time, a man runs along the train and swings himself on board, like a movie star. I climb to the over bridge and take in the view of tall inns on West Perumal Maistry Street, the Koodalazhagar temple tower, the cross of the Periyar Bus Stand Church, minarets of the TPK Road mosque and vehicles moving on the Ellis Nagar flyover.
People jostle to use the escalator to reach Platform No.2. The six-month-old facility is still a pride of the station and is a fun ride for the Madurai public. There’s giggling and laughter, as men and women unsteadily step on the escalator.
The Vaigai express has just arrived on the platform and people welcome dear ones with smiling faces, hugs and hand shakes.
(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).