Aparna Karthikeyan travels on a MRTS train, the last service for the day from Beach Station to Velachery and takes in the sights and sounds of this metropolis

At the brightly lit Beach station, a beautiful actress, endorsing a sari store, smiles from every pillar. I want to smile back at her, but the unpleasant smell from the toilets makes me scowl. It’s 9.30 p.m. and I’m standing in a line, behind ten other people, waiting to buy tickets for the last MRTS service to Velachery. A young chap strikes up a conversation; I hear ‘Egmore’ and ‘Assam’; ‘I don’t know Hindi’ I reply; he loses interest.

The queue moves slowly. The man in front waves a Rs.1,000 note at his wife and scolds her for not bringing smaller currency. She grabs it from him, pushes ahead and buys the tickets, counting over Rs. 960 in ‘change’. At the ticket window, framed by cobwebs, I ask for two tickets — I have a friend with me — to Velachery. ‘Rs.14. Don’t you have change?’ I’m asked, when I hand a Rs.20 note. We collect the tickets and look for the platform.

A Saravana Bhavan outlet does brisk trade. A man outside directs us to platform 8 for the Velachery train. We climb the overbridge, and our breath catches — the view is stunning. Chennai city winks white and yellow; to the right, are the stately banks of First Line Beach; to the left, the harbour shimmers, reflecting the blinking red lights from slender cranes. Rail tracks snake in from the darkness, and hug platforms drenched in fluorescent light.

A small crowd is already waiting for the Velachery train. The train from Pattabiram pulls in; passengers get down, rush into a waiting train, only to climb out the other side. Two women board the Pattabiram train with brooms and start sweeping. ‘If you miss the 10 p.m. train, only auto!’ a railway guard tells us before stepping into the Avadi train. He waves as it leaves the station.

The MRTS arrives between platform 6 and 7 at 9.53 p.m. We climb into the last compartment, and sit on comfortable, brown laminate seats. ‘For the kind attention of passengers, the next train to Velachery will leave from platform no. 6’ a lady announces in three languages. The train hums to life; fans whirr; a sharp whistle later, we’re off.

A long love poem in Tamil, posters plugging TV serials and pamphlets flogging real estate decorate the compartment. An old man reads a Telugu newspaper, with a huge obit on Pandit Ravi Shankar; others text or talk on mobile phones. The friend and I are the only women, but the compartment is far from empty. I.R. Nehsan, who lives in Karapakkam, hands me his business card and tells me he routinely travels upto Tidel Park by MRTS, and then onwards by bus. A pleasant breeze wafts in through half-open, blue edged windows, but near Park Town, the pong from Buckingham canal kills all joy.

Colourful vignettes

A policeman walks the Chintadripet platform with a lathi. When we leave the station, we realise we’re several feet above the city; somewhere, the train has started ‘flying’. Below, construction workers in yellow hard-hats twist steel rods to form enormous structures. Napier Bridge comes into view; the pearly white arches melt into their own reflection in the Cooum.

At the Chepauk station, ‘M.Dhanasekar’ is graffitied in thick, black letters on the pista green walls. The train stops for just a few seconds; a man in white, and a lady in a blue sari, both signal us on with green torches. The ride along the Marina is lovely; in the distance, the sea and sky are sealed in darkness. The tracks kiss balconies of the houses; naked bulbs light narrow streets and brightly painted walls. At 10.17 p.m., we’re at Light House station. As soon as we leave its paan stained walls, the actual Light House appears; but the incandescent Citicenter, to the right, distracts us.

The train rushes past an incomplete station, and pulls into Thirumailai; we wonder if every dustbin is invisible to the passengers, who’ve littered the entire station. ‘Wake me when we reach Tidel Park’, one passenger tells M. Robert, a regular MRTS commuter, and goes to sleep. We go past the cheery yellow Indira Nagar station, in the grip of some major renovation; scaffolding, sand and gravel fills over half the space. After the huddle of central Chennai, Tidel Park, from the elevated track, seems almost ‘foreign’; a clutch of tall buildings and clusters of thin white windows stand out against the black sky.

At Taramani, I notice three men behind my seat trying to read my notes; I snap the notebook shut, ashamed of my terrible handwriting. They walk to the door, and wait for the last station.

We’re travelling again at ground-level; the train reaches Velachery station at 22.43 p.m. A policeman checks the compartments; men head for the ‘drinking water’; and a few yards from a penguin dustbin, a man affectionately asks a howling dog ‘yen da azhuvurey’, before gathering phlegm and spitting it on the platform. And the dog howls some more…