What does the bustling Tambaram railway station look like before the first train rolls out in the wee hours? Surprisingly silent, except for a few stalls getting ready to cater for commuters, discovers a bleary-eyed Prince Frederick

The railway station at Tambaram is uncharacteristically quiet. The pedestrian overbridge echoes faintly with the footsteps of passengers. They walk past a beggar woman who does not care to ask for alms — she has fallen asleep, sitting on her haunches. There are no porters to carry luggage. No autorickshaw drivers either to ferry passengers home. The long pathway that leads to the main road is bereft of hawkers. Nor is it lined with beggars. For someone accustomed to seeing a bustling station, the scene is disorienting. Given my overpowering sleepiness, Senthil Kumar is a welcome sight. This youngster, who mans the cash counter at the parking section, appears to be in a hurry to take on the day. It's only 3.40 a.m., and he's already brushing his teeth. Senthil's day begins very early and ends very late. A couple of hours from now, he won't be able to call his soul his own. A tinkle from the bell of a cycle checking into the bay suggests that his hours of respite may be shorter still.

Quick cup of milk

Further away, other cogs in the machinery begin to get oiled. At the Aavin outlet that serves commuters lingering on platforms 1 and 2, where suburban trains stop, Kuppuswamy washes utensils and boils milk. When he is told that this reporter is capturing the rhythm of the station at odd hours, his face puckers into a frown. He cannot believe that someone can think 3.30 a.m. is unearthly.

In a short while, Kuppuswamy and his colleagues will take on an impatient throng of morning-shift workers, who have to subsist on the steaming cups of milk he serves until the canteens at their workplaces open for breakfast.

Kuppuswamy speaks softly, as if it were sacrilege to disturb the silence of the early hours. Apparently contemptuous of his sentiment, the disembodied voice of the public announcement system blares into the chill air: “The train for Chennai Beach leaves at 4 a.m. from platform number 7!” This is an odd suburban service from Tambaram to Chennai Beach — the first of the day — that is primarily aimed at passengers who have alighted from long-distance trains at that hour.

When the waiting train finally disappears into the pre-dawn darkness, carrying a small clutch of passengers, this platform and the adjacent one — number 6 — are enveloped in an oppressive emptiness.

Looking for a story

Software professional Premnath, seated on a bench at number 6, is feeling lonesome. He welcomes the prospect of having a conversation with someone. While I stand there, wondering how to communicate a story that is pathetically lacking in characters, he clears his throat and says, “Yes?”

“Did you miss the train to Chennai Beach?” I ask, hoping he will share rich and long experiences of taking pre-dawn suburban trains from Tambaram everyday. “No, I am waiting for my mother, who is travelling from Salem,” says Premnath. “Where are you going? Are you waiting for someone too?”

“I am waiting for people. I am waiting for a story. I have to get an interesting story before the first hint of sunrise.”

Premnath wishes me luck.

The announcement that the next train for Chennai Beach leaves at 4.20 a.m. from platform 2 keeps my hopes alive. There, I meet Selvaraj who sells coffee in paper cups for small change. He plies his trade on long-distance trains when they stop at Tambaram. Due to the delay in the arrival of such a train, he has come to try his luck with passengers taking the suburban service.

The Beach-bound 4.20 a.m. train is sparsely occupied, but he manages to sell a few cups.

Around 5 a.m., I return to the parking counter, where I notice Senthil at his post. His hair oiled and slickly combed and his ticket books in place, the youngster is charged and ready to tackle the stressful rush hours. A few paces away is a woman begging for alms. I head back to the twin platforms for suburban trains and they no longer wear a deserted look. Kuppuswamy has been joined by a colleague. The outlet is swarming with customers. It's business as usual.

As I leave, I sense the station slowly becoming its usual self — noisy, busy and full of life.

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Prince FrederickMay 11, 2012