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Life on the tracks

Genuine compassion for everybody makes K. K. Narayanan different from the rest of us. As he serves snacks aboard the train, his warmth makes him a face to remember. K.BALAKRISHNAN, on this humble being who has touched people's heart.

COMMUTING AS perceived by Keralites underwent a sea change during October 1979. Commuting until then was restricted either to travel by bus or to short hauls by trains that used to match the commuter's time frames. October '79 saw the advent of Venad Express commencing its daily run between Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. This also marked the beginning of many firsts.

Venad Express was the first train in Kerala that was most convenient for commuters, what with it leaving Thiruvananthapuram at 5.00 a.m and arriving at Ernakulam South at 10.15 am and the return journey likewise in the evening. People from Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam who used to live and work in places as distant as Chengannur and Mavelikkara suddenly found themselves with the option of travelling daily to work from their homes. Another first about the Venad Express, which was also a great source of wonder and excitement among the people of Kerala at that time, was the inclusion of a pantry car or a `mobile kitchen' as it was popularly called. The vestibules connecting compartments and the fact that one could walk from one end of the train to the other were also incidentally a matter of wonder.

Early commuters by Venad Express would surely have many interesting anecdotes to recall about those initial journeys. Some memories might have by now been relegated to the archives of their minds. But, they would certainly have not forgotten this unique person, who was very much part and parcel of the early days of Venad Express.

The pantry car had many attendants vending a variety of beverages and foodstuff from coffee and tea to various delectable eatables. But, one person among them will stand tall in the memory of those who used to travel then. Remember a tall, gangly youth with the familiar steel flask and a clutch of disposable cups in his hand, who used to vend coffee on the train? A youth who had an ever-ready smile and a pleasant word for everyone? The man in grey trousers and shirt with a name board prominently and proudly displayed on his left shirt front which spelt out in white letters against a black background - K. K. Narayanan.

Old timers will and cannot forget Narayanan all that easily. He belongs to that now forgotten old school of people who take genuine pleasure in their work. Each and every passenger was someone unique to Narayanan. First timers to be greeted with a friendly smile and pleasant word, regulars to be acknowledged with friendly greeting and an enquiry about their health and well being. For Narayanan this was no gimmick to enhance his sales figures but a genuine manifestation of his warm inner self.

An incident that stands out vividly in memory with regard to Narayanan is something that took place at Piravom Railway station one evening .The Venad Express had stopped at the station for a crossing of trains. A few passengers had stepped down from the train between tracks and were whiling away their time with small talk. A train came thundering up the other track from Thiruvananthapuram side and passed by with a rush. Immediately after this a commotion was heard and it was found that one of the passengers who was on the side of the track had been viciously cut on the cheek by a stone thrown up by the passing train. Enter Narayanan. On seeing the blood Narayanan did not waste time in idle talk or enquiries. Instead, he rushed to the pantry car. Back very soon, carrying a flask of hot water, some cloth and a small paper packet, Narayanan started attending to the injured passenger. Cleaning the wound with hot water Narayanan used coffee powder from the paper packet to stem the flow of blood and then crudely but effectively bound up the wound.

He never waited for a word of thanks and one can be sure that Narayanan never expected it for he would have seen his action as only part of the service which he readily offered to everyone. Hailing from Karippal in Kannur District and based at Kochi, Narayanan has his family at his native village. Married, with two sons who are in school, Narayanan spends his day off at home with his family. Starting his career in Erode railway station in 1977 as an employee of the Indian Railways in the catering services, Narayanan joined for duty in the Venad Express with it's maiden journey. After a stint of service in the Venad Express till 1984 Narayanan was in charge of the tea and coffee vending stall at Ernakulam Town Railway till 1989. A short spell in the Chennai - New Delhi, Grand Trunk Express and Narayanan was back on the Ernakulam - Thiruvananthapuram- Ernakulam beat. Only this time he was operating on the reverse direction in a different train, the Vanchinad Express.

From 1989 till date his presence is very much part of the travel experience. As of old Narayanan is still very much the same person. Greying slightly and sporting a pair of bifocals, slightly stooped from carrying around those heavy coffee flasks for nearly a quarter of a century, the spirit and the basic character of the person remains the same-friendly, warm and outgoing.

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