DIVYA KUMAR goes on a round trip on the MRTS and discovers how pretty Chennai is from up above

It’s 8:45 a.m. on a cool and cloudy morning and I stand fumbling with my change at the ticket counter of the Tirumailai MRTS station. My mind is in its usual foggy Monday morning condition (not even my acrimonious battle with an auto driver had woken me up), and it takes me so long to slowly count out the change for my Rs. 12 roundtrip ticket to Velachery that the elderly man at the counter serves three regulars in the queue behind me before I finish.

When I reach the platform, I find it’s packed — despite the fact that trains are running at a frequency of 10 minutes — and when the next train reaches, it’s so full that for a panicky second I’m convinced I’m never going to get into the ladies compartment. Luckily, I manage to squeeze in and find a spot to stand by the open entrance.

Once my heart rate settles, I take a look at the women around me. They all seem cut from the same mould — 20-something, in a neat salwar kameez, handbag over one shoulder and cylindrical lunch-bag in one hand, and the earpiece of thecell phone dangling from one ear. And most of them are staring unseeingly ahead in a semi-comatose ‘It’s Monday morning and I’m on my way to work’ way I can relate to.

Chatting with office-goers

At some point, I find a seat to sit and start chatting with some of them. They’re all IT professionals, I find, and on their way to assorted workplaces along the IT Corridor, like their male counterparts in the other compartments.

“The train will be empty by the time we reach Taramani,” Kavipriya, a programmer, tells me knowledgeably. She, like all these women, takes the train twice a day during peak hours — between 8 and 10 a.m. in the morning and 5 and 7:15 in the evening. “I always make it a point to leave by 7 p.m. at the latest, because during peak hours, the women’s compartment is very safe,” she adds.

Just like she predicts, when we hit the Indira Nagar stop, the train half empties, a sea of IT humanity flowing out, and at Taramani, the rest exit. Now, with hardly anyone to chat with, I stand by the entrance and gaze, enjoying the cool breeze on my face and the surprising greenery of treetops flashing by…

Unfortunately, I’m jerked out of my pleasant reverie when we cross the next station… Perungudi? What happened to Tiruvanmayur? That was where I was supposed to get off to meet our photographer, and even as directionally challenged as I am, I had the inkling that passing Perungudi means I’ve left Tiruvanmayur behind. A motherly woman standing by me confirms my fears: “Oh, you missed it! You’ll have to get off and catch the train back.”

Many challenges

Great. When I get off at Velachery, I have another challenge to face — crossing over to the other platform. Sounds simple enough, but not for me. A crowd is gathering on the other side, meaning a train would be there soon, and my sense of urgency mounts as I walk up and down the platform frantically. I decide against a seedy flight of stairs going down into a dark chasm that looks like something out of a horror movie, and finally see another flight going up to — aha! — a crosswalk.(When the next train arrives I realise why the crosswalk had seemed so unused — everyone else just crosses the tracks.)

After I meet the photographer, we decide to take the train back all the way to the other end — Park Town near Central Station. This trip, like all others I’d taken that day, seems astonishingly brief — just about 20 minutes — to someone who battles through city traffic daily. What takes time now is waiting for the trains — with the morning rush hour done, trains are running at a frequency of about 20 minutes. There are just a few sleepy inhabitants (and a couple of beggars) on board and the vast stations we pass wear that deserted, curiously unfinished look I’m familiar with — it’s hard to believe that they were thronged with people just an hour ago.

When I eventually get back to Tirumailai in the afternoon, I see the station master, Ravikumar, waving a green flag at the train, and go over to speak to him. He genially shows me how his nifty panel — with knobs for controlling points and signals, and with lights showing approaching trains — works.

“Generally, all the signals are on automatic, but I can make the panel manual if I need to take control,” he explains. There’s a station master on duty at all times of the day — even through the night, although there are no trains between 10.40 p.m. and 4.30 a.m. “We work eight-hour shifts and take turns for the night shifts,” he says.

Like in the morning, the evening rush sets in suddenly at 5 p.m. and tapers off into all-but empty carriages a couple of hours later. And the 62 pairs of trains continue to criss-cross the city that now glows with bright lights against the gathering darkness. When I finally head home in an auto (no arguments this time), crawling through the choked traffic, I can’t help but feel that Chennai is a lot prettier when you’re swaying above it in an elevated MRTS train.