Saturday, June 26, 2010
The Toy Train
It is seven in the evening and I am in room no. 1 of the 115-year-old Coonoor Club. I am reclining on the bed, nursing a drink and writing this. I have left the door leading to the patio wide open, and I can see the hills lit up like Diwali night. I feel like switching off the air-conditioner for a while: the room has become a bit too cold for comfort. I realise it doesn’t have an air-conditioner, not even a fan. This is Coonoor, not Chennai. Chennai I had left last night.
About 12 hours ago, around 6.30 am, I was at the Mettupalayam station, having spent a sleepless night in the Nilgiris Express from Chennai. These days I don’t sleep well in trains: rarely do I take one anymore unless the destination is Bangalore. So from one o’ clock in the night, I had been wide awake, glued to Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, trying to decipher the sentences from whatever little light seeped in as everybody else in the compartment snored. And then magic happened.
As I stepped on to the platform at Mettupalayam, I forgot – instantly – that I had just made a nine-hour train journey and hadn’t slept almost the entire night. I felt as if I was stepping out of my home for a morning walk after a restful sleep. The air was crisp and chilly, and the station presented a pretty picture. It has just one platform – on one side the train that had just got us in, and on the other side the toy train waiting to take us to Coonoor. And right across on the horizon, facing the two trains, stood the mountains. It was through these mighty mountains that the train was going to chart its course, as it has been doing for the last 100 years. The trip is now part of world heritage.
The toy train is just that: a toy. Just five small wooden carriages that are pushed – and not pulled – by a steam locomotive. The engine is at the end, while it is a first-class carriage that is right in front. Outside the leading carriage is a panel, the frontage of the train, where a guard sits with red and green flags. He is the one who blows the horn and switches on the lights whenever the train passes through a tunnel. He also doubles up as a guide for passengers sitting in the front carriage. This morning, I was one of those few fortunate – getting the first and a direct view of whatever lay ahead as the train chugged at the speed of a cycle-rickshaw.
Mountains don’t have arms. But when you take the toy train, the mountains assume the form of a bewitching beauty that spreads her arms to welcome you into an intimate embrace. Those who take the road miss out on the intimacy. On the winding road, your mind is primarily focused on oncoming vehicles. And then, you have many other vehicles for company – cars, buses, trucks. But the train takes you through green, virgin territory – as virgin as it has been for the past 100 years. All you are required to do is sit and watch.
At 6.45, the steam locomotive hissed down the track and positioned itself at the rear of the train. At seven a bell rang out, and five minutes later another. At 7.10 sharp, the train moved. In our part of the carriage, we had, for company, three couples. Two of the couples were very young and newly married. Like the train, their life-journey too had just started. Like most passengers, they were clueless about what lay ahead: only an idea. Throughout the journey, the young men and women were to spend more time looking into each other's eyes than looking outside, where they should have been looking because in virgin territory, even the sight of a blade of grass is like window-shopping for diamonds. The third couple was elderly, in their seventies: they had been through the forest of life, and now were rediscovering togetherness on a route they had never taken before. So they sat erect, savouring the visual pleasure that nature was offering them now. Then there was us, wife and I: not too young, not too old -- we were just two travellers who happened to be married to each other. Nothing theatric, unlike the honeymoon couples, about being together: the real theatre lay outside the train, with the stage changing every moment.
So far, the only time I had seen a toy train -- the truth to be told -- was in Aradhana. In the film, Sharmila Tagore, who is sitting in the toy train to Darjeeling, is wooed by Rajesh Khanna, who is following her on a jeep, with the immortal song, Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu. I don't know how fast the Darjeeling toy train runs, but I can tell you that the Nilgiris train does not match the 'speed' of this S.D. Burman song.
There was no Rajesh Khanna to chase our train, only small boys who would pop up once in a while to wave at us. The guard, on behalf of us, would smile and wave back. The boys would pop up only when a station was round the corner -- technically they should be called hill stations because they are located on the hills, but practically they are tiny dots of civilisation in wilderness -- oases in the desert of dense forests.
These small stations that fall in the way -- Hill Grove, Runnymede and so on -- are, to me, the real honeymoon spots. Plot to be left behind by the train and you will have no hope until the evening or the next evening till another toy train comes along to take you to proper civilisation. Till then, you can spread a mat and have a picnic. Even time will stand still and have a few sandwiches off you. And if you feel upto it, take the mat a few metres away from the station and you can make love in the open. No one is going to watch you, except a few monkeys maybe, and the birds and the bees. Why go all the way to a concrete jungle like Ooty?
We were, fortunately, not travelling all the way to Ooty. I had heard enough about the place to stop short of being seduced by it. My wife, who had already been there once, shared my sentiments. So we stopped one station short of Ooty. Coonoor it was.
If you have never been to this hill town, let me tell you that there are two Coonoors: Lower Coonoor and Upper Coonoor. Lower Coonoor is where the railway station and the bus stand are located, and it is as congested and ugly as the most congested part of your town or city -- no matter where you live. It is in Upper Coonoor where the real charm lies. The silence there is very British -- a reminder of the times when you had to walk for a while before you came to a cluster of shops from where you bought necessary items such as bread or medicines.
It is the walk that matters in the hills -- one moment you are overlooking a valley and the very next you are admiring a mountain and the lives of people living atop it. Either way, you are wowed. Fortunately, our destination, the 1885-built Coonoor Club, happens to be in Upper Coonoor. Thanks to its silence, I can relive every single moment of the toy train journey. Thanks to its silence, I can still hear the steam locomotive loud and clear, Dhadak, dhadak! Dhadak dhadak!