The night train from Kochi to Chennai winds it’s way through the city, passes through the early evening traffic, casts echoes upon the boundaries of the guiding walls. Upon these tracks merging with roads and yet, already, partially freed from the gathering humidity, the sudden twilight falls; the traffic become points of dusty light, the streets haze into darker shadows. Sitting by a window, darkness falling, listen as the rails beat out their siren song: the rhythm of departure and arrival.
We pass, pause at an unnamed platform, pass and pause, moving slowly through the urban sprawl as the sun passes in the first flickerings of electric light. The berths begin to fill, soon all seats are taken and newcomers spill into the corridor, a tangle of arrivals and departures from each unknown station. The living blood of the city flowing, ebbing, as we move further from the center, the carriage emptying in the last of the evening commute. Outside, our scant light gathers upon the darkening edges of the city, spilling upon scattered hovels lining the tracks. Inside, as the carriages quieten further, stewards pass by distributing pre ordered thalis, offering chai and coffee.
Later, the dark night fallen, the sound of beds being unchained, dropping into place, a quietude of snoring replacing the calls for chai and samosa, the sound of voices. The top berths occupied, now, set for sleep, I find myself deep in conversation with an engineering student on his way back to University to complete his masters degree. We talk for a couple of hours until he excuses himself and falls into sleep. I sit, alone in the silence, restless, unable to sleep. Leaving my bunk, I walk to the carriage door, open it and, feet upon the steps, sit down. Here, legs dangling cool in the breeze, the nightwind upon my face, the moment is destination enough.
A sound behind me, a Nepalese guy lighting a joint. I stand up, we indulge in some small talk, agreeing that Indian Railways is our favourite way to travel, smoke. He flicks the end of his joint, into the passing night, says his goodbyes and goes back to his bunk. I remain, sit down again, listen to the trainsong and the contrapunctual night as the world trundles by under a full moon. The darkened hills defined by an absence of stars beneath their summits, villages and hamlets pass in will o’ the wisp lights, flickering between slopes, offering the possibilities of valleys. This nightscape viewed through an open door, this reminds me. Promises in another’s words, sketches of another’s journeys, dreams and memories superimposed upon the passing, bright with possibilities. The tracks sing their lullaby upon me, adrift in the moment I recall a collage of other journeys, faces and names flicker, departures and destinations. A conductor arrives, bringing with him the present tense, asks me to close the door, points to a sign, smiling at me as if to say, “It’s up to you,” and departs into the, almost, silent carriage. Before long, I return to my berth, still cloaked in the trainsong and the cooling wind, arrange my bag as a pillow and, in the slow hypnosis of the melody of the tracks, find sleep and dream the drifting night.
I awake upon the edge of the city. I buy a coffee, stow my bunk and unchain my rucksack, another coffee. The night quiet replaced with the rising chatter of the day, we stutter the final few miles into Chennai in the breaking dawn. Upon the tracks, following the sun as it creeps above the horizon, shadows spill upon the thick morning air, the sounds of traffic, the city waking. Outside, passing inner city stations in the predawn light, I see platforms filling, where we stop the train fills again with commuters as we become a vein of the city, a flow of humanity into the heart of the living streets.
Soon it’s a tidal commute, station to station, changing faces as the rising city encloses the tracks, curtailing horizons until an unexpected terminus disgorges us onto the warming stone of Chennai station. On the platform, moving in the initial swarm, I find myself upon the edge of the main concourse, still littered with nightsleepers, huddles of blankets and bags gathered under the sheltering roof. I stand, half awake, as crowds continue to flow beyond me, caught between memory and recognition. Static, displaced. The romance of the night train fading into the practical day, a breakfast of vadai and caffeine, eaten sitting against a pillar, a mapcheck to find the bus station for the next part of the journey. I lift my rucksack and move towards the exit.
Outside, as the morning heat flares, the city sprawls its cold reality.