Get up the goose!
Get up the goose!
My brother and I would clamber out of the upper berth and look sleepily out of the train window at the inky black night outside.
"Where, pa?" we'd ask him.
"Another hour", he'd announce cheerfully.
Appa is never last minute. He wouldn't let us be last minute either. Everything had to be prepared for, hours and sometimes days beforehand. If you were travelling, you had to call the station the previous night to make sure it was still standing. If your train left at 6, he'd shoo you off to the station at 3. You'd also need to call the station at 20 minute intervals all day to make sure the train was on time. And if you had to get off a train, you needed to be all packed and near the door at least an hour before your stop. Even if it was the last one. The perfect father for a head-in-the-clouds son like.. err my brother.
So, within minutes of getting up the goose (nobody except Appa knew what that meant), our bedrolls and suitcases would be packed and ready. Amma would be up and combing her hair out. Other passengers would stir grumpily in their sleep as Appa turned on lights and opened windows. My brother and I would be squashed up by the window under a towel. The soporific whirring of the train fans would make us drift in and out of sleep, as the sky slowly lightened outside.
The closer we got to Madras, the slower the train would crawl. Tired perhaps, after the 18 hour run from Trivandrum.
Our immediate surroundings would undergo several miraculous transformations overnight. For one, there was no "Chaaya chaayeyyyy" anymore - just "Kaapi kaapeeeeyum". Station names in the comforting Malayalam jalebi-script now looked noodly and recti-linear, written in Tamil. The passengers who chatted non-stop in Malayalam until Coimbatore, would now speak in heavily accented Tamil. We were nearing Madiraashi after all :
"Ende berthle neriya bet-becks irundhadhakkum. Urakkame varalai " (Lots of bedbugs in my berth. Just couldnt sleep.)
But most strangely, a peculiar scent would waft in through the windows of the compartment. As the train crawled slowly on, it would intensify from a mildly unpleasant odour into an all-enveloping, mind numbing stench. "Ahhh.." my father would sigh in pleasure, inhaling deeply. For if there is one true sign that heralds the arrival of Chennai, it is the magnificently overpowering sulphurous pong of the Basin Bridge station. A heady mixture of rotten eggs, chemicals, sewage, fish, sea and ripe guava.
"Madras waasne", my mother, the Bangalore girl would say, and smile affectionately at Appa.
"Aama, illai? Gubbbbu. Ackack. Na-na", he'd say to us, forgetting that his children were now capable of coherent articulate sentences.
"Hngello, hngello, hngow aagre you?" "Fngine Thngank you.", my brother and I would chant, holding our noses.
Appa's sundakkai-vendakkai "Tamil dictation" lessons had not really prepared us for real world Tamil. We could read the script haltingly, but couldnt make any sense out of anything we read.
"Ka-zhi-ip-pi-da-im", we'd chant, stringing the Tamil letters together painstakingly, from the signs we read.
"Pa, pa, what does it mean?" we'd ask him excitedly.
"It means... kakkoosu", Appa would say, with a wink to our shocked mother.
"Cheeeeeeeeeee" we'd scream in chorus, and read the next sign.
"Pae-ch-in Pi-ri-t-j" (Basin Bridge) "Pa, see, see, spelling mistake." we'd say excitedly.
"No." My father would reply. "Appadi thaan ezhuthanum." (thats how you write it), and proceed to explain how the difference between "pa" and "ba", "sa" and "cha" in written Tamil is contextual.
"But whyyyyyyy?" we'd persist.
"Becaaaaaa....use", and after a dramatic pause: "..one day, Appushastry and Kuppushastry went to Kalahasthri. There they met a kuppai thotti mesthri...."
The peals of laughter that followed would put an end to any further exploraitons into the matter.
Madras Central would loom up at us through the deep indigo of early dawn. But as the old Tamil saying goes: "Before you see the elephant, you can hear its bells". The odours of Madras Central would waft into the compartment about 42 seconds before the train pulled in. Karuvade (dried fish) in gunny sacks all along the platform were the culprits this time. Smelling karuvade for the first time is like exactly like being smacked hard on the face by Hemalatha Miss for hashing an exam. It's that physical.
After the initial shock, my brother and I would look around Central Station in wonder. It was the biggest station we had ever seen. The tracks actually stopped inside station and trains parked there overnight. The roof soared high, high above us. Big posters loomed up everywhere. Announcements in a strange Tamil that that nobody spoke in real life, would pipe up from nowhere.
"... onpathu mani pathinainthu nimidathirkku purappattu chellum..."
"Wha...? Pa, pa, what's she saying?"
"She is saying, nee romba asadu, naan unna udanna vandhu odhaikkaporaen" (She's saying youre very naughty and I am instantly coming to beat you up)"
Straight ahead, G chittappa would be waiting for us near Higginbothams, smiling his G chittappa smile. We'd run across the platform, jumping over sleeping passengers, side-stepping trolleys, gunny sacks, surly porters and paper-sellers and latch ourselves onto him. After an hour's journey through the big, beautiful, sweltering city of Madras, with the widest roads I'd ever seen, we'd be in Thatha's house...
...where Pati's fragrant rasam, an army of cousins, A. chitti's godrej almirah full of Archie comics, and a whole month of fun awaited us.