On Board Kerala Express: Three Days of Fun & Friendship

Raj Narayan
12/06/2016

Long before director Shyam Benegal showcased the story of Om Puri as an army jawan traveling from Thiruvananthapuram to Jammu, we Malayalees had romanticized this journey from south to north of India. Therefore, the TV series titled 'Yatra' that was telecast on Doordarshan in 1986 didn’t mean much to us as we’d lived it many times.

As a non-resident Malayalee, my tryst with life in Kerala has often been limited to what one perceives during sporadic visits to the home ground. As a child, it was an annual expedition from Delhi during summer holidays. This continued till middle age when the periodicity remained unchanged while the actors changed.

My earliest memory is from the 1970s when I would visit Kerala on my parents' leave travel allowance (LTA.) In other words, our trips were decided and paid for by the Government of India, which employed both my parents. Of course, they were smart enough to visit Kerala each year through planned usage of their LTA.

Those were the days when only one train connected the north to the south – the good old Grand Trunk Express. Those traveling beyond Chennai (then Madras) had to mop around the station for a whole day before getting hitched to the West Coast Express in the evening for our onward journeys.

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The 72 hours that Malayalee families going on vacation spent together generated a level of camaraderie that lasted much longer. Work details were shared, as were residential addresses. Common friends were identified, as were common interests, ranging from a place of worship to the annual Onam Sadya.

I recall instances where friendships made on a train journey lasted a person’s active work life. Resumes were shared, jobs were offered and for the luckier ones, even marriage alliances came through. In short, here was a sense of camaraderie that was possibly Utopian within Kerala.

In fact, while on the journey, coach-mates would often joke about how a congregation of three Malayalees in Kerala would result in four associations! However, on the creaky 2nd class compartment, all differences disappeared, as caring for each other and sharing stories, food and the ubiquitous card games became the norm.

During the onward journey, passengers would be in a state of pure bliss. For someone like me (born in Palakkad & uprooted 30 days thereafter to Delhi), this meant time away from school. Not to mention the thought of spending time with a bunch of elders who were quite unlike my strict parents.

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For the thousands of others, the feeling was probably different. It combined the excitement of homecoming to family and friends, the freedom from wheat, woolens, winter, and water scarcity. Most fellow travelers also felt some trepidation of having to fulfill expectations of waiting relatives.

On the return journey, desperation pretty much described our collective state of mind. For me, it was about getting back to school, the workplace, the traffic and the wildly oscillating weather. For most of the others, it was the thought of having to adjust to the 'Hindi-Karan' for whom every person hailing from the south of the 'Vindhyas' was a 'Madrasi.'

As the years rolled by, these journeys moved from being an experience to an ordeal. The Jayanti Janata Express replaced the GT Express during the first non-Congress regime, thus giving Kerala its first direct train service to Delhi. However, the Janata government decided that the train wasn’t for upper classes and did away with AC and First Class coaches.

Till the train crossed Ramagundam, passengers encountered heat and dust that made the New Delhi of yore look pristine. Those were the days when we divided our annual excursions into BR and AR stages (before Ramagundam & after Ramagundam).

When Indira Gandhi swept back to power in 1980s, the mandarins (a few from Kerala had found their way to the top echelons of the civil service) got another train for southern travel, albeit on a shared basis with our Kannadiga friends. The KK Express (Karnataka-Kerala) had an AC coach and a First Class too!

Despite these obvious class differences, the passengers made time for their favorite card games such as 28 and 56 (till date, I haven’t been able to get a handle on these.) I recall several instances where passengers from upper classes would move to other compartments (Shashi Tharoor’s cattle class) and play for hours on end. What’s more, some lucky passengers would use this time to exchange seats for their afternoon nap in air-conditioned comfort.

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The next milestone for Keralites came with the launch of the Rajdhani Express and the completion of the prestigious Konkan Railway – the first one created an executive class among passengers while the second reduced travel time. In some ways, both drew an invisible wedge amongst the burgeoning Malayalee population in Delhi.

The straw that broke the proverbial camel's back came in the new millennium. It came in the form of a man’s dream of making air travel affordable to all. A gentleman answering to the name of Capt. Gopinath founded Air Deccan. And, it permanently changed the way the middleclass Malayalee traveled. Flights to Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram cost about the same on board an A-320 if one booked during the 500 rupees raffles.

Getting on board the aircraft, the passengers began keeping to themselves, possibly out of concern for social air travel norms where passengers are supposed to look busy, act pricey and generally walk around with an air of nonchalance bordering on arrogance.

And, so ended the delightful annual journeys. Journeys, which helped create enduring friendships and long-lasting camaraderie.

I don’t know how things are today (having left Delhi in 1999). Of course, the trains to Kerala continue to be packed; the Malayalee spirit (of all kinds) would flow unhindered during the journey; and the pack of cards and a game of 28 will rule the roost.

But, do Malayalees connect on these journeys as they did some decades ago? Well! That’s a story for another day.

(Photo credit: Yogendra174 via Foter.com / CC BY vishwaant via Foter.com / CC BY streetwrk.com via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Nav A. via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND )