Madras Mail

Earlier this week, I was in Chennai for a day. This is the first part of my documentation of my chronicles 

A month back, Kodhi suddenly messaged asking if I can travel to Chennai for the “Landmark” Quiz, now sponsored by Zifo. “Remember 2009”, he helpfully added. That year, the three of us (Kodhi, Madness and I) had won the Chennai Landmark, and then came close to winning the “national final”.

I reversed my decade-long policy of not travelling for quizzes. I reversed my decade-long policy of not going to Chennai without a very good reason. I reversed my more-than-decade-long policy of not taking an overnight train to Chennai.

It is not like I didn’t have my share of jitters. There is something about going to Chennai that depresses me. I don’t know what it is – and that possibly explains why I hadn’t been there since 2012. On Monday night, I had finished work, had dinner at my usual time and was watching TV when the jitters came in.

I suddenly didn’t want to go. I wanted to feign illness and let my tickets lapse. I tweeted this

My wife pushed me out, saying I was being irrational and I should just go. And so I went.

The Train

This was my first Indian Railways journey since 2012. I took the metro to the railway station. The walk from the Majestic metro station to the railway station wasn’t particularly pleasant.

It was the first time in life I was travelling “2 tier AC”. I realised I’d forgotten how to climb into the upper berth. With some effort, I managed. There was a pillow and a thick woollen blanket on my berth. Presently, a steward brought a large paper bag with two (warm) white sheets and a small towel.

Then I had to pee. In the bathroom, I found a mug chained to the tap. There was also a health faucet – the first time I’m seeing one such in an Indian train. There was also a notice that we shouldn’t throw things (such as toilet paper) into the toilet. Maybe the waste doesn’t go down to the tracks any more?

I discovered that there was a curtain I could pull, to shield myself (and three others in my booth) from the corridor. Surprisingly for a train journey from Bangalore to Madras, I slept well. I started feeling less bad about going to Chennai.

At 4 am, I got woken up. Someone in the next booth had started playing Suprabhatam loudly on his phone. Then I heard someone tell him “stop it, others are sleeping”. The sound stopped. I don’t know if the two people were travelling together. Anyway, at 415, the train rolled into Chennai Central.

Indian train stations have always had homeless people sleeping in them. A new one was at Central – where I saw mosquito nets strung across dustbins, and people sleeping in them. This was just the first such example, and not a one-off.

Chennai Central at 4:15 am

The Auto

I got out of the station and booked an Uber. There was no movement in the taxi. Presently the driver called. Speaking in a mix of my broken Tamil and English, I understood he was asking me if I’ll pay cash. I said no, and he asked me to cancel.

I started booking an Ola. The inevitable thing that happens in Chennai Central happened. I got accosted by an auto driver. He initially quoted ?450 to take me “inside IIT”. I started with ?200, reasoning that it was twice of what I used to pay when I was a student. I’m not good at bargaining and I wanted to go continue my sleep, so I agreed for ?400, which was about what Ola promised to get me a cab for.

In the auto ride, I figured it’s 19 years since I graduated, and so a 4X increase in price is not that bad. I had also told the auto guy that I’ll pay him by “scan”, and he had agreed.

He presently stopped for gas, saying the lines would get longer soon. My bargaining power was low, and I agreed. Once he tanked up, he asked me to scan, for ?400 – the entirety of what I owed him for the ride. “No no, you’ll get the change in cash here. You can give that to me later”, he said. I acquiesced, collecting the ?160 in change.

At 4:30 am, Mount Road looked just like it did 20 years ago. Apart from one long and incredibly narrow flyover in Kotturpuram, nothing seemed to have changed in nearly 20 years, including the route to IIT. Oh – I saw some metro stations along the way on Mount Road.

To be continued…



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