The Kerala Local: A Cinematic Pause For Travelers


The next morning, life has moved on. It’s a Friday and I have to push off to Varkala – the beach paradise in Kerala I have heard of so often. For a while Pabla will part. She will head down to Kovalam and will join me in Varkala, a day late.

This was September 2nd. The day trade unions called an All India strike demanding higher minimum wages and social security for workers in unorganized sectors. In left-ruled Kerala this meant a total compliance after CM Pinarayi Vijayan, of CPI(M), showed his support to the cause, much to the discomfort of the central government.

Umang and Satendra are central government employees and cannot use the strike as a reason to not go to work. Even though most of his colleagues will miss work, including Umang who currently shuffles in and out of the kitchen decked in a freshly unfolded pista green kurta with embroidery (I remember he was to head to some wedding function), Satendra has taken his scooter to work, 25 kilometers away to technopark.

It’s a quite morning. Pabla is busy with a laptop in the corner, and I feel strangely about the parting. A hot cup of coffee later, somewhere around 11.30, Umang ferries me to the Trivandrum Central on his bike and leaves with a smile and a wave. It’s strange because this is the last I would see of him. Like I have seen the last of Anbu, Joseph Vethanamo and Stella Mary. Always parting with that vague promise of see you again soon. Sometime. Somewhere. Hopefully. Maybe.

kerala-local

But there’s never enough time to lament. Just as you utter a sigh, you watch the scene being wiped away into something fresh. The train arrives, chugging, on time. All set to take you to some new place. Ready or not. This is my introduction to the local trains of Kerala; the locomotive that will take me up and down the spine of the state, providing much needed pauses to the unfolding of events.

I zip past green backyards witnessing sprawled domesticity bathing in sunshine streaming in through coconut tree leaves. A major chunk of the day’s work done, women oil their hair, kids beat spoons on upturned plates and dogs roll in cracked dry mud porches.

Mosquitoes swarm over moss green ponds before the train reaches an open stretch past a paddy field, the sun shimmering blindingly on the water. Squint your eyes. No close your eyes. You’ll still feel the brightness. Then slowing down at some nameless station with a slight stretch of a platform. Two uniformed schoolgirls, oiled hair pigtailed with red ribbons. One mundu wearing man, bare legs ending in black leather chappals. And then again the wind, the green, the shimmer, the comfort of backyards and nameless platforms.

kerala-local-train

All this along with some aromatic railway Biriyani. I have written about the south being all proper about food before and I will do so again. I’m sick of witnessing Delhi pavements dotted with chhole kulche walas and kachori walas. Always at some busy junction, perched on an uncomfortable cycle, balanced precariously, a man (sometimes two) managing an entire food business. Cooking, serving and transacting with hundreds of hungry city folk. It’s not uncommon to find individuals hunched over their plates standing in a kind of embarrassed stoop, gobbling up dry kulcha with spicy chhola, sweating profusely. But never a place to sit and never a place to properly wash hands.

If you want to sit and eat, of course there are plenty of options. Why not. But that’s not for the standing and eating kinds. That’s more for the getting out of your ac car kinds. Those who don’t mind paying VAT and service tax and entertainment tax and alcohol tax and what not.

But in the south thank god for the holistic eating culture. There’s always a plate and water in a glass and curry. At the end of it there’s always a sink for hand wash. So when I say aromatic railway biriyani, I don’t mean the dry boiled egg biriyani nonsense of northern railways. I mean curry and condiments like whole pepper and cinnamon sticks. I mean taste of proper restaurant eating for just Rs. 70.

So I fold up my feet, spill out the curry in the rice and eat with my hand. No judgments. No looks. No snigger. This is normal here. I’m glad that in Kerala, no one feels embarrassed about eating their fill.

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