Discovering Tamil and Dravidian culture on a train journey

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By Kamal Baruah

I had used up most of my younger days in travel. When I nostalgically recall those memorable moments of the snows of yesteryears, my first trip towards Peninsular India was one of them. I was to attend a seminar at University. It was typically-Tamil all the way.  The Dravidian language is predominantly spoken by the entire state of Tamilakam.

I boarded the Tamilnadu Express in the evening at New Delhi, one of the fastest trains on those days. Indian Railway has distinctive adventure. As soon as I stepped into a compartment, I was assailed by nostalgia; the Idli-Vada journey had begun. My berth was surrounded by deep rooted skin-colour co-passengers. Even before the train set in motion, the family sitting around me sighed with happy anticipation for dinner. Little I express to share; it seemed entering into a hostile aircraft. Global lingua franca English found no place in that southbound train. And Hindi placed far behind. I was shockingly horrified to choose iravu (dinner) South Indian menu from the Pantry. The tayir ariici (curd rice) at dinner made signs of intoxication to fall asleep.

I only realized in the morning that the train was catching a very good speed. It has only nine stoppages. My fellow passengers chatted about the relative merits of incoming station. It was kalai (breakfast) at Bhopal. I wondered lonely and hopped off at a 30 second-halt in search of a perfect breakfast. They were indeed hot idlis with large chutney-sambar for elastic tummies. I was impressed but not entirely surprised as food is an important part of every train journey.

The train moved Itarsi, Nagpur through the Vindhya Range. They were irregular chain of mountain ridges, highlands and plateau. I saw four parallel bridges over Krishna River at Vijaywada that pleasing my mind aesthetically in the dusk. The train moved intermittently to the Coromandel Coast. It was curiya utayam(sunrise) at Chennai Central.

Being no escalator and trolleys, passengers depend on porters. Being common genetic variants for skin colour of north east, I was easily identified as outsider. As I approached one in wrinkled red shirt and a towel on his shoulder, he started pouring English in Tamil. South India differs quite radically from the North for lack of enculturation.  Their languages belong to a separate linguistic group. Tamil words, their pronunciation and their syllables are typical. After much persuasion he agreed for my heavy weights with heavy pockets too.

There had been a great inconvenience to innocent tourists for hiring an Auto rickshaw. Murugan pushed me bag and baggage at Egmore. I experienced the joys of clambering and pretending to be a Tarzan in the crowded coach of Superfast Intercity Vaigai Express.  The enchanting fragrance of flowers filled the coach. The coach was jam-packed by am’mas (mother/lady) transporting flowers in bulk to Tiruchirapalli. I crawled a bit further and encountered with a dazzling array of flowers – jasmine, firecrackers flower (kanagambaram), marigold (samandi), country roses. South Indian women are very picky about choosing only the freshest of flowers for ornamental needs. Soon after settling down, the hawkers arrived with chakli, vada, nipattu, kodubale, banana chips, mirchi bajji, malpuri etc. It was indeed a great railway bazaar. I was feeling ravenously hungry looking for my choice. I got bewildered stare for my effort and had to taste some of them.

After five hours, the train was running over Vaigai. The river goes dry during off-monsoon. I got off at the last sleepy stoppage at Madurai expecting someone to receive me. I noticed two boys on the platform waiting for someone with a small card. That was my pastport size photograph. ‘Vanakkam, ni ciruvan’ (namaskar, you boy). By that the end of the journey, I realized Tamil words are similar to Sanskrit and I had learned a little Tamil. I responded ‘nan tiru Kamal’ (I am Mr Kamal). Our auto passed through the 3000 years old Pandyan Empire Meenakshi Temple, one of the new list of 7 wonders of the world for the base of architecture and Dravidian art and culture to my friend Rangaraj’s sister. I did recollect the story of Lamuel Gulliver’s “A voyage to Lilliput”. Who washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself a prisoner of race of tiny people.  But my host was hospitable to me and the only difficulty was to understand the language since they communicate with Tamil only. With my small vocabulary, I felt like entering a hostile island. The social influences of south Indian superstar means a lot to its people. The entire family was enjoying a Rajnikant movie on TV. The little boy desperately wanted me to talk with him. I could reply with just ‘am’ (yes) and ‘illai’ (no). He was frustrated and did frantic attempt saying “Koncam Tamilam illai (can’t even speak a little Tamil)”.  I understood but there was no way to convince the little boy other than ‘am’ (yes). A usual dinner was served with dosa, idli, vada, sambar-chutney. I relished the authentic Tamil thali, a magical confluence of flavours.

The blazing sun was unbearable during day. The heat did not subside at night. There are noble ways to stay cool.  Bed-on-terrace was effective technique indeed. It is a customary for a male member to go on terrace. The night was cool under the blue sky with millions of stars that twinkly reminded.  It is a land of Tamilam. I discovered that understanding of Tamil was not so easy. All I need to learn a little bit Tamil when I head on next time.  I took rest blissfully that night.

 

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