Chennai in a hurry

I remember the stench from the tracks. That and the crowds of people flooding the carriage entrances, walkways and open spaces, made Chennai station an overwhelming experience.

We had bunks in the non-AC 2nd class section of the Nilgiri Sleeper Express. After the exertion of negotiating our way to the correct berth with heavy, impractical bags, we sat in silence, sweating in the closeness of the heat.

In the gloom the décor was a tired and dirty plastic blue, like a run-down hospital. The bunks were stacked in three tiers and there were bars on the windows. A secure and fading asylum. But it was all oddly practical and well planned; someone had put a lot of thought into this once upon a time.

The train set off, creaking and swaying through the Chennai suburbs. Only a few hours before we’d hurtled through the city from the airport to the station. It had been chaos as a complex overhead metro system being built had turned all the main arteries into building sites.

The Indians around us all seemed to know the score: when the ticket collector had passed through the carriage it was time for lights out. During the next several hours I slipped in and out of restless sleep; with vivid dreams of surreal chases and journeys, punctuated by garish neon, Tamil jingles, and figures from my past.



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