During the sweltering Indian summer, the British colonialists would retreat to the hills for the refuge the cool weather afforded. Hill stations along the route of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, like Lovedale and Wellington, have been affectionately named after British towns and people. This steam locomotive ride through the Nilgiri mountains was built by the British in 1908 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you come here in the height of a Tamil summer, when locals now follow the colonial trail into the hills, you can forget about procuring a ticket without booking ahead. My family and I neither enjoyed the toy-train ride up to Ooty, our final destination, nor on the way back down to the foothills.
So, if you too get stuck taking the taxi when everyone else is riding the cool, historical train, then make sure of a few things. First off, hire a funny driver. You don’t want a guy whose mood is as foul as his undigested lunch because you are going to be stuck in that tiny space with him and his burps for hours. Sinivasan was as enthusiastic as if it was the first time he had ever driven a car. He was a natural storyteller, had an excellent collection of music, and rolled his R’s so hard that we nostalgically imitated him for days afterward, “Superrrrrrrrrr.” Next, stretch the boring couple hour ride into a full day tour of every nook and cranny along the way. Stop at every chai stall, talk to all the locals, and eat the homemade food. And lastly, for Hanuman’s sake, please DO NOT FEED THE MONKEYS ICE CREAM!!
In the foothills, following our cheerless departure with our beloved Sinivasan, I spent the sunset hours wandering the grounds of the Mettupalayam Railway Station. For most, this is merely a transit point between the plains and the mountains. However, you’d be fooled to think that Mettupalayam doesn’t have a few charms of its own. When the light strikes just right and the thick air of the approaching summer clings to your skin, there is a palpable tranquility and romance to the colonial remnants strewn across the railway yard. A white picket fence blends effortlessly with the peeling paint and handmade benches of the station, families spend the wait walking through the railway museum across the tracks, and Ammas pull out tiffin boxes with snacks carefully prepared for such occasions. Everyone is filled with the fresh air of the Nilgiris, bags are stuffed with tea and spices, and although the railway station is one step closer to home, its other foot still walks with an unhurried pace.
“One more chai please…”
It was here, sitting alone on the tiled pathway of the platform, that I met the seventy-year-old Rajasekar. My attention was initially caught by his thick bottle-cap glasses. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather, with his slender frame and sharp shoulders. Judging by his cloth satchel and the checkered towel around his neck, I thought he may sleep outdoors somewhere around the station. Across India, there are thousands of adults and children who live and work at railway stations, sometimes sweeping the floors of the trains for a few rupees from charitable passengers. With conversational Tamil, I was able to introduce myself and inquire about him. He seemed rather surprised by my interest though he was incredibly humble while answering my questions. I think it was my longest conversation in Tamil to date. Rajasekar told me that he was born in Mettupalayam and had lived there all of his life, alone in a house near the station, ever since his mother had died. I wondered to myself if he enjoyed sitting at the station with the crowds, imagining he was going somewhere or had just returned. He graciously allowed me to photograph him for several minutes and the incredible honesty in his gaze touched my heart so deeply.
So, if you too miss the train in the Nilgiris, do not fret! You might just catch a better ride.