The river Kaveri. Its sandy banks and small fish. Green paddy fields, 6:30am sunlight, gentle breezes, steam engines, and railway sidings. High-ceilinged houses and the comforting aroma of grandmother’s cooking. These are in the distant past. But I can go there and experience all of these even today and get all the joy and comfort of that time.
As you grow older, your experiences increase, more and more of these are stored in your memory, and, at various times in life, you recall these memories. You may recall them with fondness, dislike, horror, or even indifference. No matter which, the memories will have to involve place – that most geographical of contexts.
If, like me, you are blessed/cursed with a vivid long-term memory, you will reach a stage in life when you will be able to recall events and your experience of them in considerable detail. I repeat: invariably, these will involve place.
Landscapes from our memory are powerful in our lives. They can shape many facets of our thoughts and personalities. They can also give us that ‘nice place’ where we can go and stay for a while in our minds to recover our spirits. Or even just to relax awhile.
Among the landscapes of my memory is the village of Jeeyapuram in Tiruchchirapalli district, Tamil Nadu. The 1960s.
Several times, for deepaavali, I used to travel there with my uncle. The “26 UP” Island Express was the train we took. This train going from Bangalore to Cochin (now Kochi), this was the longest train I had ridden as a child. It ran daily from Bangalore City. The train was long because it also had a few coaches (bogeys) for Tiruchchirapalli junction (station code: TPJ).
The engine belonged to the WP class, with a large star on its nose. For a little child, the machine was incomprehensibly large. The engine would come, in reverse, from the Bangalore Cantonment shed and be attached to the front of the train. At the rear end of the train was a non-WP engine. For some reason I thought of non-WPs as inferior engines! After much pushing and shoving, shouting and whistling, and hissing, the train slowly leave the Bangalore City (SBC) towards its first stop Bangalore Cantonment (BNC). This was a major production as we had to go up-hill. Hence the rear engine pushing us along.
At Erode junction, the TPJ coaches were attached to another train (Tiruchchi express or some such), at about 2:30 or 3 am.
I would try hard to stay awake in the darkened compartment, while everyone slept, to listen to the peculiar sound that trains make when crossing a river. At about 5:45am, we would wake up and wash our faces, brush our teeth, and start packing up the beds we carried. Those were not provided by the railways in those days.
As sunlight broke, uncle and I would stand at the door of the compartment and watch the landscape go by. That is where I learned my love of standing at the door of a coach and watching the scenery.
On the right of the railway track, parallel to it, was a canal supplying water to the agricultural fields. The fields alternated between banana plantations and rice paddies. In that early morning sunlight and gentle breeze, the paddy stalks would sway and wave. The effect was of a shade of green that I cannot describe. Even now when I see paddy fields in the morning sunlight and breeze, I am transported back to the door of the coach.
On the left were similar agricultural fields – same crops. After that the so-called highway, then a large rising (the levee), and beyond it, the wide Kaveri river.
Alighting at the Jeeyapuram station, where the cousins would be to help us with the luggage, we would turn right and walk home. About ¾km away. Walking through a rather typical rural Tamil Nadu landscape. Houses with high ceilings (thatched or tiled), the central well and the hand-pumping borewell, the village temple, and the sundry little shops. This was the agrahaaram – a largely brahmin area.
If we had turned left as we left the station, one of the first shops would have been a butcher’s, followed by non-vegetarian restaurant, and other usual establishments, houses, and so on. We never went to that part of the village. All transactions were on this side of the village.
We would reach grandmother’s house. Large central hall with very high ceiling, thatch roof. All entrances to rooms were very low – adults always had to duck when passing through the doorways. Behind the house was a small garden, and at the far end of the garden was the toilet.
The toilet was contiguous with the rear fence – barbed wire with sticks and other hedge growth. Beyond that fence was a “conservancy” lane. It was on this lane that the people who cleaned the toilets came and took away the dirt on a daily basis. Those were certainly less-enlightened times in this aspect. Now, in most places in India, we have been struggling eliminate this practice. Coming from Bangalore, I hated the toilets there. But, hey, the rest of the experience was great.
Having reached home, us kids would throw everything to one side, grab a towel, change of clothes, a bar of soap and race to the river – barely 500 metres away – and jump into the water. We would bathe for about an hour or more – splash about, drink the river water directly, let the little fish come and nibble between our toes (a very creepy experience for me), and otherwise make a lot of noise.
Very reluctantly, we would towel off, change clothes (it’s quite a useful skill to be able to change clothes while still wearing a towel!), and come back home, starving. By then, grandmother would have cooked our meal.
The stove was made of clay on the kitchen floor on one side. Made as in, clay was brought in, mixed with water, and made right there by someone in the family. Once it had dried, it was used for cooking. Wood was the fuel. To this day, there is a particular kind of smell from a particular kind of wood that immediately puts me in that kitchen (and I also get hungry!).
Having wolfed down vas quantities of food, I would more or less pass out.
The river visit was usually twice a day, but at least one for sure. My last visit to that village was in 1980, for one day. As I write this in 2015, I am planning a nostalgia trip back there. The whole family has moved away to different places, several of the people whom I visited there have also passed away.
When I think of that place, everything is as fresh as if it were yesterday – the sights, sounds, temperatures, the taste of the Kaveri water, the smells, the aroma of grandmother’s cooking, the smell of the smoke from the wood burning in the kitchen stove, … I am back in that landscape.
Comforting thoughts come to me based on my experience of the landscape at that time. Time and space – geography and history – shape our lives more than we acknowledge.
What you can do:
- The Island Express no longer exists in its original form. Its current incarnation is 16526, Kanyakumari Express. Visit http://www.indianrail.gov.in and look at the places it connects.
- If you wanted to plan a train trip from Bengaluru to Tiruchchirapalli now, which train would you take and what is ITS route?
- For a more challenging exercise: for each of the above routes, plot the altitudes of each station on a graph to look at the generalized altitude profile of the routes. You will find the necessary information for this on an earlier blog “Geography Exploration Using the Indian Railways” — go to the section titled “Explore! Geography virtual field research on Indian Railways!” for specific steps.
- Why is the Kaveri so wide as it passes Jeeyapuram?
- Just a little distance from Jeeyapuram is a famous sacred site for Vishnu in the reclining form. What is this place called? How is it connected to Karnataka?