When I arrive at my seat, I find I'm sharing the "compartment" with 5 middle-aged women and a tall young man, all Tamil speakers. I spend a few minutes pushing my bag under the seat and getting myself some water, and look around to find my compartment looks like a Dali painting. The women are all sitting just as they were when i came in, but now they are each holding a gleaming silver-foil plate. In fact, I glance up and down the coach and realize that nearly everyone has such a plate and is waiting.
In another few minutes, two men come around with two buckets. They ladle onto the plates mounds of what looks like cabbage, and generous dollops of coconut chutney. One carries a packet, from which he offers sugar to the ladies. They begin eating, and the men move on to the next compartment with buckets and packet.
It's like Chennai begins right here, like a soft old sock, even before we've moved from Bombay's Dadar station. The muffled announcements from the PA system outside are in Hindi, but in here everyone speaks Tamil, the young man reads a Tamil magazine, the servers wear the familiar veshtis folded to half-length, and the women eat in that comfortable Tamil style -- rolling up small savoury morsels on the tips of their fingers and setting them on outstretched tongues.
Every few seconds, I hear "Saar, ongollukku?" and "saapad?" and "idli-sutney?", fainter as the men move further, but clear in the silence born from eating.
Why would all these people not do what I did, eat dinner at home and then come to catch this train? Because they know what I have stupidly forgotten: food on the train is part of the journey, yes even before we start. Indeed, for the entire 24-hour journey, the servers store their large vessels on a dedicated upper berth. Food needs a ticket and reservation too -- I would have loved to see the entry on the reservation chart for that berth.
A server brushes past, carrying a simply enormous pot of -- what else -- coffee.
Dinner done and plates discreetly collected, all very civilized, the women all produce inflatable pillows and begin blowing into them. Plates in their hands, then pillows ... what's next?
Answer comes next morning: when I descend from my upper berth, I find the women are all sitting there holding toothpaste-laden toothbrushes like weapons.
0730: first young man comes through on his haunches, sweeping the floor with a rag.
1015: first young man using his shirt to sweep the floor comes through.
1035: woman comes through on her haunches, carrying a baby and a nursing bottle, sweeping the floor with a rag. Right behind her is a tiny kid sweeping with a broom. When he stops to ask my compartment for money, the woman opposite waves him away. "What's the use of sweeping right behind that woman?" she asks. "How many of you will keep coming like this?"
I doze off in the middle of the morning. Wake to find a mustard-yellow and clearly male-owned undie drying on the lowered middle berth opposite me, hanging precariously above the plump calves of one of the women, visible as she sleeps. She wears a mustard-yellow sari, inadvertently matching the undie.
Another of the women sits at the window opposite me, shelling and eating groundnuts. Periodically, she flings the shells out the window, but the fierce breeze -- we are rattling along at top speed -- means the shells are mostly flung back, and at me. She is oblivious.
I am very grateful she is not eating bananas.
A uniformed attendant comes through, wielding a long red broom, sweeping the floor of the coach. From beside me, he sweeps up a substantial pile of groundnut shells. Woman opposite looks at them incuriously. The man also reaches between the plump calves with his broom, below the undie, and sweeps a few biscuit crumbs off the berth.
The lady opposite, she's now eating bananas. A peel slaps me in my face.
As we roll into Guntakal, a man stands outside the vegetarian dining hall and yells unintelligibly, but pointing helpfully to a sign that reads "Meals ready". In five minutes, he looks disconsolate because nobody has taken him up. But next to him is a blackboard painted on the wall, titled "Learn a Hindi word Daily." Nothing else on that blackboard.
In Gooty, the "Learn a Hindi word Daily" boards has a word: "Local, sthaniya".
Seen on the train: "Live Player reports. Player Intersmeks."
Seen at Mantralayam Road station ("Alight here for Sri Raghavendra Swamy Darshanam"): "Playaz 05-26, 01-82, EAST SIDE 72".
And at the same station, I learn from adjacent signs both that "Mantralayam is 18 km from Railway Station", and that "Wheelchair is available with station master."