All Aboard the Tamil Nadu Express: Next Stop, Insanity (or, Split Down the Middle)
It was a rock ‘n’ roll journey in India. Well, sort of; except there was no actual music playing, little travelling involved, and it could have taken place almost anywhere – it just happened to be in India. I was a long-term inmate (or should that be resident) of “Broadlands Lodge” in Chennai (Madras). I checked-in and couldn’t be bothered to check-out. During my stay I met a guy. He was a writer or something. I felt that somehow I already knew him.
“Have you ever noticed when you order a drink in a cafe that the waiter asks how many? For God’s sake there is only me sitting there. How many does he think I want?” He was full of anecdotes about the nuances of Indian cafes and restaurants.
“And when he finally brings the bottle over, he gives you a blank stare and asks – open? Like I’m going to order a bottle and sit there looking at it or bite the top off myself with my teeth.” The way this guy was ad-libbing he could have been a stage act.
“And what about the waiters? These places are all over-staffed, but if you are lucky you may attract their attention because usually they just stand around waiting. If you can get them to place your order, you wait an eternity for them to bring it. In fact, you are the waiter, not them! And if you complain then God help you because – the customer is always wrong.” He was an expert complainer.
He had met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her. The moment he saw her he knew that she was a heartbreaker. He said that’s when Jimmy Page’s mind-blowing guitar riff began playing inside of his head with Robert Plant screaming “heartbreaker” over it. He swore that if that classic Led Zeppelin track had not already existed, he would have penned it the instant he set eyes on her. He couldn’t write music nor play any musical instrument but he was deadly serious.
I knew the girl in question, and yes she probably could, would and did break hearts, but, in all possibility, it would not be her fault. There was no doubt that some would easily fall for her, but if she didn’t feel the same then it would be a sorry tale of heartbreak. She turned out to be inspirational – but in a bad sort of way.
I could just about handle the first “head song” and take it as a joke, but soon I began to get worried. I no longer believed the situation to be just different; I was now convinced that it was strange – very strange. Apparently, Elvis was now playing with “You were always on my mind”, because, quite simply, she always was. He moaned that he didn’t even like Elvis yet he couldn’t get him out of his head.
I began to try to avoid him. He was draining. But avoidance was an impossibility. I woke in the morning – he was there. I went to bed – he was there. I looked in the mirror – he was there. I couldn’t shake him off. There was only one topic of conversation – her.
Things were soon to get worse – much worse. She wasn’t interested, and he was “free-falling toward the depths of despair.” That was unfortunate because it’s a long and tedious fall. He was a good-looking guy. He had a lot going for him. I was at the communal sink cleaning my teeth one morning and saw him in the mirror complaining that this girl must be crazy not to like him, as he was good looking and had a half decent personality – what was her problem? But she wasn’t the crazy one. The “problem” was that he had met her, and since then appeared to have undergone a personality transplant, from articulate and witty to something bordering on gibberish and insane.
U2 were now playing. It was the song “One” with Bono singing that line about – did I ask too much, more than a lot, you gave me nothing now that’s all I got. He didn’t like U2 either. It was relentless. It all sounded like a bad acid trip in a music shop.
“Pink Floyd play Bangalore” was the headline in some newspaper. India’s hippest city seems to attract old has-been western artists for some reason. In their heyday, he had quite liked that band, but he complained that a twelve-hour sleepless train journey to get to Bangalore in dusty, dirty sleeper class was the last thing he wanted. He can never sleep on Indian trains. Lights being switched on and off all night, Indian men seemingly competing with one another in the throat clearing stakes with their endless rasping, and tea vendors crying “Chai, chai, chai” along the corridors and from the platforms of every station passed through at all hours of the night.
“Why would anyone want to be woken at three in the morning for a cup of tea?” he groaned.
Anyone who has ever travelled on an Indian train could identify with the chai thing. One man comes along carrying a tea urn. You can hear him from the other end of the carriage. So you are left in no doubt that he is on his way. It is a deepthroated, high-pitched scream. I swear that there must be a voice training school for them somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. Anyway, after bellowing their way through the carriage, causing the utmost annoyance they stop and look at you and in their normal voice ask “Chai?” It is as if they think you are stone deaf and have not heard them as soon as they came onto the train. And after one goes, another arrives; then another and another. Good G-d, how much chai do they think a person needs? And I wouldn’t mind if it was decent tea, but it is not. They must destroy it by putting four spoons of sugar into each small cup. For a country that grows so much tea, Indian Railways does not seem to have conquered the art of making a decent pot yet.
The way things were going, I was never going to shut this guy up. “The worse thing is the toy sellers who try to get parents to buy tacky plastic guns or some other ear splitting contraption for their kids. Yes, you just want to have some kid playing with that kind of thing all night!”
When the morning comes, he awakes with bags under his eyes, bags beneath the bags, hair matted with dust and feeling totally filthy. What makes it even more frustrating is that Indians get up after a perfect sleep, without a hair out of place, and are ready to go to work for the next eight hours. The first thing he does is check into the nearest hotel to sleep for nine hours.
He continued, “The last time I was on a train some Indian guy eats this massive rice meal, takes off his shoes, climbs onto the top berth and I don’t see him for the next 12 hours. I just hear him snoring away in some chapatti-induced coma. He didn’t even come down to answer a call of nature. This is despite the non-stop yelling, crying and flashing lights. He gets down a few minutes before his station lokking as right as rain and raring to go. Why can’t I do that?”
Before I knew it Indian hotels were on the agenda. “Why is it that as soon as I check into a hotel that within five minutes I want to check-out? I’ll tell you why – because in half the places I stay in there is on-going repair work taking place. The hammering and banging begins at six in the morning and carries on until eleven at night.”
If there is a world championship for complaining, he would win it.
“If they are not repairing the place, then they are adding another floor onto the top – a sixth or seventh floor on top of foundations that were probably laid to take three or four…And what about the boys who clean the place? They appear at your door at six in the morning wanting to clean the room. What the hell is that all about?”
So with all of that in mind – and it was a lot – he wasn’t moving. Anyway, he was embroiled in a serious addiction problem. He was in trouble. I was at the communal sink and yet again he was there. He looked awful. His eyes were sunken and he was unshaven. He was actually beginning to look like a junkie. His attitude had changed. He was mumbling and rambling about her bad points in the hope it would make him feel better. That kind of thing seldom does, and it never did.
He should have left long ago. He knew it. Even Indian trains had now become an attractive proposition. He had to get away. He was sick of making proclamations of undying love. I guess that normal people don’t act like that, but he wouldn’t know – he was no longer one of them. I never saw him again – well not until a few months later in New Delhi railway station.
Some time later I accidentally met Lise again. She was walking through the mayhem they call the Main Bazaar, in Delhi. I glimpsed her through a maze of people, cows and bicycle rickshaws. I remembered just how fond I was of this girl. She still mesmerised.
We went to a restaurant. As usual, the waiters outnumbered the customers. They hung around talking with each other. They waited and we waited. Eventually our order was taken, and then an eternity later an unfriendly waiter slams a bottle on the table and asks “Open?” I returned to my hotel. The hammering and banging continued into the night, and someone came knocking on my door at six in the morning wanting to clean the room.
One week after, I went to the railway station to say goodbye. She was returning to Chennai. It was eleven in the evening. The chai sellers were already in full voice, accompanied by the incessant throat-clearing racket. I fought my way through the crowds and boarded the train to say farewell. I had always liked this girl – really liked her from the minute I first saw her. But knew that I’d never see her again. The train moved. She was gone forever. I left my heart on the Tamil Nadu Express – that’s not a song is it? Jimmy Page kicked-in…heartbreaker began playing once again. HE was back. India might drive me mad but that girl drove me crazy!
Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India stories section of BootsnAll.