The Bangalore-Kanyakumari Express (aka Island Express) is scheduled for departure from Bengaluru at 20.00 hours and I begin filling my backpack at 17.20, returning from an extended day at college. I make a final check for all the essentials and necessities, and then look at my watch which showed 18.30. Three years plus in Bangalore and I know very well about the traffic tragedy in late evening hours; I call upon a dear friend to drop me over to the railway station, nearly 20 km away. And no sooner than we hit the road, I realize I had saved myself by riding pillion, for had I boarded a city bus, I'm sure plans of my much anticipated first solo trip would have been buried even before it began, blame being on the woeful traffic. I reach the station fifteen minutes early and I couldn't thank my saviour friend more. I rush inside, board the train and settle in my seat, and within minutes the train moves. The journey begins!
It is the next day morning and I'm looking out the window. Palm trees towering over the yet sun-devoid sky, tile-roofed compact houses surrounded by greenery of several shades, silent still streams interspersed by jungle habitations, all welcoming me to Kerala and wishing a fresh, early morning at Pudukad. And it is the Pongal day!
As our mighty Sun embarks on a fresh path this auspicious day of Makara Sankranti, it feels good to ride through God's Own Country.
I sit next to a window, facing in the direction the train is speeding, allowing morning breeze rush past my hooded face, holding a book and pencil in my hands, the bright sun being a helpful friend offering me all the light I need, as I'm carried into the world of Mr. Hosseini's words, while a medium-sized Malayali family with as many as three men, women and children each, who had occupied the compartment I was traveling in at the previous station of Ernakulam town, sit and chat and laugh and eat homemade breakfast and chat again endlessly in the language I cannot comprehend, let alone understand.
Finally, as late as 10.45 in the morning, I bring myself to brush my teeth and wash my face, freshen up a bit; I've not visited the washroom once yet, since boarding the train; I've not felt like buying breakfast from these vendors walking up and down the aisle chanting what they are carrying. Though I feel signs of hunger, I prefer to do away with breakfast; maybe I want to see how long I can sustain this way, moreover there's still chips I had bought the previous night.
I enjoy reading about 50 pages of And the Mountains Echoed, even as the family traveling with me were engaged in their lively, unrestrained banter, as the locomotive strode through the length of Kerala.
I reached the destination, Kanyakumari at around 4.00 pm, had a little refreshment, enquired about suitable train timings for the commute between Kanyakumari and Nagercoil so that I could plan accordingly for the next day's scheduled departure, opened Google Maps to get directions to Hotel Sangam - the hotel I had earlier booked a room in - reached the hotel on foot in quick time, took bath, got refreshed and headed to the beach.
My first preference was of course the Vivekananda rock memorial; I reached the ticket counter at 5.10 pm. Sadly, I was ten minutes too late to secure the ferry ticket; to reach the rock memorial, which is surrounded on all sides by the sea, the only means of commute is on boat, the government-run service of which closes each day at 5 pm. I could do nothing but reserve the visit to the memorial for the next day early morning.
The second place of interest in my mind was the Gandhi museum. All the favorite tourist spots in Kanyakumari are located in close proximity, on the shore, overlooking the sea. Vehicles were prohibited on these streets, not because the streets were too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic but the swarming tourists themselves occupied almost the entire width and stretch of the streets! An early weekend on account of Sankranti festival resulted in a rush of visitors from places nearby and far away alike, in addition to scores of Sabarimala pilgrims returning from their main pilgrimage.
The Gandhi museum is built around the spot where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were kept before immersion in the Triveni Sangam - the meeting place of India's three massive water bodies: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the mighty Indian Ocean - in 1948, the year the father of the nation succumbed to the second assassination plot against him. The museum, sadly, rather disappoints an earnest visitor. To call it a museum is but a blatant exaggeration for it has in display just a few photographs of the Mahatma; a further disappointment being, the photographs not chronicling the life of the Messenger of Peace but just showing him with the other recognised leaders of the Indian national movement. However, the architecture of the building was praiseworthy with an intelligent design that made it spacious, letting in plenty of light and sea breeze.
I then visited the famous sunset point to bid adieu to the retiring sun. With the light fading away and darkness steadily replacing it, it seemed like the sun was in a hurry, dipping at a distance into the calm sea. Before I could realize, the sun had vanished! Though I missed the perfect shot I managed to click some decent pictures.
It was a busy market place, flanked by shops suiting pockets of all sizes, styles of all tastes. Apparels, seashell ornaments and artwork, pebbles, hats, handicraft, spices everywhere, on sale. One could witness frenzied shopping scenes on all streets.
I then visited the nearby Vivekananda museum. It was a beautiful white marble building housing a central bust of the nation's most revered monk. There were wall-mounted sculptures with respective written descriptions explaining Swami's journey through the length and breadth of India, and highlighting significant times of Swami Vivekananda's life.
I spent about an hour at the museum and then headed to a nearby hotel to eat dinner; it was ordinary food charged at exorbitant rates! With a dissatisfied stomach and slightly aching legs I decided to call it a day. I returned to hotel and plunged on to bed and set alarm on my phone for an early rise the next morning.
I did wake up early, freshened up quickly and hurried to the ticket counter only to join a long queue already in place; I could nevertheless buy a ticket for the first boat transporting tourists to the Vivekananda rock memorial. It was a fresh, misty morning at the southern most tip of the Indian mainland. The life giver's arrival was announced by the orange shade over the horizon of the eastward sky. The wait commenced to catch the glowing ball rise up; minutes of wait ensue, and then the beloved sun first peeps from a veil of thin cloud before emerging from the distant horizon, inch by inch in a calm red as though delivering sweet morning kisses to his cheering, clapping (yes, literally) children standing on the peninsular tip of the Indian subcontinent. Visitors pose, cameras click, and reclick for about next half an hour. Then, as the sun slowly and steadily rises, with his light becoming brighter and more intense, we proceed to sight the prominent features of the place: the spot where Swami Vivekananda in 1892 (presumably on 24, 25, 26 December) meditated after having swam from the shore, against the tides of the mighty Indian ocean to reach the rock; the mediation hall beneath Vivekananda's statute - a dark, silent room with mats and chairs for the incoming enthusiasts, with a green-lighted 'AUM' symbol put up on the wall and a timed rendition of 'AUM' chant, played electronically, filling the room; a temple to signify the footstep of goddess kanyakumari; the renowned Tamil poet, Thiruvullavar's statute at a short distance, facing away on the other twin rock; a tall flag post with an orange (defacto Hindu) flag adorning the 'AUM' symbol, flapping continuously in the wind.
It's been over four hours and I don't feel even the slightest urge to return, the attraction of the spot is such; no wonder Swami Vivekananda himself was captivated. Despite hordes of visitors thronging the site, the tranquility of the place is palpable, and remains unpolluted; the serenity and sanctity intact and infectious. So infectious it masks my mind of the hunger arising out of delayed breakfast (it is clocking 10.40, so it may as well be denied breakfast). It did turn out to be a no-breakfast day, but with no regrets whatsoever!
A passage I wrote sitting on the rock memorial goes like this: "the sea breeze blowing in, constantly, caressing the face, prompting you to take in voluntary, close-eyed deep breaths, and all along forging a bond between the location and you which you simply don't want to break away from. Sitting here savoring the kissing breeze, time becomes the enemy. How I wish that time slows down a bit, or if possible, in good measure; greed creeps in, and even the infallible moral conscience doesn't show any hint of objection. So, even bad becomes good, it is that good! I need not talk anymore about the sanctity of the place. If I could say one thing in all certainty, it would be this: in future, I would never miss even one chance, when they present themselves, to visit Kanyakumari, arrive at this famous rock memorial, pay my respects to the phenomenal monk, and come to this very location, sit facing the oceans and smile at the unrelenting breeze, rekindling the bond which unmistakably feels eternal. How I wish it were drizzling here, now!"
Time clocking away uninhibited, I had to excuse myself, for check-out time at the hotel was 12 noon with an allowable margin of an hour. It was already 11.45, and I decided not to leave before fulfilling one of my dear goals of the journey: to read a book at this lovely place. I opened And The Mountains Echoed that I had brought along and let my eyes diligently follow the magical phrases coined together in a riveting story scripted by Khaled Hosseini. Some good four pages up and I reluctantly had to force myself stop for paucity of time. Without any delay I took out my Canon DSLR and began clicking few last pictures of the seas and the ocean, their supposed meeting place, the magnificent silhouette of the rock temple against the overhead sun's lush light, the tall imposing statute on the other island-rock, the distant continuously rotating windmills and the beautiful double-domed structure at a farther distance, close to the sea, which I later learned to be the Koodalakundam nuclear power plant!
I stood there registering one last view of the blue green wavy waters, splashing against a few rocks around, creating white foam as they did, tiny fishing boats dotting the majestic seas, incredibly vast expanse of waters in all three directions forging a scarcely discernible horizon at a great distance afar, where seemingly the waters flowed into the sky!
And then, sadly, it was time to head back. I climbed down the Steps of Serenity, clicked one last selfie and joined the queue waiting for the boat, to return from the rock memorial, with much reluctance in the heart.
I rushed back to the hotel, quickly packed my luggage and vacated the room. Keeping my backpack at the hotel reception desk and requesting for its safekeeping, I went for lunch and had South Indian meals charged at an undeserving price of Rs 100. I then hurried to the Kanyakumari Devi temple, only to see it closed; it was break-time, 1.00 PM to 4.00 PM
For the return journey, I had booked the Bengaluru-Nagercoil express train. I received a text message from the Indian Railways on the day of the return journey confirming the reservation of my seat, and the train was scheduled for departure from Nagercoil at 19.05 hours.
I had enquired the previous day, on arrival at the Kanyakumari railway station, about the trains running between Kanyakumari and Nagercoil, and I was advised to take the train leaving Kanyakumari at 5.20 PM so as to reach Nagercoil well in time.
With the temple remaining closed till 4.00 PM, I decided to wait on, have a quick darshan after it reopened, and hurry to the railway station to catch the 5.20 PM train.
Meanwhile, with about two hours at my disposal, I embarked on a stint of shopping, walking up and down the commercial streets around the place, visiting shops that were displaying handicraft, seashell ornaments, pebbles, hats, spices etc.
I proved to be a cautious customer, sceptical of either the quality or the pricing (or both) of the items on sale. In the end I bought a grey hat for Rs 120 after a protracted show of trying it out, looking in the mirror from as many angles as possible and convincing myself that it fit and looked well on me. I also bought a few small gifts as souvenirs to my close friends.
Wrapping up the shopping spree, I went back to the temple to join in an already formed queue in front of the temple's closed doors. Time was no longer a luxury with me for I had to catch a train in about an hour. At 4.05 PM the temple doors opened; I deposited my bag and camera at the temple counter for a price of Rs 10, bought the entry ticket costing Rs 20, removed my T-shirt as is custom for men to bare their upper body in the temple premises, and walked inside the temple observing its typical architecture. Built with stone and supported on many pillars smeared with oil, it was low, large and dark inside. A medium-height statue of Goddess Kanyakumari was housed in a small central shrine, a large, decorated nose-ring highlighted on her face. I learnt only later from my eldest aunt about the legend that, Kanyakumari's nose-ring shone with such brightness and intensity so as to guide distant boats and ships lost in the dark! It was only in retrospect that I could really acknowledge the conspicuous nose-ring on the goddess's statue. I had a gratifying darshan of the heroine of India's southern most tip. After that, I proceeded out, wore my shirt back, collected my belongings and marched towards the hotel to pick my backpack. From there, I headed to the railway station, bidding goodbye to the destination of my first solo trip. I bought a ticket to Nagercoil for Rs 45 with only a few minutes left before the train left, and boarded the train just in time. As the locomotive's wheels began rolling the pain of missing Kanyakumari stung sharp, and with that ended a satisfying sojourn to Kanyakumari.
I reached Nagercoil in about 20 minutes and had more than an hour to spare before the Nagercoil-Bangalore Express set out in motion. Just wandering around the station I went to the train already standing on the tracks, checked my name in the reservation list pasted on the coach, and moved to the head of the train to see the loco-pilot just arrive. He climbed up the driver's seat, turned the engine on and began doing several things with an expert's ease. Joined by a couple other curious onlookers I watched in rapt attention everything he was doing: calibrating the devices, inspecting something in the engine compartment, checking the oil content in the locomotive, all the while filling a register with his observations. A short while later he was joined by his fellow loco-pilot who without much delay started off with his own series of inspections. Sometime later, maybe half an hour, perhaps once they were satisfied with the preliminary tests, the first loco-pilot got down the engine coach as his colleague slowly moved the coach backwards, in order to join it to the rest of the coaches of the train. And, with everything set, the second-to-arrive loco-pilot relayed the ready status of the engine, through a wireless radio communication device, purportedly to the station control room from where announcements are made to the passengers. With a satisfying sense of learning brimming within at witnessing, in full, the initial preparations in a train before it began running, I walked briskly to reach my seat, which was more than a dozen coaches behind, with less than five minutes remaining before the train departed. For the return journey I had to go with the 3-tier AC coach (waiting list figuring 27 at the time of booking), for the general sleeper coach had an ominously long waiting list exceeding 300; no sooner had I entered the coach, I could see the reasons behind the Rs 500 cost difference between the two classes of train coaches: cleaner compartments, better-cushioned seats, charging ports in every compartment, fresh blanket, bedsheets and a clean pillow for each passenger, and of course the air-conditioning. I gave details to the visiting Train Ticket Executive who verified my ticket, then I climbed on to the top berth reserved for me and comforted myself laying down with my companion book in my hand. Within no time I had slipped into sleep, only to rise in the next morning when the train had safely reached Bengaluru.
My first solo-trip had come full circle. It was a rejuvenating as well as memorable experience, forging an undoubtedly heartwarming bond with the serene surroundings of the rock memorial, seas and the ocean.
A place to visit, to breathe in some fresh energy into our lost lives, as the cute red sun cheers us with a protracted somersault, rising and setting in distant, opposite horizons, all the while helping you discover yourself amidst the singing sea breeze. Kanyakumari shall certainly captivate you!