A week ago, I was in Kurla station seeing off parents. As the Netravati Express slowly made its way out of the station, my eyes blurred and in an attempt to get on with things, I turned towards the boy.
“Can you put Netravati on the map?”
“I think so. Yes.”
“Where does it start?”
“I know the general area. Not sure of origin. It flows into the Arabian Sea though.”
“Oh really? I would never have guessed! I thought it goes East all the way and flows into the Bay of Bengal!”
“Okay okay. I don’t know where in the Ghats it starts. Just that it flows through Mangalore.”
“My Dad would have known the origin. He knows all rivers.”
“Really? Can he plot the course of the Danube?”
“Oh shut up. Let’s go home and find where Netravati originates.”
And thus we learn that the Netravati has its origins at Gangamoola in Chikmangalur district of Karnataka. The water supply for the city of Mangalore is almost entirely from this river. The namesake train which my parents took snakes down the Konkan coast through Ratnagiri and Goa into Mangalore and enters the northernmost part of Kerala at Kasargode. It then traverses down the entire length of God's own Country and drops my parents home at Thiruvananthapuram.
Back in those days when home was called Trivandrum and life was about inventing excuses to go to Ernakulam with friends, there were no cool Janashatbdis or Inter-Cities. Instead, there was the Vanchinad Express which used to be the fastest train on that single-track route. [Vanchinad literally translates to the land in the shape of a boat - it refers to the shape of the princely state of Travancore.] If one had to go from Trivandrum to Madras in those days, there was only one direct train and it had a very bland name. It was called No: 20 Madras Mail and it would come back as No: 19 Trivandrum Mail. Nowadays though, there’s another one – this train that cuts through the Tamil heartland to reach the city where Ananthan rests is called the Ananthapuri Express.
Now, we Tams, despite popular belief, actually come up with some outstanding names. Well, let me qualify that - we come up with some outstanding names when we are NOT naming ourselves, our rivers, our lakes, our temples, our buses and our trains after movie stars, politicians or worse, movie-star turned politicians. Like a month ago, I was traversing a very-flooded Pallava country on my way from Madras Egmore to the place my parents call home on the aptly-named Pallavan Express. You can also travel the same route if you take the Rock Fort(Malai Kottai, a millenium old fort in Trichy) Express. Here's a secret while I am at this - the best food ever served by Indian Railways used to happen on a meter-guage train on this route. Next time you want to go to the temple city by the river which is always dry(unless you are talking well, 2005), take the Vaigai Express from Madras Egmore into Madurai. On the other hand, if you actually want to land up in a place where you can hog some of the freshest vegetables your urban tongue has ever tasted, take either the Lalbagh Express or the Blue Mountain (Nilgiri) Express out of Madras. And no, my dear Telugu brethern, I did not forget the Charminar Express. Just figuring out a place to fit it in.
At the risk of being disowned by my very S. Indian family, I must make a confession here. Despite some very excellent names that grace the trains that travel down South, I happen to have on my favorites list quite a few trains that go to and from a particularly pretentious metropolis in Eastern India. Their pretentiousness in naming trains is really very endearing - who else will come up Aginveena Express, Gitanjali Express, Azad Hind Express, Ganadevta Express, Rupashi Bangla Express, or the Shantiniketan Express?
You have more trains, you say? What about the Deccan Queen, you ask? And how can I not mention my all-time favorite - the Coromandel Express? How about the Hirakud Express? Or the Golden Temple Mail? And I forgot the Ahimsa Express? And countless number of train names which mean so much to us. Names with so much history associated with them. All you need, I tell you, is a towel and a copy of the latest Indian Railways timetable and the whole country is yours!