A trip to Trincomalee by train - Part 2 | Sunday Observer

A trip to Trincomalee by train - Part 2

14 August, 2022

I sat on a seat facing the direction of the Lake House on purpose. The train would ride in one direction until the Mahawa junction railway station where the engine would be detached from one end and reattached to the other. It’d then resume the journey in the opposite direction.

From where I sat, I’d feel the train rolling backwards until the Mahawa junction railway station, but thereafter, it’d resume the normal course for me. I enjoy the train ride best when the train moves forward rather than backward. Since the better leg of the journey, in terms of the scenery, begins after some distance past the Mahawa junction railway station, from where I was seated now, I’d be able to savour that experience richly. My backpack would rest on my lap.


Now almost all the seats in my compartment were taken and passengers from all walks of life hurried through the space between the two rows of seats. Unzipping the front pocket, I fished for the rolls and pulled the paper bag out. Then, I took off the mask and left it on my backpack next to the paper bag.

I took out my sanitiser bottle and uncapped it, sprayed it over my palms and fingers and rubbed both hands clean on themselves, interlacing the fingers once or twice so as to scrub them free of the much- feared Corona virus and other germs. Putting the cap back on it, I threw the sanitiser bottle back into my trouser pocket. I picked up the paper bag and took out an egg roll and bit a piece off. It was oily but tasted good. I ate both rolls quickly and almost mechanically.

Responsible travelling

The oil seeping from the crispy golden-brown crust of the egg rolls had left a translucent splotch of an irregular shape on the paper bag made of a school notebook. The blue ballpoint ink had been smeared a little at the contact of oil. I put the paper bag back in the same pocket. I’d dispose of it at the hotel. As a principle, I never drop foodstuff, food wrappers, and peanut shells etc on a seat or the floor of a train or a bus.

I always keep them with me and dispose of them at home or the boarding or at any other destination in a proper way. It’s very unethical to leave your rubbish on a train or a bus or at any other public place for that matter. I believe we all have an inviolable obligation to always travel responsibly. And it’s never too difficult with a little humility, maturity, discipline, and above all, empathy.

I took my water bottle, tore off its plastic cover and put it in one of my trouser pockets. I unscrewed the cap and took a swig to wash it all down. I screwed the cap back on it and put it back in the mesh pocket. I put on my mask again.

Still on the stationary train

I bought a copy of ‘Adha’, a Sinhala newspaper, from a newspaper vendor in a chequered black and grey shirt over a pair of black shorts. He had a stack of newspapers draped on his left forearm. Spreading it, I scanned the headlines and flipped it to the second and third pages. There wasn’t much to read there, anyway.

Someone had switched on the fan atop the compartment entrance which kept whirring noisily. Every now and then, the trilingual announcements on the arrivals and departures of trains on the loudspeakers could be heard above the din of the passengers and the trains trundling in and out.

An interminable wait

Now it was five minutes to six o’clock in the morning and the train would leave at five minutes past six. Those ten minutes felt like an eternity in my child-like excitement. Time seemed to stand still or move at the speed of a millipede. It’d be a long journey of over eight hours.

Only God knows how long it could be delayed further. To save battery power, I knew I had to use the mobile sparingly. I’d switched off the mobile data and activated the ultra-mode for the same purpose.

I had to save it in case I had to take a mugshot from the train and also to call the hotel in case it proved hard to locate. I always want to stay ready for an eventuality that could crop up. I want to stay in complete control of what I can change to deal with what’s beyond my control the best way I can. To kill the eternity of ten minutes, I started looking at the hand marking seconds on my fossil quartz watch, one of my favourite material possessions. Still, I felt time baulk at moving like a recalcitrant child refusing to attend school.

The train leaves the Fort railway station

My interminable wait was punctuated by the ear-piercing sound of the horn being blared ensued by the guard’s whistle. Another whistle and I settled on the seat smiling to myself foolishly as the train started its jerky motion, trundling backwards.

The gigantic millipede picked up speed, the metal pressing against the metal, gripping, clashing, and rolling over with a noise that jarred on my ears. Still, its relentless motion and jarring noise thrilled me even as I knew anyone or anything that happened to be on its path would be crushed and trampled over like a snail shell being trodden on.

The train is a very useful mode of transportation of people and goods and comparatively cheaper to operate. Riding on a train is a joyous experience for many travellers, local and foreign, alike. Even though many gruesome accidents involving trains are reported at an alarming frequency, so long as all the safety measures are followed to the letter, its mass and motion pose no threat. In a sense, it’s like electricity or like a kitchen knife.

A matter of humility

I peered at the passing landscape, the folded newspaper now resting on my backpack. When I was bored with the nondescript suburban landscape and the ubiquitous paddy fields, I tried to read, with little success, the masked faces of the passengers standing sandwiched between two rows of seats on either side, holding on to the poles or seat tops or hanging on to the handles fastened to the horizontal bars overhead.

I found them inscrutable, cold, and aloof. No one smiled at me; I wasn’t humble enough to smile first, either. The mask cannot hide a genuine smile or a frown. They appeared indifferent, lost in their own thoughts and concerns. The language barrier separated some of us too; their mother tongue was Tamil while mine was Sinhala. But many of the Tamil-speaking passengers must have been fluent in Sinhala. It’s only that I was waiting to be spoken to, but I wasn’t humble enough to strike up a conversation with them. Or was it more a matter of self-confidence and social intelligence?

Mahawa Junction Railway Station

The train would be jerked to a halt at the predetermined railway stations where some passengers got down and others climbed in. Past the major railway stations on the line - Ragama junction, Gampaha, Veyangoda and Meerigama, the train now arrived at the Mahawa junction railway station.

It’d remain stationary for about half an hour there until the engine was detached from one end and reattached to the other. I got down like many others. I looked for the men’s washroom to answer a call of nature I’d managed to suppress till then. But it was under repair and off-limits to the passengers.

I made up my mind to hold it until the train reached the Gal Oya junction railway station in about two and half hours’ time. I prefer not to use the toilets on the train as they emit such a terrible stench and are very much unclean. Maybe washing them clean doesn’t come under the regular maintenance activities. Unless I’m about to soil my pants, I wouldn’t relieve myself in a toilet on the train. I returned to my seat shortly.

Some vendors had climbed aboard and were plying their merchandise moving fast through the compartments and announcing their offerings aloud - snacks like egg and fish rolls, wades, sweets and savoury items, baked food like fish buns and fruits – cut and salted pineapple, guava and mango, and apples and oranges, and beverages like plain tea, milk tea, coffee, milk coffee, milk packets, yoghurt drinks, soft drinks and bottled water were being sold.

Some passengers went to the canteen and bought all kinds of snacks and soft drinks there. Some of them were sipping the hot and cool drinks they had just bought.

Resuming the next leg of the journey

Some others were watching the engine being reattached by the technicians from the railway station. While it was a quotidian mission for them, for some passengers who travel rarely by train, it was a spectacle worth watching.

The frequent travellers were known to the railway staff and they were engaged in small talk. I didn’t join them even though I was curious. Instead, I stuck my neck as far out the window as humanly possible and sought to catch a glimpse of it from the side visible to me. Inside the compartment, people were eating the snacks they’d just bought and were conversing with their family members and companions.

After travelling together for some three and half hours, some form of tacit intimacy had been established among some of them, complete strangers when the journey began, and it’d grow a little stronger and last until they got off the train. For them, I must have stood apart, a loner - taciturn, aloof, and watching them now and then from a distance.

The knot of people by the engine dispersed and was hurrying along the platform to get back into the train. Soon the train resumed the journey. This time, for me, it was moving in the right direction now.