In Search of the Lost Railway of Tisiyanvilai

I’ve always been fascinated by the edges of maps. Upon seeing a political map of India, boxed by the black border that cut half of Burma off, I remember asking my mother if one would fall off the earth if that black line was crossed. I used to pore over all sorts of maps and look at places that were at the edges and trace lines from them back to the centre. Discovering places. Discovering routes. Discovering distances.

One evening, a few days before we were moving cities, my father came home with a slightly faded, yellow cloth backed map. It was the Automobile Association’s South India large scale map. It was given as a parting gift by one of his colleagues and I remember very vividly his instructions to me. “This is a very important gift, so I am giving it to you for safe keeping. Return it when we are all settled in. You can open it, see it, but I’ll be very very annoyed if there is even one tear.”

So that evening after dinner, I spread out the map on the floor and much to the protests of my brother, kept the lights on brightly and traced lines to and from places. It was on this map that I first discovered Pandarkhawda, Bhoopalapatnam, Yerraguntla, Sirsi, Yavatmal, Bissam Cuttack and Oddanchatram. It was on this map that I found the edges. Kanniyakumari. Nagpur. Baleshwar. Bharuch. That same evening, I found a place that kept calling out to me. Tisiyanvilai. It lies just a little north-east of Kanniyakumari and I found it by tracing a line up from the last point on the map towards Madras. I kept repeating that name over and over again for the next few days. I asked my parents if they knew something about it. “Just some small town I think”, my mother kept repeating.

Some 15 years later, a post on a mailing list I am subscribed to alluded to the fact that there used to be a small railway that ran from Tisiyanvilai to the nearby town of Tiruchendur. A railway? That too from a place that has an almost mythical connection to me? I was giddy with excitement. I had to know more about this. I had to visit Tisiyanvilai. I just had to.

I am recalling all of this on a dirty platform bench at Tirunelveli railway station. It’s 7AM in the middle of May and it is boiling hot already. The walk from the hotel a km away has depleted the water I am carrying by a litre. The passenger train to Tiruchendur leaves in 20 min and is already impossibly full. I twiddle my thumbs for a bit and decide to jump into one of the coaches to find space. It turns out to be the “Ladies Only” coach. A middle-aged lady dressed in a bright orange saree sees me first and in the typical sing-song way of Tamil speak in these parts basically tells me to get off the coach or face unimaginable consequences to my reproductive parts. I dart back down, too embarrassed to even look back. The next coach thankfully yields some standing space near the door.

We soon start and trundle across the beautiful Tamaraibarani river that dissects the city. This patch of green is perhaps the only one for miles as the country is dry, crusty and very red earth. After about an hour of meandering we come upon the town of Nazareth, where the large Gothic church spire stands out. Peppered throughout the town are boards to various missionaries, each promising salvation in their own way. One particular spot has so many boards, it feels like a supermarket flash sale route to God.

The entry to Tiruchendur is less dramatic that I had imagined. In my head, the beach town with a large temple would sweep into view after crossing over backwater lined with palm and coconut. The reality is that like most Indian towns, the path to it is lined with dry shrub and that morning’s waste deposited by the population.

The station is relatively modern and clean with a large waiting area, presumably for the really busy days. My first task here is to figure out if there are any remains of the old railway to Tisiyanvilai. The station master turns out to be from Purnea in Bihar, on the other side of India, and is completely unaware of the history of the place. The old ticket clerk and porter too have no clue and look rather incredulous when told that someone has come all the way from Bangalore to enquire about a railway that closed in 1941.

Information on the Kulasekarapatnam Light Railway is hard to come by. The only good source is the book “Parrys 200: A saga of resilence”. This was published to mark the 200 years of Parry & Co, the owners of the railway and the sugar plant that the line was built to service. Some excerpts from the book provide much needed detail:

A light railway was set up initially to carry jaggery to the factory in Kulasekaranpatnam. It was little more than a tramline. But the South Indian Railway persuaded Parrys to build a genuine light railway to connect the factory with the railhead Tuticorin. It also allowed Parrys to use it for the public. The line covered about 27 miles, nine of which were along the seashore. The Kulasekaranpatnam Light Railway functioned from 1915 to 1940, but it had been endangered as early as 1926 when the Kulasekaranpatnam factory was closed. In 1940, the rails were uprooted and contributed to the war effort. But a ticket issued by this railway is mounted and preserved in Parrys as a proud memento of something that could have grown very big.

Any hope of finding something historical here is tempered by the fact the station has been rebuilt twice. First when it first converted to the meter gauge and recently when it was made into broad gauge. Still, I stumble around the thorn bushes at the edge for fifteen minutes before giving up and heading towards the main road.

The town itself is rather unremarkable. Hot, humid and dusty with the focal point being the temple of the god Murugan at the end of the road leading to the beach. Hunger rather than devotion leads me towards it through small streets that have houses roofed with gorgeous red tiles, intricately carved gables and balustrades. This being almost rural India, there is no escaping the festering, leaking drains, the pigs squealing about in them and a woman doing her laundry nearby. After a glance at the imposing gopuram and a brief stroll around the outer perimeter, I tuck into some delicious pongal at the canteen run by wives of the priests. The setting is a typical Tamil Nadu ‘otel’: A mass of people crammed into a small space. Camphor, jasmine and coconut are the all pervading smells. Banana leaves spread out over long tables and rickety steel chairs that have an extra inch carved away at the bottom. A piping hot filter coffee later, I am heading back towards the bus stand.

Chaos and diesel fumes are the two things in abundance at Indian bus stands and Tiruchendur is no exception. There are some ten buses whose conductors are all announcing their respective destinations. In the cacophony, Tirunelveli sounds like ‘tinvali’ and Kanniyakumari sounds like ‘gnyagumri’. The bus to Kulasekarapatnam which is where the railway got its name from, doesn’t arrive until half hour later. And it is a horror. Painted in a garish red and yellow combination, its front tyres lack proper treads, one windshield is missing and there are three goats and two men standing on the roof. As always there is a violent, mad scramble to get in. I escape the half-thrown punches and get a decent seat.

A twelve rupee ticket purchase later we get going on surprisingly good roads. Despite Tamil Nadu’s excellent road system, I had always considered the southern districts as pariahs in terms of infrastructure. Not anymore. There is only big town on the way, Udangudi. The railway had a branch to here from Kulasekarapatnam, but that branch was closed much before 1941, so the chances of me finding anything remotely interesting are zero. At the edge of town, I notice an extremely large clearing of land and upon enquiry, am told that it is for the upcoming power plant. Apparently, contract disputes have meant that the plant construction is delayed. The elderly man sitting next to me tells me that his son was supposed to have been employed there, but since then has gone away to Nagercoil for better luck.

Kulasekarapatnam bus stand is empty save for our bus. There is near dead silence, as if the entire town has disappeared somewhere to beat the immense heat.

One of the problems trying to figure out lost things is where to start. Doubly so when the lost item is an obscure railway that few have heard and fewer seen. Across the street, I spot a lonely vendor selling tender coconuts. I ask for one and attempt to make conversation.

“I am here from Bangalore. I heard there was a old railway that closed some 60 years ago. Would you know anyone who knows anything about it?”

Blank stare. I repeat my question.

“Are you a terrorist?”
“Excuse me?”
“Ok, you are not a terrorist”

I am still recovering from this very weird exchange when he brusquely says that he doesn’t know anything about the railway and that he wouldn’t know anyone who did. For a second, I am tempted to ask him why he thinks I am a terrorist, but another man diverts my attention.

“Why are you asking such questions?”
“I am attempting to write a book on old railways”, I lie, “I heard there was one such here.”
“I don’t anything about a railway, but my grandfather’s brother used to work at a sugar factory that had large machines.”
“Do you know the name of factory and if it still remains?”
“No, I don’t think anyone here around will know either. My grandfather died on the day MGR died, so you can’t ask him either.”

Not sure what to make of the last bit of that anecdote, I troop eastwards towards the sea and a much needed breeze. My feeble attempts at getting to know more about this railway are faltering. The walk towards the beach through the almost empty streets, past the large temple and adjacent mosque is pleasant. My thoughts racing back in time to Tranquebar and the utter joy of finding a broken piece of green glass from the semaphore signal that marked the end of line of yet another beautiful, but ultimately doomed light railway. The lure of a possible treasure. The lure of a “X marks the spot”. Where is that elusive “X” here in Kulasekarapatnam?

Refreshed somewhat, I return to the bus stand, which now seems to have woken up. Word must have gotten around that a stranger had come looking for a non-existent railway, so by the time I order a shot glass of sickly, sweet tea, a motley group has begun to gather around me.

“Are you really looking for a railway? Or you slightly mad?”
“Why would you come all the way from Bangalore to write a book? Your wife kicked you out?”
“Are you some agent for the power plant nearby trying to learn secrets?”

Most towns in Tamil Nadu are full of nice, but impatient people. They will stop to answer your questions if they feel they have the time to so, but rarely are people rude. But there are a few genuinely nasty exceptions. And this seems to be one. I am tired, sticky and in absolutely no mood to entertain any questions. I quickly pay up and walk towards a bus that says “Kanniyakumari”.

“Goes to Tisiyanvilai, no?”, I curtly ask the conductor
“Yeah. Express fare but.”
“Any fare is OK. I want to get out of here.”

I’ve barely spent an hour in this town, but already hate it. I might come back to figure out why I have visceral reactions to certain places, but for now I’ve had enough. The bus proceeds south towards a place everyone just calls “Junction”. This might very well be the place where yet another branch of the railway took off towards the fishing village of Manapadu. Much to my surprise, the bus swings east and towards the previously mentioned place. Could it be that the road on which I am travelling was once the rail bed? Manapadu lies on a small spit of land that juts out of the coast. It is most famous for its church where St. Francis Xavier held his ministries in the middle of the 16th century. Fully committed now to trace the source of the railway, I resist the temptation to get down and explore the church.

We carry on past a patchwork of fields fenced by tall palms. The road for a few kilometres is sandwiched by the sea on the east and the river Karumeni on the west. The river soon becomes a dry bed and veers off north. The sea offers some respite from the intense heat as the buses wheezes on ahead past small, dusty villages. Unlike in the past when almost all buses in Tamil Nadu would be blasting some form on entertainment on tiny TV’s fixed on the bulkhead near the driver, the only noise now is of the Hino-Leyland engine and an old woman who is berating her daughter-in-law.

Tisiyanvilai is reached after half an hour of lurching through country roads on either side of which lie medium sized palm and coconut tree farms. What seems to be small town on the map soon reveals itself to be not so. We twist through impossibly narrow streets for a good 2km before coming to a halt at the bus stand, which much to my liking is busy. Neat bays, occupied mostly, at the end of a ring platform in which I see at least half a dozen tea shops.

Tea shops are the focal points in such towns and their owners and patrons offer the most help and guidance. Provided one buys a cup or two of the brew, of course. In the past I’ve found connecting bus routes, confirmed 2nd class tickets on trains and on dry days, a bottle or two of rum at these places. I find one opposite the bus stand (A.S Mani Tea Stall) that is reasonably large and has a few people milling about. After my disastrous experience in Kulasekarapatnam, I decide to amble around for a bit before asking questions. I order a couple of coconut biscuits and a coffee. The owner, unsurprisingly named, A S Mani, is at the counter and starts the elaborate procedure to get a cup ready. A generous pour of the decoction into the tumbler first, followed by some sugar to which already sweet, boiling milk is added. A brass mug is picked up and the contents of the tumbler transferred. Next, the mug is raised as high as his hand can go and gentled tilted. The resultant waterfall of milk and decoction is miraculously guided into the narrow tumbler. All while the gap between the mug and tumbler reduces. When all of the coffee is in the tumbler, a quick snap of the wrist transfers it back to the mug. The pace picks up after the first repetition so after the third time, it all forms a very hypnotic, sashaying act.

The resultant coffee is good. But cloyingly sweet.

One of the men milling about succumbs to his curiosity.

“You don’t look from around these parts. Do you need help getting somewhere?”
“I know my way around, but I do require some help on the history of this town.”

Several Oh’s.

“I am coming from Bangalore, trying to find out something about a railway that ran. It was owned by a sugar company called Parry. Does anyone here have any idea about it?”

A long, interminable silence.

One old man in a crisp, off-white shirt finally speaks up.

“My memory is not so good, but I think I might know one person who can help you.”

After the experiences at Tiruchendur and Kulasekarapatnam, I had almost given up on finding anything, so this was a welcome relief. And the fact that I had hit jackpot on the very first group of people I had talked to was an unexpected bonus.

“He and I went to the same school, but it’s been a long time since I saw him. 20-25 years? He became the headmaster of the same school in which he studied. Isn’t that so nice?”

I nod.

“Anyway, his father, I recall used to work in the railway. I think he was the goods loading in charge or something. He can tell you more.”

“Do you know where this man lives? And what is his name?”

“His name was Abraham and their house was just off the street near the post office. That house is still there. I see it every day when I come here.”

My smile is as wide as the Tamaraibarani I had crossed earlier. So close to finding out more about the history of the line. I had the technical information - the kinds of locomotives, the rolling stock, the gauge, the permanent way - but a railway is much more than this. What about the people who worked the line? How was the nature of the work? How much were they paid? How did they feel when the line finally closed down? But most of all I want to find out where in present Tisiyanvilai the line was located. I want to go to the ground that I consider hallow. Can I find, like I did in Tranquebar, an artefact? I am dizzy with excitement.

But first, lunch. Adjacent to the bus stand stands BMC Complex on the ground floor of which is located “Hotel Sugumar. First Class Vegetarian”. Meals Ready, the bright blue board screams at the entrance. Stainless steel tables and chairs upon which are placed folded banana leaves. I pay up the 50 rupees for a token and take my place at the far end of the hall. A disinterested waiter soon starts laying out the spread: Mango pickle, dry curry made out of eggplant, a slightly less drier cabbage curry, an appallam and a giant mound of rice. The sambar is so-so, but the kozhambu and rasam are first class. I usually don’t eat a lot of rice, but I am pleasantly surprised at the amount I’ve demolished and when the waiter comes around asking if I want more, I decline, wash up and exit.

Two o’clock on a May afternoon in Tamil Nadu is terribly unpleasant. The sea which had been my saviour in the morning was at least 30km away to the east. The air is heavy with heat and dust. I abandon plans of walking the kilometre and a half to the post office and instead look for an autorickshaw. Spot three of them on the far side of the bus stand and attempt an approach. Living in Madras for a good number of years has wizened me to the tactics of these drivers, so when the first of them asks for 100 rupees, I simply stand ground and look at him intently. 80. No. 70. No. 60. No. 50 saar, please. No. 35, my final offer.

We pull out onto the moon crater main road and bump our way towards the post office. The house which I was told held all the information I wanted was a few paces away from the gaudily painted post office. Unremarkable house, typical in the style. A wide verandah that runs almost the length of the front wall. Two tiny windows on either side of a large, thick door on which a large cross is fixed and a red tiled roof held up at the front by sturdy, ancient teak pillars. The wrought iron gate creaks as I step inside to knock.

“Yes?”, says the elderly lady who answers the door

Vanakkam. I am looking a Mr. Abraham. I believe he was a teacher at the Govt. school in the 50’s and 60’s.”
“Oh, you are looking for headmaster-a? He no longer lives here. He moved along with his family to Nambikurichi.”
“Would you know any more details? A phone number or address?”
“Sorry, kanna. This is all I know.”

After having braved the heat and the unpleasantness of many people, I’ve come too far to be beaten at the last stage by a change of address. Sakthivel is told in as direct a language as possible to make a trip to Nambikurichi and that his rewards will be suitably nice.

“Give me only 200 rupees return fare, saar

I agree suspiciously. I don’t know where that village is, but my pride may not take kindly if it less than a couple of kilometres away. I make temporary peace with my head and give instructions to proceed.

We bump across more of the town and are almost run over by a cavalcade of white SUV’s before the road dramatically improves.

“All these town panchayat people are swindlers, saar. This road is owned by state govt. agencies. See that is why it is nice.”

Isn’t that a story we’ve heard many times before.

Sakthivel thinks we are in a race of some kind and propels the rickshaw at great speeds. At one particular bend in the road, we lurch dangerously towards a ditch that runs parallel, but the tarmac straightens in time and we escape. Much of the greenery that was seen before I entered Tisiyanvilai has now disappeared. The landscape is very desert-like with acacia thorns and dry shrub being the dominant flora. Patches of crop present themselves in between defiantly. We turn left towards Nagercoil at a junction called Mannarpuram Villaku and cross a couple of tiny hamlets before finally making the last turn towards the village. The river Nambiar, which flows at the west of the village has greened the surroundings, so tall palms welcome us with their shade.

A tea shop enquiry gives me nothing, so I proceed a few shops down to the grocery store. A very old gentleman in a bright blue lungi and nothing else is fanning himself and swatting files off the ginger sweets. I ask him about Mr. Abraham to which the reply is negative. A couple of customers come by and I ask them, but their replies too disappoint. Sakthivel, who has by now clued into my trip suggests that it really may be the end of the road. I am distraught. But I give myself one final question: “You may not know the name, but they moved into the village some 6 months ago. They sold their house in Tisiyanvilai.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Ambrose, you are looking for-a? Their house is at end of the main road, just outside the village.”

I don’t know Mr. Ambrose is, but right now I am willing to take any bone that’s offered to me.

The house is a modern affair. Concrete and bright colours. A couple of mango and lime trees dot the otherwise empty courtyard. The dog snarls as I enter. I patiently make my introductions to a suspicious Mrs. Ambrose who after a lengthy pause goes inside and fetches Mr. Ambrose. He is a tall, handsome man with wide shoulders and a moustache that would make any Tamil politician proud. His hair is gelled back and parted neatly at the side. If he wasn’t wearing a reddish-pink lungi and white vest, he could have easily passed off as a Sicilian in a Godfather movie.

I reintroduce myself.

“But father died a few months ago. He was unwell for a long time, so we took him to Madurai for treatment but he didn’t last.”, Mr. Ambrose’s tone candid and very matter of fact.

“Oh, I see”. I maintain my composure, but inside I am broken. I may not have travelled very far, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had painstakingly planned this out. I had researched the line. I had plotted the possible route. I was supposed to find the line and the people behind it. People from the First World War were still alive. Surely there would someone who knew about this railway. It was just 60 years gone.

Mr. Ambrose has seen through me.

“I am sorry that you came so far. I wish I could have helped more. All I can tell is that my father knew about the railway and would talk sometimes of grandfather working the goods loading at the sugar factory near Kulasekarapatnam.”

“Are there by any chance artefacts that your father collected? Do you know where the line started in Tisiyanvilai? Where the station was?”

“Sorry, no”, the voice resolute and dismissive.

I drag myself out by saying thank you. Sakthivel is silent too on the ride back to the bus stand. I give him the 200 rupees which accepts gladly. Consoling me half humorously he says that he’ll continue to look for the history of the railway and that I should come back after six months to find out.

Perhaps I should. Perhaps I should.

I originally wrote this a few years ago and it is featured in the book, but on reading it again, noticed that were were many typos and inconistencies. So I dusted it off, edited some bits and here it is.