E. Sreedharan did not buy a ticket the first time he boarded a train. The five-year-old did not have to.
The schoolboy was terrified to see the houses and trees running backwards as he sat by the window in the crowded Chennai-Mangaluru train. He was going to Payyannur with his father to visit his sister.
He told his father that he was dying to see his sister even though he was secretly wishing for his first glimpse of the train. His father tried to dissuade him. After all, the long walk from the Akilanam village to the Pattambi railway station was too tiring for a little boy. Sreedharan was convinced though.
The father and son set off on their journey on the eve of the train travel. They walked up to five kilometers to a relative’s house where they spent the night. They had to wake up early in the morning and walk the rest of the miles to reach the railway station.
Getting into the train at 7 in the morning proved even harder, Sreedharan reminisces. He somehow got himself a place by the window, sandwiched between his father and the window frame.
The boy starved until he reached his sister’s house at Payyannur. Those days, trains did not have a pantry car to feed the passengers.
Sreedharan was happy though. He was all praise for the locomotive when his sister served him dinner. “You have to close your eyes though,” he warned her. “The houses and trees and cows kept running backwards. That will make you dizzy.”
When his friends made little balls out of palm leaves, Sreedharan cut wheels out of wood and metal pieces. He was already a train maker, piecing together snaky models with matchboxes.
When he went to the BEM School at Palakkad, he was in illustrious company. One of his classmates would later be known as T.N. Seshan, the election commissioner who took the bull by its horns. Sreedharan and Seshan soon found themselves competing for the first slot after every exam.
Sreedharan was the topper initially but missed out to Seshan by a single mark in the final SSLC exam.
Trains marked the day for the students then, Sreedharan says. They would wake up by the siren of the morning train. The local tea shop owner would light up his samovar when the afternoon train passed. Even the priest at the temple waited for the train to open the gate.
Sreedharan is back to the clockwork life in his house at Ponnani. He gets up at 4 every morning and read Bhagavatham for an hour. He hits the bed at the stroke of 9 at night. Life never runs late for the Metroman.