Bonding on a train, as Yercaud beckoned
If we had known that Yercaud was a suspect hotbed for terrorists, we’d most likely have not gone there at all. Well, that was what I caught in a newspaper report on my return from an absolutely wonderful break in what was once called the ‘poor man’s hill station’ in South India.
Yercaud may not have exactly rocked – the weather was just a tad too warm for that – but the place where 21 of us, the ninth batch of United India Insurance Company’s direct recruit officers, stayed, kept reminding us all the while what wonders a perfectly created hill resort can do to ordinary city-bred lives. I’ll dwell more on Club Mahindra’s Lake Forest resort later, but the get-together first.
Without doubt, all of us were eager to meet, too eager, in fact. There was bit of trepidation as well – would some of the guys be the same, would the atmosphere be similar to that in the halcyon days of 1985?
At the end of it all, we found, to our utmost delight, that things hadn’t changed at all. The energy, the pumped-up adrenalin, the humour, the jabs and the vibes, the fun-poking innuendoes, it was all there in ample measure. Twenty-five years had not dulled our hearts or minds. We were as quick on the uptake as we were in 1985; we were as affectionate and caring for each other as we were then. The presence of every single member counted. We made sure, like we did then, that everybody was together and the lack of even one of us would make it seem a little empty.
As I trooped on to Chennai Central’s Platform No. 11 with Soundarya, I first spotted Rajiv. Apart from the extra kilos he had put on, and it’s been there for quite a while (I had met him a few years earlier), he was exactly the same as we all saw him last in the November of 1985. The big surprise was Thomas, who has now made Dubai his home. I mistook him for the burly Baba but soon, like many others, realised it was the soft-spoken Thomas, a gentleman who says he can never imagine himself being anything else than an employee and in whose veins insurance runs.
Vijay was arriving in Salem the following day; Saurabh Singh missed his evening flight from Delhi. But he had got on to a later flight and we hoped he’d be able to make it to Salem on the 11.30pm train. He did. And didn’t he receive a hero’s welcome at Salem Junction? Vijay, too, although he got some names wrong and plodded along in the act, pretending not to recognise some of us.
I had always thought I was the one to have lost over the years the maximum amount of hair on my head in the batch, but a look at Vilok and Tommy, and I heaved many a sigh of relief. If Tommy had passed by most of us down a street, chances are we would not have recognised him. He had got rid of his once beloved beard, his thinning hairline and loss of kilos was enough disguise, and to top it all, the passionate communist had now turned practical capitalist. If there was one person who symbolised change in more ways than one in our batch, it was Tommy. But his shy smile and mannerism and his ability to draw attention when he spoke told us he was the very same person we knew in 1985. Tommy is now a director, as is Vijay.
That sort of individual growth is true of quite a few in our batch – there are now heads of underwriting and claims, vice-presidents, even a CEO (Vijay). During my time in the insurance industry, years before private companies were allowed to trade, the most go-getters could aspire for was perhaps to become a regional manager. How times change! And with it the salaries and perks too…
Thanks to Tommy, Viswanathan left a well-paying job with a leading broking outfit in Mumbai to try his fortunes in the midst of the Dubai high-rises. The deserts of West Asia have not eroded MV’s (as he is called) natural flair for wit and sarcasm. Indeed, when I wondered aloud whether there would be journalistic opportunities for somebody like me in Dubai, he straightaway said it was not really a place for creative minds and investigative reporting. Journalism there was mainly government handouts, he said, adding that I could write about food, lifestyle and probably the exploitation of Asian maids!
Before I go on, let me leave you with some images, the top three taken on board the train. We had nearly half the compartment to ourselves and we reached out to one another almost immediately as the first picture demonstrates. As the train rolled out of the platform, Atish drinks to quell his thirst; but I think, he, as chief organiser in Chennai, was relieved to have got off to a great start to the proceedings. “Don’t worry, when I’ve lost more hair than you have,” is what Vilok (left) seems to be saying in the third picture as I break into smile for the camera. And, well, a typical cottage at Lake Forest, Yercaud, was beckoning us and we were on our way…