When 51-year old K Chandran boards the Thrissur-Kannur Passenger train every morning, he finds very few strangers in the compartment. The rest are all friends who will keep him company for the three hours of journey that will take him to his workplace in Kozhikode.
Back in 2004, when Chandran, an employee of the state Agriculture Department began catching the early morning train to Kozhikode, he knew hardly anyone in the compartment.
13 years later, Chandran finds himself the president of Trainmates, a socio-cultural platform for commuters of the Thrissur-Kannur passenger train.
Speaking to The News Minute, Chandran recalls how he would make use of every opportunity to strike a conversation with his co-passengers. Himself a member of the Southern Railway's Consultation Cell, Chandran would urge them to share their grievances with him, so that he could report back to the Railways.
Very soon he realized that he was not the only regular passenger in the compartment. Discussions on current affairs and political developments in the state dominated his conversation with four other government employees who too had their offices at Kozhikode.
Three months and numerous conversations later, the five passengers -KG Balakrishnan, Dharman, Nandan, Achukkuttan and Chandran- decided it was time for them to expand their circle. That was when in August 2005, Trainmates formally came into being.
"It took us a couple of months to get past the casual conversations, and understand each other better. This gradually paved the way to a deep friendship. Our families too were later roped in. Some months later, we organized a get-together at CMS School in Thrissur. All of our families turned up," smiles Chandran.
Soon, others joined in.
"As far as I remember, the five of us have always boarded the fourth compartment from the back. Once the group was formed, we would tell the others that they would find us there. Soon, they too began boarding the same compartment," Chandran elaborates.
The return journey was no different. They would board from Kozhikode, arrive at Shornur in Palakkad, from where they switched trains for Thrissur.
"Right from the beginning, Trainmates has had a definite purpose. This is not just a gathering of those who while away time during the daily commute. There are several who are unable to lead a harmonious life, owing to class differences. Whatever their circumstances, they tend to end up isolated. Trainmates seek to uplift such deprived sections in society," avers Chandran.
For the first three years, the group concentrated on strengthening its own bond, with even Onam being celebrated in the train-compartment.
They even went to the extent of adorning the floor of the compartment with floral carpets, and distributed traditional food items like banana chips, pappadam and payasam to all passengers. This added more members to the group.
Neither caste nor creed is a barrier to being a member of the group, but the group has made a conscious decision to keep the membership down to 50.
"Those who are like-minded and ready to take our mission forward are always welcome. But we are looking for dedicated, active members who can devote enough time to group activities. While a few members left after they relocated to other places, others took their place,â€ť says Chandran.
Over the course of time, Trainmates began to associate with welfare-homes for the elderly and children, sponsoring their medical treatment and education.
They also took up organic farming on a two-acre land in Thrissur, and even started delivering homemade pickles to deliver to these homes.
Members are very particular that they will not employ anyone else to do chores.
"We take care of everything. While the pickles are made by the women in our families, retired members take it upon themselves to daily water the crops. All funds come from our personal savings," shares Chandran.
While the oldest of them is 70, the youngest is a businessman from Thrissur. The group claims that the pre-paid autorickshaw service outside the Thrissur railway station was set up on their request.
The train they catch on their return journey from Shornur reaches Thrissur at 8.40 in the night. The local then stays put at the station the whole night. This earlier attracted a number of anti-social elements. The same local doubles up as the Thrissur-Kannur Passenger the next morning.
"Keeping in mind the safety of women commuters, railway authorities finally took cognizance of our demands, and since 2012, ensured that all the doors of the train are locked at night to keep away anti-socials,â€ť explains Chandran.
Ironically, a woman commuter is yet to be a member of the group. Chandran believes this may have to do with the ladies having to deal with their own personal constraints that prevent them becoming an active member.