Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A local train journey

If on a weekday morning you look down on to the platforms of a busy suburban railway station from the top of an over bridge, you will see that alternate platforms are crowded. These are the platforms where the trains going towards Kolkata will be stopping. You will also notice that the crowd is not uniform but standing in clusters. These clusters are the places where the doors will be when the train stops at the platform. Within the half minute of stopping time, your programme of getting into a jam-packed compartment suffers a severe setback if you do not stand in front of a door. The daily commuters know every inch of the trains, and you should never underestimate their intelligence. So if you are standing on a comparatively empty patch of the platform and chuckling to yourself, you are sure to end up in front of the vendors’ compartment, or the ladies compartment, or worse still, the gap between two compartments.

If you thought your eyesight was as good as anybody else’s, think twice, for you are no match for the daily commuters. As you stand on the platform, some of the people will crane out their necks, gaze towards the spot where the railway tracks meet, and announce, “Gaadi dhukechhe” (The train has entered). If you try to look for the approaching train, you’ll find nothing, for the train will take another minute or a half to become visible to the lesser mortals.

At last it arrives. It is customary to let the people alight first, and then board the train. Half of the doors will be blocked by huge baskets full of vegetables (probably they could not be accommodated in the vendors’ compartment) and the owners will be sitting right behind them, valiantly defending their right to block the door. If you are extremely lucky, or extremely skilful, or both, you will be able to squeeze into the train through the gaps in these baskets after a portion of the crowd gets down. And yes, I forgot to say, keep one hand on your wallet, one on your cell phone and use the others to hold your luggage (which should not be more than a small bag) high and to hang onto the rods. If you miss any of the first three, you are likely to lose it, and the fourth one is essential to maintain a perpendicular position.

Assuming you are new to this form of travel, you’ll not get a seat. If you are fortunate enough, you may get some shelf space to keep your bag on. Then you may relax, standing between two seats and waiting for your chance to sit, which may never come. As you desperately cling to the overhead handles, or the luggage rack, swinging like a drunk, you will be surprised at how the daily commuters enjoy their journey.

Firstly, many of them usually sit at the same seats on the same compartments everyday. Secondly, after sitting at their usual seats, they start playing cards. Two people on one seat and two on the facing one, that’s how they sit. One will take out a rectangular piece of cloth and they will tuck in its four corners into their waists. This will serve as the table. Then the cards come out: usually two decks which are used for alternate hands of bridge. These people will be quite oblivious of anything else for the rest of the journey.

Then there are the people who read newspapers. Some of them buy their own newspapers, and some borrow it from them one page at a time. Both kinds read the paper corner to corner, inside out. Of course, this is accompanied by heated debates on various issues of importance, such as the performance of the Indian cricket team, or the latest bandh called in the state, or maybe NASA’s latest discovery in space.

As the train arrives at the next station, one of the men near the window looks out expectantly. A tea seller runs towards the window with a tray full of small disposable teacups. The men near the window quickly pick up the cups one by one and pass them inside among their group. Then they pay the tea seller with the money that they had collected and kept ready beforehand. The whole process takes hardly a few seconds.

In some of the stations, just before the train enters the platform, the track runs parallel to the road. You will often see people running on that road towards the station. They are commuters too, and they are trying to outrun the train and reach the platform just in time to catch this train. Most daily passengers reach the station just in time, and they often board a train after it has started moving. Here, many of the people running alongside the train will be able to reach the station and catch the train before it leaves. The rest will have to wait for the next train.

In case the train is very crowded (which is usually the case), some childish fights are sure to break out. Someone fell over someone else while trying to change position. The latter person is sure to pass judgment over the former’s visual acumen or ability to stand straight. The former, not to be left behind, will try to pass the buck to someone else who supposedly pushed him. Soon they will be shouting at the top of their voices, while some people will take sides and some will tell them to shut up. Most people seem to enjoy watching these fights, but beware: don’t get too involved, or you may suddenly find yourself sans your wallet and other belongings of your pockets.

A local train journey can’t be complete without the hawkers. The local train hawkers deserve a complete blog post to themselves. They sell anything and everything, from safety pins and nail cutters, to combs and toothbrushes, to toys and books, to perfumes and incense sticks, to… I can’t even remember what all they sell. Ah yes, edibles, herbal medicines, wallets, cheap jewelry, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, kitchen accessories and pens are a few that I can remember. They are very skilled salesmen, and there is a separate strategy for selling each article. For example, you may hear, “Four oranges for a Rupee! Four oranges for a Rupee!” When you look, you will find the man is selling orange flavoured toffees. The seller of recipes recites an impressive list of dishes first, and then says that his thin book contains 250 such recipes. The seller of combs will start by saying that a comb costs twenty rupees, but he’s giving one for ten, and there are a couple of them for free, and then there’s a special offer and when he ends his recital you’ll find he’s selling ten combs for ten rupees. The seller of herbal digestive medicines starts by stating common ailments, then offering a free sample of his tasty concoction to all passengers. Apart from them you’ll find beggars, and some able bodied men who sing into a portable karaoke device and ask for money.

But you better not get too engrossed in all this. You must start moving towards the door a couple of stations before your destination, or you will not be allowed to leave. The bag must be held high over the shoulder to prevent it from getting entangled among other passengers. You must start asking the people between you and the door whether they will get down before or with you. As Einstein once said, there’s no limit to human stupidity, and here you’ll often find that the people standing nearest to the door have the farthest distance to travel. They have to be coaxed or scolded and brought inside so that you can move ahead. Some of them are too stubborn to leave the door, and they will be pushed out on to the platform by the crowd at every station.

Finally, the train will reach your destination and with a little luck you’ll find yourself on the platform. If you have been careful enough, all your clothes will be intact and the contents of your pockets safe. You have to now move on and board a bus unless you are going somewhere very close to the station, or you are willing to spend a lot more on a taxi. A journey in a crowded Kolkata bus can also be pretty eventful, but that’s another story that I may tell another day.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Kolkata Spirit

Don’t blame me for this delay in posting: blame it on Kolkata.

When I set foot in this city after spending a year and a half in Chennai and Hyderabad, the first thing that struck me as odd was that there were too few cars on the road and they were moving way too slowly. I later realized that the latter part of that observation sums up life in Kolkata almost perfectly.

Here everything moves too slowly. Nobody seems to be in hurry, and what’s worse, nobody is expected to be in a hurry either. On top of that, everybody talks, behaves, acts in a very very amateurish way.

Take the example of house brokers. I was desperately trying to find a rented house in Kolkata, preferably in Salt Lake, and it took me almost a month to find one. The reason? Nobody I contacted was able to show me a house. The person who was supposed to show me several houses in Kolkata was unable to obtain the keys from any of the house owners. “You can’t do these things in a hurry sir, you need to give more time,” he said to me after he had kept me waiting for three days and made me go there twice. Obviously this was surprising to me, as in Hyderabad and Chennai it never took me more than a day to find a house. But I don’t blame this person as he is not a professional broker. I blame the professional brokers in Salt Lake who were unable to get the keys for the houses either, even when they knew they would be getting money if I was satisfied with a house. The few houses I did see were either totally unfit for living, or were only just cheaper than a suite in the Taj Bengal.

Which brings us to the amateurish attitudes of the house owners themselves. Since a lot of people from Bangalore and Hyderabad have come here lately and they are living in Salt Lake, most house owners seem to have got the idea that they can get a rent comparable to that in Bangalore and Hyderabad, and sadly, they are right. However, all the houses I saw have poor facilities as compared to my Chennai/Hyderabad flats and should have a much lower rent. On top of that the house owners themselves delay things to no end. This is actually very surprising as they lose business because of that. I chose a very nice flat in Salt Lake and had almost decided on moving in when I had to let go because the owner was delaying the deal without any real serious reason.

For shifting my luggage I needed a vehicle, and I asked a rickshaw van to come and pick up my luggage. He promised to come the next day, and naturally didn’t turn up until four days had passed. He was visibly hurt when my aunt told him that I had already shifted as he had come too early for his assignment.

There’s really no point in explaining each and every experience that I had here. But every person here, be it the Airtel executives who came to fit my broadband, the Hutch executives who told me to go to Hyderabad to disconnect my Hyderabad cell phone connection and pay the last bill, the men who manage the cash transactions in our office cafeteria, the auto drivers, shopkeepers, bus drivers, or policemen, all seem to be somewhat more amateurish than their counterparts in the South.

One thing that immediately becomes apparent is that here businessmen don’t really care for business. The reason for this has been discussed beautifully by Greatbong in his blog here. Bangalore may be costly, but there you can get your work done by paying that extra amount. Kolkata claims to be cheaper, but what use is being cheaper if you don’t get the service at the end of the day? Moreover, everybody has an opinion and they don’t mind voicing it in so many words, even if that means losing a customer. I was away to Hooghly for a couple of days to attend a wedding while there was a strike by the fuel tankers’ union and petrol and diesel were scarce in the state. The day I returned to Kolkata, the auto driver in the station asked for just double the amount. When I asked why, he turned to his friend and said mocking me, “Why? He asks why! Tell him why, for he neither watches the TV, nor reads the papers. Tell him!” The result of course was that I promptly turned back and took another auto (which also charged double the fare) while the previous driver seemed to be very happy to have been able to give me a quick reply. The fact that he lost a passenger early in the morning did not bother him at all. It’s the same story with shopkeepers. They would rather not sell to a customer who buys a five-rupee bread at the end of the day and pays with a ten rupee note. This reminds me, everyday our breakfast in Chennai cost somewhere around Rs.10 and we invariably paid with a Rs.100 note and sometimes even a Rs.500 note early in the morning. I never saw them grumbling to give us change.

Does that mean I don’t like Kolkata? Not at all! True, Kolkata is very different from the other Indian metros, but not all of this difference is bad. It is city with a heart. That very amateur attitude that I have written against above often becomes a boon and prevents people from becoming robots hurrying around to earn money (as Dipta puts it nicely here). When I see the IT professionals in my office bring jhalmuri from outside the gate in the evenings and indulge in a nice adda with tea inside the cubicles, I realize that it wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere. Similarly, the big manager who spends half the year abroad hates to work on weekends here. The reason? He must cycle to the old playground in his small suburban town and spend the evening chatting and playing with his childhood friends. As I wrote in my previous post, there are people who try to earn a living by selling the books they write, and even though it is clearly a loss making business, they do not forfeit their love of writing. Work still comes to a standstill (or at least takes a backseat) during cricket or football matches. Speaking of football, almost the whole of Kolkata can be split into two teams: Mohunbagan and East Bengal. It is different during the FIFA World Cup though, then the city is divided between Brazil and Argentina supporters. I couldn’t imagine a person sitting free and watching a match on the TV in our Chennai or Hyderabad office cafeteria, but here it is a common sight.

And arguments! Let it be the question of Sourav becoming the captain again, or the land acquisition at Singur, everyone is ready to argue about it in such a way as if their life depended on it. Outsiders soon become part of this spirit. The other day I saw two Bihari gentlemen debating animatedly on the road about whether Bhagalpur is a larger station than Hajipur or not.

But there’s a personal touch to many things which I could not imagine in Chennai or Hyderabad. For example, I can’t think of walking into a small restaurant in Hyderabad and ordering a meal where I get to choose the individual components of the meal from a number of options. In Kolkata I can do that. Food is really cheap here, and although it may sound unbelievable, a few days ago I had better South Indian food here than I ever had in Hyderabad. Similarly, Kolkata has some of the best Chinese restaurants in the country.

So what is my final verdict? Do I like it here?

Although the inconveniences and non-professional attitude of the people sometimes get on my nerves, yet, the truth is that I’m liking my stay in Kolkata very much. However much I may criticize the people here, however much I may praise Hyderabad, the fact remains that deep inside my heart I’m also one of those lazy, argumentative, passionate Bengalis who do not decide every action of their life by the financial benefits associated or by cold, hard logic. Although I come from a suburban town, I’m as much a part of this city as the millions of others who have come here from outside in search of a livelihood and have merged with the multicoloured fabric of humanity that is Kolkata.

That is why I say don’t hold me responsible for this long gap in posting. It is due to the Kolkata spirit that has got into me.