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.