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.


  1. Hey, how come u forgot to mention about those men who purposefully lose their balance when standing near attractive women? As a writer with keen observation pl don’t tell me u have not witnessed any such thing!!!!!!!

  2. :) where were you going? Yeah do write about the hawkers selling their cucumbers, jhaal muri, lozenges, chai , potato chips, digestion pills etc etc.

  3. @anonymous: I did not write about men falling over women deliberately for two reasons:
    1. This was meant to be a humorous post and so I avoided the serious issues, and
    2. I have not yet seen a man falling over a woman deliberately (I am not saying that does not happen). All that I have seen are altercations after the act where accusations and counter-accusations fly and to be honest it may or may not have been the man's fault. And then, as I have written, such fights also happen between two men or two women as well.

    @shreemoyee: I was returning to Salt Lake after spending the weekend at my home in Hooghly. I may write something on the hawkers in the future.

  4. hummm...Lengthy post..but given the topic of subject post could have been of double the size.

    I was about to tell you what shreemoyee has mentioned in her comment..

    I used to travel lot of times. Once at Howra station our train was supposed to come on 12 number platform. But there was already one train there on the same platform. We kept waiting for this train to move and our train to come. But someone told that our train will stop at the same platform but behind the current train and will leave from thee itself. We kept running only to miss the train.

    Lengthy platforms is speaciality of bengal. Am I right?

  5. As u wanted this post to be humorous, u should more so mention about men falling over women in slightest pretext because that is humorous indeed though from the negative point.
    And as for u not ever seeing any ‘man falling over a woman deliberately’ but heard about the altercations means that u still haven’t learnt to put two and two together!!!!!!

  6. @abhijit: I'll try to keep your request.
    Two trains on the same platform? I have seen that too, in Barddhaman. Of course, you know better about long platforms as you lived in the town with world's longest platforms.

    @anonymous: Well... sometimes we put two and two together and write "4" where actually there is a minus sign in between. So we should be careful and non-judgmental.

  7. Well that is a proverb that I used. But where did the minus sign specifically come from? It could very well have been addition, division and multiplication!!!! Aren’t we being a bit too hasty in making our point stand and also accuse someone of being judgmental? Although I accept that women are not all saints but I still insist that in a crowded train/bus/metro when a lady yells she doesn’t yell for nothing as she is quite aware that she herself is attracting unwarranted attention from others. Yet she yells. At that point of time in her mind the ‘cost benefit analysis’ of yelling and thus attracting others attention vs. tolerating the trauma only runs in one direction!!!
    And I suppose u won’t know that as u belong to the gender where women don’t abuse men in a “public place” – at least not yet!!!!!! But be aware - may be, may be things will change and I would be the first person to read your post on that experience of yours and comment.
    I honestly believe that any body who is writing in a public domain (as against his/her private diary) and which is read by others the writer should be more careful in what he propagates as his own opinion at the cost of being insensitive to the readers simply because although it is his own space yet he opted to keep it open to public and thus has some responsibility. It is sort of taking one’s clothes off in a public place in the name of personal freedom which may go like it is my body and hence my domain and I do as I please and if it bothers u then don’t look at me!!! Well, will anybody buy that logic?

  8. @anonymous: Here you are trying to bring the discussion on to something which is a very serious issue in my opinion and I did not want to include it in my humorous post. I am not trying to force my opinion on somebody. I agree that what you are talking about does happen. But if you say that in each and every case where a man falls over a woman the man does it deliberately, then you are being judgmental. And the moment you start being judgmental, objectivity goes out of the window. You can say it happens often and I'll agree. You can say it happens 9 times out of 10 and I'll agree. But when you say it happens 10 times out of 10, you are hurling an insult at all men including me, and I have to disagree with you on this point. I don't think there is any point in arguing over this issue any further as none of us has any solid statistical data. But I don't need any data to say beforehand that if ever I fall over a woman in a crowded train or bus, it would only be an accident and nothing else.

  9. Let me first start by making my point on this issue clear once and for all. The point that I raised on my first comment was why did not u as a writer mention anything about “man falling over a woman deliberately”. And after all these comments and counter comments u wrote in ur last comment that “if ever I fall over a woman in a crowded train or bus, it would only be an accident and nothing else”.

    I have all along been talking about women having that extra sense to decipher very correctly, each time and every time which one is a deliberate act and which is an unintentional act from a man in a crowded bus. Besides, as that act happens in a real world the woman has the benefit of watching first hand the immediate and exact reaction of the said man. Please dont tell me that in the case of an unintentional occurrence the reaction of the man would be the same as that of a deliberate occurrence. So if u agree on this vast difference (which obviously has a far reaching impact on the woman’s reaction) then where is the scope of “accusation and counter accusation”? Simple sorry accompanied with appropriate body language/facial expression settles the matter.

    U even say “I agree that what you are talking about does happen. But if you say that in each and every case where a man falls over a woman the man does it deliberately, then you are being judgmental”. I never once mentioned that. I honestly don’t think all men are capable of being so dastardly. So you are putting words in my mouth. What I don’t understand is that why is it so difficult for u to accept that women have special senses to decipher the intentions of men in a crowded bus all the time, every time? I am sure u don’t have any problem in accepting that women have uteruses (something which men are not endowed with) all the time every time although u cant personally see it in every woman!!!

    Lastly, u wrote “Here you are trying to bring the discussion on to something which is a very serious issue in my opinion and I did not want to include it in my humorous post.” Well, all I can say is that if what should be discussed/commented on in your post should be solely decided by u then u should put a line in each post expressing which are the points that you want to be discussed as any other points mentioned by anybody else means to you that the commenter is “trying to bring the discussion ..very serious issue’ – otherwise ppl like me will stay away from commenting as infringing in your wish/right is not my intention.

  10. @anonymous: Firstly I never said you can't comment on that issue. I only said that as you started the discussion with "Why didn't you write about that...etc." and so I explained why I did not. And yes, you can do a serious discussion on a funny post, but it does take away the fun somewhat.
    Secondly, I even have no problem in accepting that women have a sense which tells them about a man's intentions in a bus/train. However, I do have problem accepting that they never make mistakes. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin... everything errs at times, and so does this other sense that you talk of.

  11. Well I have some reservation when u didn’t at all mention anything about your usage of word like ‘try’ about me.
    Anyway in a crowded bus any woman can decipher 10 out of 10 whether it is a violation or just a mere accident – there can be no two thoughts about it if u ask any no of female just as there is no doubt that the sun comes up in the east nothwithstanding the cloud or solar eclipse !!! Ur mention of all physical features erring does not relate to physical violation, infringement of another body – does it? And does one put oneself in double whammy of trauma by putting oneself for scrutiny and the forceful toleration of the violation? Woman UNDERSTANDS what is violation and what is an accident. I am sorry I think u r just refusing to accept the reality!

  12. Are you married?

  13. Wow what a question to ask in a comment space!!!! Sorry for my unsolicited comment about the above anonymous's comment. But the only reason i am doing so is to let u and everybody know that i am not the last anonymous who asked whether you are married or not. I dont understand why your marital status has anything to do with what u wrote on this post!!!

    @anonymous: sir/madam, will ur opinion (that is if u have any on this topic) change if this writer is married or a bachelor? Or is your query based on yearning of searching for further personal information about the writer for your personal needs? Then pl send ur comments as anonymous 2 and pl dont embarrass me!!!!

  14. @anonymous at 12:00 AM: No I'm not, although I fail to see how that is relevant here.

    @anonymous at 1:05 AM: No need to get embarrassed. What does it matter to you? After all nobody knows who you are, and it would hardly matter if they thought the other person was you too. Of course, I write this assuming that you are the person with whom I was arguing above.

  15. As usual i differ from your view point. It matters to the first anonymous (this anonymous is first for only this post as that person wrote first) if some comments or queries are apparently ascribed by other anonymous to this anonymous. It certainly then falls in the domain of the first anonymous and thus I answer ur question of “What does it matter to you?” And the reason I felt embarrassed is that it is not in my grain to ask anybody about his/her marital status in a blogpost.