On Rail

The Howrah-Panskura train carries men, women and expectation back and forth every twenty minutes between Howrah station (the first node to Kolkata) and East Midnapore district. In the middle it cuts through the entire breadth of Howrah district – Tikipara, Dasnagar, Ramrajatolla, Santragachhi, Mourigram (my stop), Andul, Sankrail, Abada, Nalpur, Bauria, Chengail, Fuleswar, Uluberia, Kulgachhia, Birshibpur, Bagnan, Ghoraghata. Ghoraghata is the last stop within Howrah district. It takes two hours to cover this spectrum of stations. The Amta line, spoken of in the historical texts as Martin rail, is a sleepier track. The landscape is industrial until Domjur, and then quickly turns into large tracts of open fields and huts tucked in between – the eternal picture of countryside innocence. It is easy for me to take the train from Maju on my way back to Howrah city areas. But on the journey to Maju, I have been rejected enough times to finally come to the understanding that between 10 am and 3pm there is no ‘up’ train on this line. The expectant population is ferried to Howrah by this hour of the morning, and taken back in the evening. The line doesn’t include the possibility of a passenger wanting to go ‘up’ in daytime.

Up was towards Howrah, down was away from Howrah, I learnt conclusively, after many months of confusion. I joined the Howrah- Panskura community of government servants, small businessmen, college-goers, schoolchildren, vegetable-vendors, peddlers of wares as varied as hairclips, almanacs, fruit, ayurvedic pain-relief substances. The Mourigram station has two platforms connected by an overhead bridge. Trains come unannounced. The down-Howrah train on platform one and the up-Panskura on platform two. I figured their routines because I became a regular passenger on this line, but gathered no information about the other lines that pass this station having frequented the station for a year. The timing of trains, over time, converges with the intuition of its regular passengers. Roughly half an hour before the next train, if you missed this one. This was a space for the seasoned commuter public, the sudden traveler was bound to falter here. The space was thickly mapped and inscribed, though not in terms of rational displays of information of the next train, platform number and so on. It did not decode itself to the foreigner, the outsider would have to practice the practices it offered. If a train showed up at an unexpected time or at another platform, people buying tickets, or standing at the wrong platform, would effortlessly jump onto the tracks and run across with their vegetables and children and in their saris, and climb onto the right platform and tuck themselves into a compartment just at the nick of time. The overhead footbridge would stand by and watch this ritual. I tried the jump-and-run routine on a few occasions, before figuring that if I timed by footbridge-climb well, I could get to the train pretty much in the same time (as the footbridge would not be crowded unlike the tracks) without risking my life.

Compartments were almost always covered in wall-advertisements – usually of doctors who promised miraculous cures to digestive and sexual illnesses. Initially, the sweat-laden, asphyxiating environment of the train compartment used to make me wonder why people would be drawn to reflection on their sexual inadequacies here. Surely this space was a scene of desperate attempts to latch onto whatever opportunity and resource passed by. Towards the evening, the compartments would be much emptier, especially on the up route. The down trains, carrying returning workers from the city areas of Howrah and Kolkata back into the rural interiority, would be much more crowded. In the empty compartment, the day’s consumption displays its leftovers. Orange peels, nuts, newspaper, plastic chai-cups. Not only the scene of outmaneuvering modern norms of risk-assessment, safety and cleanliness, but an inscribed space. Many daily journeys, conversations, transactions are marked on its seats at twilight. A day’s race to the city has been clocked, marked and like all historical objects – lives on as a totem of a lost moment. Many a lackadaisical youth hang dangerously out of the open doors (the doors are always open on local trains; except in peaktimes, there is hardly any space to perceive its stark open-ness). A masculine move of this Howrah youth appropriates, momentarily, a slice of pure sovereignty over his bodily being. In the later months, I am far more comfortable standing against backs of seats facing the door, can’t get myself to hang out. A tired vendor-woman crouches herself into a sleep-like repose on the floor at this hour. 


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