Thursday, September 16, 2004

The wonderful world of local trains

Read an article in the newspaper that bhajan singers are to be banned form Mumbai local trains because of 'nuisance value'. I personally, can't vouch for their value - nuisance or otherwise, my experience of local trains being restricted to West Bengal.
As a trainee, in my first job with an NGO working with disabled children, I had to commute extensively by local trains and that was my first exposure to the incredible world that is local trains in West Bengal and infact, in India.

There was the daily rush of commuters who knew each other, had specific seats (squatter's right), the players (cards), the knitters (in gaudy colours for the mild winter), the gossipers (at top of their voices), the sleepers, the buyers and the eaters. The last two were very active and were helped the by the incredible array of merchandise being hawked by an endless stream of vendors. Perhaps because of the novelty of it all, I found it all very interesting, despite the incredible crush and the ear splitting din.

Suddenly the crowded compartment would be filled by the smell of oranges, a temporary respite from the rank odour of a thousand sweaty passengers. Men would sell beads and baubles, safety bins and bobby clips, roasted peanuts and what not, each screaming his wares in such a way so as to be heard over the tremendous din. I still remember a kid selling peanuts. He had a well practiced, low voice, that was so powerful that his words rang inside my ears and I was really taken aback to find it issuing from a kid not 10 years of age. Like the airwaves, these vendors chose different pitches to shout. The acoustics at play, was simply incredible.

There are beggars and singers as well. These range from the off-key beggars singing to eke out a living to the really melodious ones that one hears as one enters Baul country (in and around bankura). I had the pleasure of listening to one baul after another on a trip to Santiniketan. Most were quite well known to the passengers and even did requests. I think that they alone are worth the effort of going up and down the Santiniketan express even if one doesn't actually go to Santiniketan!

And then there are so many other little experiences good, bad and downright bizzare that make Indian railways quite an experience.

On Satna express, we were frightened out of our wits by a snake charmer who wanted to do his snake trick right in our bogey! It took our collective persuasive skills (and my uncle’s frightful hindi) to dissuade him!

Another time on our way to Ghatshila, very early on a wintry morning, a hijra dressed in a ghagra-choli and hair done up in a big bun came around singing a popular hindi film song 'Mera Naam hai chameli' in a hoarse, nasal voice. The hijra accompanied his singing by stomping his ghungroo tied feet and then stopping at each seat for some money. Instantly, we feigned deep comatose sleep although all of us were shaking with silent laughter. (Don't think me heartless to laugh at a enuch singing his way to a living. His nasal voice was really really funny and combined with his bejewelled self everyone in the compartment was in spilts). I had covered my head with a shawl, and just when the hijra reached our row, the chap seated next to me, reached quietly from behind and pulled off my shawl with a jerk, so that I was staring at the hijra with a horrified expression while my body was convulsed with laughter. Oof...

And in another incident, a friend and I took a local train to Icchapur where we stood out, dressed in our fashionable city clothes. A hawker was selling bengali to english vocabulary books and was having a tough time finding buyers and as a result, his frustration was showing. His voice rose higher and higher and he kept getting sarcastic about people spending money on clothes and frivolous stuff while his book could be life saver. "It’s not enough to send your children to english medium schools if your basics are not correct. Do you know the different words to describe a tiger's anatomy” and he kept circling us, growling menacingly like a hungry tiger, having zeroed in on us being obviously fluent in english or pretending to be. P and I stood back to back, the cynosure of all eyes (passengers and the Hawker), feeling terribly sorry and guilty (for being able to speak in English and thereby depriving the hawker of Rs 4/- , the price of the book he was selling) and kept imagining that at any moment, the locals would turn up as one and say Kill them...they know the names of tiger's body part in english!!

I am not sure of how good or bad these bhajan singers are, perhaps they are really bad. But if this were to set an example then Indian railways would be poorer. It’s just so much a part and parcel of Indian Railways. (Unlike abroad where everything is so quietly efficient. Three of my friends had the same reactions while travelling by the public transport abroad - where's the funeral?).

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