The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Spice and Life: Women Writing in a Local Train

By Nishi Pulugurtha

8.54 am, and a rush all around. People scrambling across the stairs, running and hurrying along the platform, long queues in front of the ticket counter, wares of many kinds on sale, the hooting of the engine, announcements over public address systems, some heard, some unheard and unclear, crowds all around – this is peak rush hour at Ballygunge station, an important local station on the Sealdah south section route that brings people from the southern suburbs and outskirts to the city. The local train service that connects Howrah and Sealdah station to neighbouring districts of Kolkata is an important communication lifeline. About two million people come to Kolkata through Sealdah and Howrah stations every day, both of which are important hubs for both local and long distance trains from all over India, too.

To someone, who is new and suddenly finds herself/himself caught in the rush hour, Sealdah station would be a world of chaos, noise and din that seems to baffle and confuse. It takes some time for a new commuter to get used to this world of communication. This, of course, is not just a simple world of communication only, this is a totally different world, a world where hopes, joys, happiness, pain, dreams, aspirations are shared – a world that sees the coming together of so many different kinds of people, from so many walks of life. Amid all the noise, din and clamour, one notices an order, a momentum that goes on uninhibited.

Most commuters take the same local train every day. Many have been doing it for ages. There are many who change trains thrice, traversing a huge distance from their home to their place of work. These local trains usually have two bogies, which are exclusively reserved for women commuters. The second bogie and the penultimate are earmarked for women and the regular commuter knows exactly where she needs to stand on the platform so as to be able to board it. My journey began from Ballygunge which is in the southern section of the Sealdah local train network. In order to reach my place of work, I needed to board one local train, alight at Sealdah station, move to the section of Sealdah station from where I would get my next train, the North section. Ballygunge station, being on the main line and a junction, had more than one line. Hence, I had the opportunity to catch a local train that would not be very crowded. I mean, I could not get a place to sit, but then it was not uncomfortably crowded either. As a new commuter, it took me some time to get used to this system, often the rush, the noise would be disturbing and annoying but then this mode of travel meant avoiding traffic on the busy streets of Kolkata, the pollution and long waits, too. Once I began to become familiarised with this, I soon found that here was a world of its own.

In the Dankuni Local that took me from Sealdah to my destination, a wonderful association began to shape up. One got to meet the same faces, initial casual smiles soon led to talks and conversations. Soon I got to know most of my fellow passengers by name. Most of the women, I discovered, were school teachers, teaching in schools in far flung areas; many were casual workers, some worked in the public sector, there were some who worked in government offices, in central institutes, as nurses, as helps, among others. Their discussions often centred on their family, children, aged parents at home, work-related problems, discussions on films, politics, books, travel, shopping, almost everything. What interested me the most is the sense of camaraderie that I felt with these women. Their lives seemed so similar to that of mine, the fun, the joyful banter, and the sharing of small joys seemed to perk up early morning blues.

These compartments reserved for women also saw vendors of various wares board to sell their stuff. So, there were fruit sellers, selling seasonal fruits and yes, this actually saw me having a fruit on the way to work almost every day. There were men and women who sold trinkets of all kinds, bangles, earrings, clips, combs, safety pins, bands. There was the bag-seller whose range of wares was immense. There was a lady who sold blouses, nighties and petticoats. There was Ramesh, who sold sarees aboard the train. I was intrigued by the fact that he often did not take cash from his customers.  If you were his regular customer, you could actually pay him monthly, or when you had the cash. He seemed to have a finger on the pulse of his shopper, knew exactly what would appeal to them, and worked up a bargain pretty soon. There was Dilip, who sold trinkets and distributed sweets to all of us on the occasion of the Bengali New Year. I was often told by my fellow passengers that they had a busy life, looking after their family, their children, and rushing to work.  All this left them with not much time. Hence, they preferred to shop while on their way to work or on their way back home. I have seen women knitting, sewing, reading, during the entire stretch of their journey. Many caught up with their morning newspaper here, many listened to songs they loved, there were many who snoozed off. This journey was a time that they had to themselves.

Wedding invites, wedding photos, travel photos, travel stories, fun times spent with family and friends were shared with great joy and delight. If you were absent for some time, they would find out the cause of the absence, the sense of concern genuine. This was a sorority that seemed to share all – births and deaths, sickness and troubles. During winter, they arranged for a picnic at some place, where many joined, the banter extending out of the train compartment to the open. For those, who missed being part of it, you could always catch up with the stories the next day, elaborate planning for the venue, menu, you could be a part of it all.


A page from the little magazine, “Panchphoron” (পাঁচ ফোড়ন)

In July 2012, I was told by a group of my co-passengers that they had been toying with the idea of publishing a little magazine. Many of them wanted to write, many had often tried their hand at writing, but did not know where to publish them, many of them could be coaxed into writing, and some could paint and sketch, too.  We decided to pool in a small sum of money from all willing; this would be the capital needed to get the magazine printed. Once the finances taken care of, the next task was to get people to contribute, which they did. Photographs, an essay on religion, travelogues, poems, literary essays, recipes, craft work – this was the content of the first issue of the bilingual little magazine. We chose the name,  “Panchphoron” (পাঁচ ফোড়ন), for the magazine. In Bengali, “Panchphoron” literally means five spices; it is whole spice blend consisting of fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and fennel seeds mixed in equal proportions. This is used abundantly in Bengali cuisine. The little magazine would be a space, where there would be variety too, just like the spice. A flurry of activity led to its publication and its release in the ladies’ compartment was accompanied by great joy. Just before the important Bengali festival of Durga Puja in the autumn of 2012, I got my copy. It was a decent little magazine and the joy on the faces of all who had been part of it was perceptible.

I quit using the local train later that year and though I have never again contributed to that magazine after that, I am told that it is still being brought out – the venture is still on. I miss the camaraderie and early morning banter. I often come across many of my co-passengers in buses and markets. There is a lot of catching up done.

Life goes on.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu 

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