July 31, 2010

On Rail

The train line that is known as Howrah-Panskura takes one through the inner country anatomy of Howrah – Mourigram, Andul, Sankrail, Bauria, Chengail, Phuleshwar, Uluberia being my usual route – sometimes deeper into Bagnan. The trainride unfolds onto girls on bicycles going to school, fields waiting for rains, local ‘big shots’ loudly declaring their supremacy over the territory in concrete two-storey houses painted in pink, red flags, trinomool flags, colored flags on top of mosque minarets. Women sell guavas in the ladies compartment and men sell clips combs and ribbons. Sometimes awfully-sweet-candy. Invariably a madman or a blindman come on board. The blindman usually sings for alms. The madman is inevitably pushed out at the next station. I am always anxious to notice the sign on the engine compartment of the train as it approaches. If it says Panskura, it means it is going Up, and will pass my station. If it says Howrah, it means it is going Down. Asking people does not help, I have figured, as they have their own definitions of Up and Down. Invariably women meet extended family or neighbors or old school teachers in the ladies compartment. Some share stories of a wedding in the family, some of new jewelry acquired, some express concern over their kids’ health or performance at school. I like to stand near the open door (all the while fearing that I may fall out) to feel the wind on my face. That is on days that it’s not too hot.

July 25, 2010

The Grand Trunk Road

The Grand Trunk Road maneuvers its way through the Shibpur Bazar and temples and jute-mill relics to pour out into the Howrah Maidan and onto the Howrah Bridge. The busride on it is rarely reminiscent of Sher Shah Suri’s majesty. Tall buildings look over it on both sides. These are brightly colored and have rusty railings marking their pigeon-hole windows. Most of them are held together by rows of shops, ATMs and bank branches at the bottom. Rickshaws wait patiently next to garbage dumps. We pass distinctly Mussalman neighborhoods on the Grand Trunk Road. Women here wear glass bangles. Some younger women wear embroidered jeans and platform heels. They board our bus in giggling groups. Sometimes, they are accompanied by a pan-chewing matron who battles the crowds to get them the best of ladies seats. Sombre and bearded men board the bus in lungis. They often travel alongside young boys with darting eyes and middle-parted greasy hair. Hindi-speaking not-Mussalmans board our bus with diamonds on their nostrils. Pulling their saris over their shoulders as they survey the status of the ladies seats. They are probably heading to the shops in Burrabazar that their menfolk own for a weekly visit. Ambition is conveyed to the Grand Trunk Road on sign-boards proclaiming LIC Agent, Desi Daktar Dawakhana, Muslim Marriage Registrar. The Grand Trunk Road remains sullen on Sunday afternoons.

July 17, 2010

The Human Condition

So this is probably the crux of the constant invocation of the Third World in contemporary politics. A long and narrow neck of a highway penetrates peri-urban Howrah to provide transit for buses, trucks, cargo, bicycles,schoolchildren, rickshaws. An endless jostling for space. Revealing a tiredness at a constant reminder that this was not what it was supposed to be like to be human. Complete humanity is elsewhere. It requires less human beings, and more material - air, water, less quick muscular movement, comfort, a direct conversation with a mythical universe. To be human there must be toil and rest in perfect balance. And few or no monstrous vehicles coming at you. To be human, one must get to feel slightly divine. Even for thirty seconds in a day.

This noisy juggernaut is suffocating. Its strong-arm patronage offers little respite from making one feel like an insect caught in between a casual thumb and forefinger. It feeds a raw animal power, and a raw animal helplessness. It fails the driving license for humanity. It fails to neatly speed up, slow down, reverse, park, display a smart bunch of reflexes fitting into a logical apparatus of movement - those of judgment and power.

Here, they laugh out loud, cry out in agony, curse, shove, die, rot, and make sense of the next possible slot of space in which they could locate. While they are at it, they pump up the horn relentlessly. And retire, I suspect, with a tired curse on those that call themselves human.