May 30, 2012

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. 

May 23, 2012

Of Dreamworlds and Catastrophe (Part 4)


I must add to my Ode to Bollywood men with some notes on Ishaqzaade. Having spoken about badland masculinity in the folds of Omkara, Dev D and Raajneeti earlier, I turn to the theme of Bollywood’s return to innocence through the new moral and material canvases of small town north India in Ishaqzaade. An angry young man driving an open vehicle into the open landscape of part-desert part-village recur in these films. Devgan in Raajneeti, Devgan in Omkara, Arjun Kapoor in Ishaqzaade. Parma, Arjun Kapoor is a trainee in his grandfather’s political establishment. Intoxicated with the brute power of gun and automobile. Quite the antithesis of Ranvir Kapoor’s restrained and canny (bespectacled) masculinity in Raajneeti. The predictable dichotomy – vernacular and modern - surfaces. The youth who is unabashed about failing to get beyond first year in college, but drunk on gun-power, thinks nothing of setting an innocent man’s house on fire for not cowing down to his demands – is the irrational, uncontrollable, fearsome patriarch-in-waiting. Ones that feature in the stories of men-in-vehicles in Gurgaon and Noida - who pose a threat to the freedom and safety of the modern, professional women. Agrarian landscape and an agrarian social order suddenly faced with the violent tremors of hyper-modernity. In the case of existing patriarchs, also the sudden threat of facing obsolescence. 

Perhaps, these were historical circumstances around which the Bengali patriarchy chose to pen English, spout liberalism and get on the band-wagon of colonial (modern) power. Emasculation battled with a bulwark of the authentic/traditional core - inviolate against the compromises made in the public, political, economic domain. In democratic India, this transition from one form of patriarchy to another, makes shrewd jugaad inside the edifices of state. The electoral and governance machines induct these worlds of alliances, loyalties, betrayals, hates and loves. Parma does not even aspire to the seat of pure power. The murky concoction of lumpen-power is enough for the pleasures of instant annihilation and masculine celebration. Morality is a thin envelope for his animal impulses. He operates without ever denying the absoluteness of morality, only seeking the cracks through he can slip out and not be caught. A bit like Langda Tyagi of Omkara – one that drinks to his frustrations at brushing shoulders with power everyday, never crossing the invisible line of sovereign and associate. Tyagi feeds his frustration with ambition. Parma simply thrives on the raw hunger for vengeful collisions. A festivity of blood is indeed nourishment for this vernacular masculinity. Devgan in Omkara and Devgan in Raajneeti (portraying the Mahabharat equivalent of Karn) harness this raw impulse into the quest for Machiavellian principality. Parma is less tuned to the possibilities of his brutality, and a concatenation of feminine influence turns his energy towards protection, nurturing and maybe (I am not convinced) love. Bollywood deploys the mother-figure yet again to rein in the raw brutality of the vernacular man, as captured in a filmic register that is constantly battling questions about its own modernity. Mention might also be made of Irfaan in Paan Singh Tomar – the simpleton who turns bandit in ravine-land. 

These are men who are mirrored by (in each film) an apt terrain of rawness, thwarted aspiration and brutality. Each maintaining a corridor to the big city – corridor of escape, erasure, freedom, anonymity. And yet in each, the big city is feared. In the face of a dozen guns, the hapless lovers of Almore think of their planned escape to Agra or Jaipur as only temporary, to be followed by a reconciliation and re-integration into the fold of authentic society. The rational, modernist promise of a wider range of possibilities of being doesn’t bear equivalence with the condition of pure belonging in community. It was Partha Chatterjee, who in response to Charle taylor, had proposed that the battle-line with capital in the postcolony lies between capital and community. Bollywood, uncannily, has been showing us exactly that in the past few years. The more the drives of dispossession of land, natural resources, communitarian sovereignty in rural India, the sharper the images of badland belonging and the renewed desire for community on the canvas of Bollywood. It is as if the travails of Parma are enacted in the rhythm of a ‘national’ man one that is drawn to the corridor of escape when pushed to the corners, one that dreams of a return to innocence in the end.

May 18, 2012

Our Father

Forgive us for we forgive those that trespassed against us.
Us filthy children.
Pricking, stroking, licking
with our nimble fingers soiled
We like the hint of blood
the call of war
the war of rains
the rains of heaven
for they cleanse these soiled fingers
forgive us our prickly nails
our biting fangs
our caressing palms
our bleeding hearts
our salty tears
our blood-stained hands
and we will forgive you too.