All it takes is a hour long train journey and a day in rural Bengal to restore one’s faith – in humanity, truth, goodness, justice and whatnot!
But then again, who knew? I didn’t, at least when I boarded the local train to visit my grandparents (well that’s actually my mother’s aunt) at Jaynagar,south Bengal. ( of Jaynagarer Moya fame, moya being a popular sweet made from muri, that’s puffed rice and gur or molasses, made specifically in winter all over Bengal. The ones from Jaynagar are particularly famous!). Quite a few years have passed since local trains were my most popular choice to venture into the city of Calcutta, and so I was quite apprehensive. A few years of creature comforts and four-wheelers have robbed me of the confidence I had to face crowds in trains. But the experience more than made up for it.
As the Namkhana local chugged southwards towards the Bay of Bengal, the greenery offered a refreshing respite. Not that green is always better.(er… no puns intended) Add to that the system of canals (khals in the local language) and the ponds that dotted the place, it almost takes your mind completely off your initial purpose. And the increasingly earthy and rustic stations having the most interesting names (I’m really fed-up of names ending in ‘pur’ or ‘puram’ or ‘nagar’) like Sashan (that means administration, strangely a number of political clashes took place there recently, but then that’s common in rural Bengal), Dhapdhapi (I have no idea of what that or any of the following names mean!) and Baharu flip past, another thing catches your attention.
The hawkers who live on the passengers of these trains.
Selling things ranging from fruits at incredibly cheap prices (south Bengal is famous for its guavas) to safety pins, from books on learning English (the seller cheekily claiming that it would guarantee a job in at least a chit-fund company if not in the government!) to dry peanuts, from pens at half a rupee to digestion pills (hojmi!), from Tiger Balm, guaranteed to soothe all pains to pest-killing agents (again the witty seller declaring it to be successful against rats, cockroaches, spiders, lizards and in-law’s!), from ‘smut-phone’ covers to tamarind pickle!
And you realise, from their way with words and their items of sale, how the multitudes live, how those who struggle for the things city-dwellers take for granted spend their lives.When the guy selling Vidyasagar’s Bornoporichay and ‘Guide to writing in English’ says:
“Boi cheracheri kore je garighora chore she, karon age boi chirbe, tarpor mar khabe, tarpor porbe! Kinun bacchader boi!” which means: “Those who tear books end up being successful! Kids tear first, then get a thrashing and then proceed to read. Buy my books for kids!” ,the first line being based on the immortal words of Hirak Rajar Deshe! (but twisted to be correct!)
…you realize how important education is to them. Something people detest to – go to school or study for its sake – is a distant dream to so many! And you regain faith in the average.
However, before yours truly could get into his emotional sannyasi form, his destination arrived and by God! The road outside the station was Manicktala Bazaar in its greatest glory! A bustling Calcutta fish market in a quaint railway station! But the charm was regained just a few steps in as you pass historic ‘Harisabha’-s or places where ‘kirtan’s’ are organized- Jaynagar is famous for being one of the stops Sri Chaitanya took en route to his historic visit to Puri. The next few hours I need not mention, how do you expect people to treat their grandchildren who’ve visited them after quite some time. Add to that the characteristic of bhojon-rosona that Bengalis are proud to possess (that is they are connoisseurs of good food!).
The return journey was even more faith restoring. Here was a group of school teachers who had recently got news of their election duty after the Supreme Court ordered the Panchayat elections to take place swiftly, ending tensions between the state and the election commission. They were what represented to me the remnant of Pandora’s box’s contents, they had no names for me, no affiliations, but a collection of jokes and details about the Indian Constitution, about why and when the ‘I’ in CPI(M) was lost, about where their universal elder sister was going wrong and why Ramzan was very important to all communities! Each comment interjected by reference to some funny incident that took place during their previous duties – like requesting a landlady to kindly keep the pump running for a few more minutes so that he could bathe with the overflowing water from the tank above! They had no fear of retribution from an oppressive government, no fear of speaking the truth. No fear of ‘hurting sentiments’ as they cracked jokes on religion and politics, and even argued at the top of their voices, followed by a farewell and a promise to bring some home-grown jackfruits the next day. That to me is Bengal today, and I believe, (thank heavens for small mercies) that they are still there in a majority, in a Bengal that Calcuttans seldom glance towards.