Is Calcutta’s Howrah the only railway station in the world that stocks Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection in a platform bookshop? It looks pirated, which is another intellectual plus. Piracy is a tribute to popularity. Darwin is amidst honourable fellow pirates, an inch askance of The Mayor of Casterbridge and within teardrop distance of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, novels from the weeping pen of the Victorian romantic, Thomas Hardy. Is the purchase manager of A.H. Wheeler, the venerable platform bookstore chain, still emotionally enthralled by an age when English literature was an honourable degree? Unlikely. He would not survive if books sat placidly on shelves. Books must move.
Fellow Victorian Rudyard Kipling, trumpet and bard of the Empire, sits nearby, smiling with justified pride through the thick flurry of his moustache. The British Raj has not been in vain after all. Charles Dickens is a shelf below. I am a little disappointed not to see the splendidly named William Makepeace Thackeray, but perhaps he has sold out. In the vicinity of this elite roam the myriad children of American and Indian English: the fiction of Ken Follett, Dan Brown, Mario Puzo, Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, et al. The popular fixation with murder, love and religion is the true eternal triangle.
Any Indian railway station is heartland of the middle class. Howrah station, the alpha and omega of countless middle-class journeys, belongs to Bengalis who know the value of Shakespeare’s heroes and the worth of Mario Puzo’s villains. Salute!
Is Calcutta’s Howrah the only station in the world where a pair of policemen saunter along the platform with bolt rifles issued during World War II, and possibly last used to frighten mobs during the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, slung across their backs? I stared, utterly fascinated, by the museum-piece guns; they have not been dusted in a decade, either. The two intrepid guardians of our security are engrossed in a deep discussion on fish and local gossip, quite oblivious to anyone or anything around them. A terrorist could have stopped by to ask directions and they would have been helpful before returning to their conversation. The policemen are an integral part of the Old Normal, lost in themselves as human currents, whirlpools and eddies swirl past.
Howrah station remains the jigsaw puzzle of mess and manicure that it ever was. Loaded, tilted pushcarts suddenly turn into you from a corner, pulled by an industrious young toiler while a couple of men pretend to help from the back. Large families spread themselves comfortably on plastic sheets, chewing dinner from a tiffin or all-purpose plastic bag. Anxious mothers worry that a child might slip the leash of their little finger. A thousand whispers coalesce into a middling roar. Dust rises everywhere and disappears into nowhere. This is how it was in the Sixties, when I first began to frequent the station on my way to boarding school in Calcutta, and this is how it remains in the 21st century. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Nostalgia is comforting. But deja vu is another matter.
Is Calcutta’s Howrah the only station in the world where an emergency window in a passenger car is used solely for ingress rather than egress? I presume there is some railway regulation demanding that one window in every rake is left unbarred for emergency use after an accident. I cannot see how, if there is a fire or a derailment, passengers are going to get out of an upturned compartment through this route, but a rule is a rule, particularly when fashioned by a bureaucrat who has not travelled third class ever since he got the job.
But it is a fine oblong space through which to enter a train if you do not have a reserved seat. I watch as a still-empty train to Pune (called, for some mystical reason, the Azadi Express) jogs into place. A knowledgeable trio of young men waits at the predetermined spot where this emergency window will appear. The leader steps onto a small ladder of rucksacks, and climbs head-first into the compartment to occupy and claim the three best seats. It is a virtuoso display of entrepreneurial skill. As long as there is a rule to be broken, Indians will find the dexterity to break it.
My train to Ranchi arrives a comfortable 30 minutes before departure, still looking tired from its last journey despite many hours of rest in a proper shed. The conductor is a very pleasant, very small man wearing a uniform from a period movie. The cabin is less than overwhelming, but the air conditioning works through a mild rattle. The train leaves on time. After the obligatory small talk with fellow passengers, I am asleep within three pages of my new purchase, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire. When I awake, dawn has begun to surrender to the morning. We reach Ranchi 10 minutes early. I plop my water bottles into a newish dustbin. So Ranchi has heard of Swachh Bharat, after all, and all is almost well.
Akbar is an author and BJP Rajya Sabha MP