We had a couple of reasons for taking a couple of days away from Kolkata. First, we wanted to get out of the city to see a little of the tribal village life in West Bengal. Second, Maura told us of a project in Shantiniketan that sounded interesting. So we left our hotel for the Howrah Railway Station for my first experience on an Indian train. I expected nothing in particular, but I had in my head an image of boxy, antiquated rail cars so stuffed full with people that they were hanging on the doors and riding on the roofs. This wasn’t exactly accurate, at least not on the Eastern Railway train that we took.
We drove over the Howrah Bridge from the Kolkata side and I looked more closely at the huge red brick building along the other side of the river. We’d seen it from a distance many times, but I was more impressed with its size the closer we got. Amazingly, we were able to drive up without too much trouble, probably because we’d missed the daily morning influx of a million people who come in from outside the city through this station. The station is like many European-style stations, except for the size. You walk in through a gate and through the building, emerging on the other side into a cavernous covered yard where all the platforms are lined up. I think I heard a train called for track 70, which gives an idea of what I mean by “cavernous.” It was crowded – this is India, after all – but not terribly. Every announcement over the public address system, and they came one after another almost without a break, was preceded by a strange chime, like an electronic harp chord being plucked. It reminded me of Blade Runner somehow. People and long two-wheeled handcarts darted in every direction, so I was constantly watching my shins for low moving objects. And there were people selling things all over, too; piles of apples, bananas, and other mysterious fruits; cooked things, trinkets, drinks, and newspapers.
We found our platform, then after a long walk, our train car. We had reserved seats in the “2S car,” which turned out to be bench seats like we have at on Metro North trains. It’s a second-class car, but apparently there are different degrees of second class. I looked into other cars as we walked past them. Some had individual seats ("Chair cars"); some had bench seats along the sides with open spaces in the middle. Some compartments within a car had no seats at all. Other cars were labeled “sleeper” or “pantry car.” All of them were on their way to being decrepit. Ceilings were stippled with patches, windows were lodged crooked in their frames, paint was worn, and rivets missing. But the cushions, though a little lumpy, weren’t torn and the car was swept.
We got settled, and the train left on time. Then the variety show began. In seats next to ours was a group of young people who immediately pulled out a small drum and tambourine and began singing folk songs. They were quite good. Then came the little kids begging. These kids were grubbier and tougher than any we’ve seen on the streets. They had open sores around their nostrils and scars and scabs on their heads. Skinny and aggressive, they stuck their hands in our laps and faces and whined at us relentlessly. After a bit, a train conductor came and made threatening noises, but he had little effect on them until they decided to move along on their own. Then came the holy man with a little stringed instrument that he plunked and twanged while he keened a song. He had large, splayed buckteeth and a longish stringy beard. He was pretty grubby, too. When he finished, he stood in the aisle expectantly until a couple of Indian passengers dug out some small change for him. Then came another performer, this time a boy with some kind of castanet that he clicked as he sang. He collected a coin or two, also, before moving on. All the while, vendors of everything from tote bags and purses to office supplies strolled the aisle. It was a non-stop parade of entertainment, commerce, and begging, pretty much like any place in Kolkata. As were on an express train with only a few stops before the long run to Shantiniketan, this activity died down in a little while when they all got off to board trains going back to Kolkata.
During all this, some of our group got out a couple of Danny’s games to play. This drew a covert surveillance from the singers in the next seats. They initially demurred when Danny and Brittany asked them if they wanted to play, but their interest in Brittany quickly helped them over their shyness, and they were taking pictures of one another by the end of the trip. They were apparently headed to work on a movie shoot somewhere near where we were going. They piled into a small SUV when we got to the station in Shantiniketan, as we did, and we waved good-bye.
The project we went to visit is called Suchana and it’s located in the village of Sriniketan in West Bengal. It’s a community support society that draws on all the resources of the local community to provide basic math and literacy education to local children, 80% of whom belong to the indigenous Santhal and Kora tribes. Most of these kids don’t speak Bengali, which is the language used in government schools, and their parents are often illiterate, so without this chance to learn they are up against some huge obstacles in life. The curriculum focuses especially on basic literacy in Bengali as well as reading and writing in their own tribal languages. I also saw laptop computers, a great little library, art supplies, and basic sports equipment. They improvise wherever they can, using common found objects. They have a building that Kirsty and Rahul, the couple who started the program eleven years ago, designed and built. Suchana runs alongside the government school system. I was very impressed with their emphasis on self-help and resourcefulness; this is a project designed to be supported long-term by the community itself.
We had originally planned to work on one of the kids’ art projects for their upcoming annual music and dance performance, their signature event, but a change in the government’s school schedule somehow torpedoed that. We took a walk around through two of the local villages that the project serves, through fields of mustard plants and dry rice paddies. All we could hear was crickets and an occasional shout of a happy kid playing – such a welcome change from the din of Kolkata. The skies are wide open, the land is flat, and there are stands of trees here and there and a river to break up the expanses. It was probably in the 70’s and sunny, an extremely pleasant and lazy-feeling afternoon.
|Brittany swings for the fence|
|mosaic and sculpture|
It was tough to leave this tranquil place. Before we did, we strolled by – you guessed it – a shop or two selling things. These were carts that held an amazing inventory of objects – fan-like displays of gods and goddesses with arms writhing, key chains with Tagore’s image etched on the wooden fob, little wooden dolls strung together like popcorn chains, and other fanciful things. I did spot a beautiful painted clay Buddha head, which turned out to be the only one there was in any of the carts. It’s now mine and will remind me not only of the peacefulness of Visva Bharati but also of how much I love the very Buddhist Laos.
We got into our two cars and rolled into the town of Shantikinetan, through an incredible mass of cyclos, motorbikes and pedestrians that crowded the narrow road to the train station. Mid-day, the train was pretty empty, so we had room to spread out and take window seats. The now-familiar variety show again played for us, but I found that the window-gazing worked pretty well to make them lose interest in me. Brittany did buy some oreos from a vendor and I had a little taste of home. It was a beautiful afternoon and golden light lay on the flat plain. There was a haze on the distant fields and occasionally there were trees silhouetted against it. Out here, between villages, it was remarkably uncrowded, though there was never a time when I didn’t see at least a few people in the fields. There was a cobblestone walkway that paralleled the railroad tracks on the other side of a ditch, and people strolled along from one village to the next. I had the window down and a cool breeze played around my face. It wasn’t long before I nodded off in the rocking train, too lazy to hold my camera.