|Calcutta commuters watch TV at a Metro station, and (top) a musician entertains passengers on the London Underground
Ask a Metro commuter and he will tell you all about it. That if the Netaji Bhavan station smells of fish, then Park Street has its cosy recesses. But nothing to beat the wide range of passenger profiles. It is a tableau of all types of humanity. The Metro serves many people — 4 lakh passengers take the Calcutta underground every day — and almost as many purposes. It’s almost home.
The Metro doubles as school. Several mothers travelling with their children turn it into a second school. Grades are checked and compared with other mothers and the errant child is pulled up for a “silly mistake”, or for not getting full marks in a school exercise. The reprimands over, out come the lunch-boxes.
Some mothers just let the children loose. A few commuters don’t mind that. “I enjoy watching the kids running helter skelter. Often they start playing games if the Metro is not very crowded,” says Pallavi Banerjee, a web content writer. To the intense consternation of some other passengers, who don’t believe a train should be treated as a playground.
The woman commuter has earned a reputation for other things. Perhaps because she has been kept out of so many places for so long, a woman can’t afford to not take whatever little space she gets. A line often heard, especially close to the ladies’ seats, is: “Ektu chepe boshle hoye jaabe (I can squeeze in if you move only a little).”
Says Shweta Majumdar, a teacher: “I am often squashed between two burly women in the Metro. Sometimes someone ends up sitting partly on my lap. But if you expect her to be apologetic about it, forget it.”
The Metro also doubles as salon. “When I was in college and used to travel by the Metro every day, there was a woman who would finish her make-up, right down to lipstick and moisturiser, oblivious to the stares,” says 25-year-old software engineer Akshay Choudhury.
And Metro, of course, remains a haven for eavesdroppers. One gets to know a lot about mothers-in-law and boyfriends, bosses and colleagues, whom one will never meet.
If some women behave badly for a seat, there’s the other side. Most Metro journeys are infested with lecherous men. Says media professional Arundhati Banerjee: “I was once compelled to punch a man in a relatively deserted train; he was trying to grab me.” Adds freelance photographer Kaustav Saikia: “I believe many men just buy a ticket during peak hours to do that.”
The Metro is not foreigner-friendly, either. A hush descends as soon as a phirang comes into the compartment. “I feel very conscious whenever I get on to a train. Nine out of 10 passengers will turn to look at me, measuring me up from head to toe,” complains Jennifer, a researcher living in the city for a year.
She was not asked about the effect on her of Incoda TV, though. It’s the only channel shown on Metro platforms — and it is stunning in the poor quality of its programming and ads. But many commuters are addicted to it. They just stand there and stare at the small screen till it becomes a pain in the neck.
The trains are full of GeNext — students and young people — in short school skirts or the latest pair of denims, most talking nineteen to the dozen. They are completely oblivious of the surroundings. “Students often form a circle blocking the way. Even if they are asked to move, they don’t budge,” rues Kashish Mukherjee, who works in an MNC.
But maybe we should not be too harsh. The Metro is one of the few low-cost dating zones in Calcutta. So keep whispering into each other’s ears in the tunnel of togetherness, even falling over one another is allowed — only please do offer your seat when you see old people and pregnant women standing.
The Metro sparks off romances and friendships. Numerous. There are groups of people who have met in the Metro — and have kept meeting ever since, somewhat like the communities that form on Mumbai’s local trains. “I met one of my closest friends, Gayatri, in the Metro four years ago,” smiles marketing executive Jayeeta Guha.
So there it is — Metro, India’s envy, Calcutta’s pride (though we will not get into comparisons with the Delhi underground as comparisons are odious). The Independent had observed once: “Calcutta’s Metro is cleaner than the underground in London or Paris. It runs better too.” We are not sure of that — it lacks AC in the trains and toilets at the stations, and some feel even Mumbai’s local trains run better.
But what we are sure of is Calcuttans may lech, leer, fight, be mean, in the Metro, but it’s become a home for them. That’s why some trams bear the legend: “Boro hoye aami Metro hobo (I will grow up to be Metro).”
Wait for passengers to get down before entering a compartment
Don’t push while entering or exiting a compartment
No matter how possessive you are about your seat, try and make place for pregnant women and senior citizens
Try not to stick your elbow in someone else’s face while standing
Keep your conversations within your group
Don’t insist on squeezing yourself into a seat. Chances are you will end up sitting on someone’s lap
No matter how interesting the person sitting opposite you appears to be, don’t stare
Don’t block the exit doors
(What do you love/hate about our Metro' Tell firstname.lastname@example.org)