Monday, 30th October 2017

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When a train journey becomes an election battleground

In poll season, democracy chugs along

  • Published 28.04.19, 11:50 AM
  • Updated 28.04.19, 7:59 PM
  • 3 mins read
Conversation starter: A local train in Calcutta A Telegraph file picture

The 8.40pm Sealdah-Baruipara local is packed. The far end of the third compartment has already been occupied by the taash party or the card players. “Ramen, you are good for nothing. You’ve got the queen, and you say ‘haath nei’ (no deal),” Nabin tells his mate by the window seat as I step into the coach and the train pulls out with its usual double honk.

“Seems like Didi has pipped Modi in the second phase,” a 60-something Montuda hurls the question at me. Montuda is an accountant at a cloth merchant’s shop in central Calcutta’s Burrabazar area and has a reputation for stirring up the proverbial hornet’s nest.

We are all taking the local train that runs the distance to Baruipara — 33 kilometres east of Calcutta. Most of those onboard are “daily passengers” returning to the suburbs after a hard day’s work in the city. They are a mix of teachers, students, shop assistants, traders, government servants. The Metro ferries travellers lost in their smartphones, but passengers of suburban trains strike conversations and build relationships over time. It could be something about the duration of the journey or the rhythm of the train.

Montuda’s barb hits Tridib, a former CPI(M) cadre who has now shifted his allegiance and turned into a Modi-bhakt. The day after the Balakote strike, he distributed laddoos to his co-passengers. He has predicted that BJP will “strike 25 out of 42” Lok Sabha seats in Bengal these polls. Tridib shoots back: “This time you will see the lotus bloom; the grass and flowers will wilt.” He drops his voice by several decibels and goes on to share with everyone a spot of insider information — how BJP is countering Trinamul’s booth-capturing prowess in northern Bengal. But Montuda does not let him finish. A flourish of his arms suggests things unsavoury, which he annotates thus: “Yes, yes. Bengal has ended up now with this phool or that. Actually, we are the biggest fools.” He continues to talk about the culture of extortion, bullying and vote capturing in the state.

No sooner does the train pull into Ultadanga than people start to pour into the compartment with well-practised agile leaps. Dasda, 58, has been doing this for over 30 years. He elbows his way through the crowd before occupying a slice of a seat as the fourth man — there are facing rows of three seats. He joins the chatter: “Montu, you have to live with fools now. We have had enough of the hammer and sickle. First, they bludgeoned our heads with the hammer, then picked away at our brains with the sickle, and then chopped off our...”

Dasda, a Congress supporter, is a peon at a government office. He embarks on a rant of how successive governments have turned Bengal into a shoshaan or crematorium. It is now Nabin’s turn to interject. He says, “You’re the one who laid the foundation of this crematorium. It was Congress that introduced the culture of mara-mari kata-kati (violence) in the 70s.” Dasda is thunderous: “Who would have countered the Naxalites had we not stood up?”

The situation cools down a notch with the advent of the chanachurwala. Swapan has been selling special chanchur for over a decade. Ramen buys a pack for Dasda, who between chewing a mouthful, asks, “Hey Swapan, which way is the wind blowing in your area?” “Lotus, lotus,” responds Swapan. He is from Bahirgachi near the Indo-Bangla border, where BJP made substantial gains in the 2018 panchayat elections.

Mama makes his entry in Dum Dum. His real name is unknown to most. A few years ago he retired from his job as a security man in a bank. A diehard CPM cadre, he still collects money for his party, pastes posters and attends party meetings. He asks, “Why is it so crowded today?” Tridib vacates his seat for Mama.

The query elicits a virulent reaction from Mukherjeeda, an emaciated 60-year-old who works with a private firm. He says, “It is the after-effect of last week’s brigade rally by your party. People are still trickling in.” Mama bristles. “Don’t irritate me, Mukherjee. You think you’ve become a political pundit from reading a couple of newspapers?” Mukherjeeda retorts, “I don’t get my information from the party mouthpiece, Dada.” Tridib adds, “Mama, can you deny that the moment [Prakash] Karat decided to withdraw support to the UPA, everything fell like a house of cards?” Red with anger Mama fights back, “How dare you speak, you traitor...”

Dakshineswar arrives, I move towards the gate. The discussion continues, fervent, impassioned. Democracy chugs along.  

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