(Just so that you know, people who haven’t been to Kolkata or haven’t taken the Kolkata metro or don’t know about the great men of Bengal might not get the subtle references)
I’ve always been a curious spectator of things that happen in and around the Kolkata Metro. Ever since I moved to Kolkata 13 years ago, metro had been a significant part of my daily commute to school, then university, and finally to my work. It protected me from the everyday friction and maara-maari of people who traveled in buses and ended up smelling like vinegar in the process. Once upon a time, metro boasted of being associated with somewhat sophisticated commuters, people who could afford a little extra money and didn’t mind spending it for comfort, time, and safety. So while an average journey from the two extremes of Dum Dum to Tollygunge would easily take you 2 hours by bus, metro would do it in 33 minutes.
However, taking the metro after 4 years is a different and disappointing experience. First, the so called distinction between bus commuters and metro commuters is gone. Anyone who can walk and climb the stairs rides a metro. Money is no longer the deciding factor. So metro doesn’t resemble a metro anymore, it resembles more of an underground and hence stuffy version of a Ge(n)de local (a local train that takes you to Ge(n)de which is rumored to be so crowded and filled with the so called unsophisticated class of people that one would choose to refuse an invitation to one’s sibling’s wedding in Ge(n)de rather than board the train). I don’t really mean to sound like a socio-economic snob, the ones who believe only privileged people (monetarily or otherwise) should be able to afford the worldly comforts, ride the metro, study in the best colleges, and lead an elite life distinctly and superior to their so called unblessed inferiors. However when you have a choice between standing under the sweaty armpits of people smelling like stale onions in vinegar and rubbing against you or sitting beside that corpulent woman wearing a sleeveless blouse, rubbing her arms with you in the process every now and then and smelling of uncooked Hilsa fish, you don’t really have a choice to make between the fire and the frying pan.
The rush in metro is so overwhelming that for days, I’ve stood in platforms, watching metro after metro leave me as I debated over taking the plunge and squish into the crowd, but have given up unable to do it. Earlier there were concepts like peak hours. If you were flexible enough not to travel when most people like office commuters and school commuters travel, you could easily be ensured a seat. I don’t think that happens anymore, for I’ve found myself standing in really long queues to get a ticket even during the most un-peak hours like at 3 pm or even at 9 pm. Regarding security, the lesser said, the better. For you will find those uniformed security guards who will stop every unsuspecting passenger carrying bags, but not to make an inspection, no. They look the most disinterested of the lot, casually sitting and most of the times letting you go, unless of course you were in a hurry and on the verge of missing your train. They will stop you then, ask you to open your bags and show them, and while you would think they were interested in inspecting the contents of your bags for bombs, they are least bothered about what is inside. They will casually glance through the contents, almost coming close to your ears and whispering, “I am doing it to show my superiors that I am working. I don’t really care what you carry in your bag”. People at the ticket counters will often refuse to give you back the exact change and make you wait and miss a few trains before they hand you the change of 8 rupees for the twenty rupees you paid. However, the crowd, the rush, the disinterested security personal, the sweaty commuters, or the uncooperative, un-“changed” people selling tickets are the least of my affliction. What surprises me most, as I will focus now, is the nomenclature of the confusing names of stations one commutes to.
I boarded the train the other day, lucky enough to find a seat, and looked for the station I was supposed to get down at. To my shock, I found no name called Tollygunge. I looked and looked hard, trying to see if I was missing something, or if the metro had started taking a different route. As a result of years of metro travel, I knew the names of the stations one after the other, so I skimmed through the stations to the south – Kalighat, Rabindra Sarobar, and then what? Mahanayak Uttam Kumar? Is that what Tollygunge is called these days? The great actor (mahanayak) Uttam Kumar? I scanned the other destinations and discovered a lot of interesting changes. Years ago when Bhowanipur was changed to Netaji Bhawan, I had quite some adjustment issues getting used to the new name. I wouldn’t say it was anything as serious as say getting used to answering the questions of the nosy neighbor, yet I wondered why places had their names changed to show tribute to a certain person. Anyway, so the next few names after Mahanayak Uttam Kumar were a blur, and I had no clue which way the metro was headed. Later a little bit of googling and wikiiing told me that the word “sutanuti” added after Sovabazar doesn’t mean some kind of green leafy vegetable in Hindi, it meant a group of villages. Now why would a place like Sovabazar situated in a prominent area of North Kolkata be referred to as a group of villages beats me.
After Mahanayak Uttam Kumar (Tollygunge), I was expecting a Khalnayak Kishore Kumar or something, but compounded my confusion on seeing a name Netaji. Just Netaji. No bhawan, nagar, or marg to go with it. It seems while Netaji Bhawan is Bhowanipur, Netaji is Kudghaat. I wondered if Bengal had fallen short of names of great people that the same person had 2 stations dedicated to him, one with a Bhawan and the other Bhawan-less. Then Masterda Surya Sen, the prominent Bengali freedom fighter introduced himself, his name substituting the area Bansdroni. Gitanjali is how they named Naktala, Garia was named Kavi Nazrul, and finally there is another station under construction that will be called Shaheed Khudiraam.
Now I have some basic issues with the nomenclature of places after eminent personalities from Bengal. We have grown up used to names of places like Garia and Kudghaat, so if my father told me he is getting off at Kavi Nazrul, I would be wondering if he is making sense. I overheard a standing commuter asking a sitting commuter, “Apni Uttam Kumar?” I was confused. While the translation is “Are you Uttam Kumar?”, I wondered why someone standing would ask someone sitting if he is Uttam Kumar. Realization struck that perhaps he meant, “Are you getting off at Uttam Kumar?” If someone asked me “Apni Uttam Kumar”, I’d be tempted to tell him why despite his conviction about my gender, I am neither a man, nor am I called Uttam Kumar. The best I could tell him was, “Na, ami Suchitra Sen” (No, I’m not Uttam Kumar, I am the actress Suchitra Sen). Which brings me to my next point.
Where are the women in these names? All of them are named after great men who are no longer alive. Don’t tell me Bengal hasn’t produced great women, or they haven’t died. It’s a patriarchal society and a chauvinistic world, I agree. But where are the women?
Don’t you think naming a station after someone as a mark of respect is somewhat juvenile and a sign of disrespect in itself? The whole idea of showing respect is defeated when you take the great person’s name multiple times in different, and most of the time hilarious contexts. Are you “Uttam Kumar”? I’m going to “Masterda Surya Sen” to eat some fish curry the mother in law has cooked for Jamai Shoshti. My boss lives in the heart of “Netaji” (middle of Kudghat). You see what I am saying? Perhaps there has been a little bit of saving grace that Maidan was not rechristened like they were planning to. What do you think of when you hear Maidan? I think of lush green fields that act like the lungs of Kolkata. I think of Eden Gardens, and Victoria Memorial. I think of joggers and bikers and lovers holding hands. I think of the movie Parineeta. Would you associate it with the same things if I told you they wanted to rechristen it “Gostho Pal” (the footballer)? Thank God they didn’t think of Taposh Pal.
Let’s say some metro official or rather some eminent personality with administrative power reads this and agrees with my point, especially on gender biasness. My greatest embarrassment say 30 years down the line would be when a commuter asks me, “Apni Uttam Kumar?”
To which I will squirm in my seat, avoiding his eyes, and mumble, “Na, Ami Mamta Banerjee”.