Giovanni Mereghetti: The People of the Railroad
The People of the Railroad (Story and photographs by Giovanni Mereghetti)
At Park Circus you go down the stairs from an imposing overpass that crosses east of Calcutta. It leaves the deafening noise of the horns, which, like in a Dante's circle, accompany the frenzy of traffic in a perpetual movement without a moment of respite. A few steps later you dive into the railroad hell and absorb the clash of railroad wagons, still today driven by old petrol-powered locomotives. It is a Park Circus secondary station, from here you see the commuter trains. Thousands of people who daily ride on crowded coaches, to reach a workplace often far away. At peak times, the sidewalks of the station are transformed into a huge anthrax made of human beings, some accompanied by a simple briefcase, while others are loaded with every bitterness. The scenery is typical of every Indian railway station: fascinating for those coming from the outside, a delusion for those who are forced to live it daily.
The people waiting for the trains work hard for positioning, almost always in a row and crashing on the narrow docks. You walk into a constantly moving company where every form of business is allowed: there are street vendors selling fried boar; there are those who sell colorful balloons for children who are facing a journey; others that promise to read the hand or invent the future through the cards; and improvised beauticians armed with huge cotton pads for the cleaning of the ears. And then the lottery ticket sellers, exchanging a few rupees for the billionaire dream. Park Circus Station covers a small area between commercial buildings and crumbling buildings. Just walk for a few dozen minutes, no matter in which direction, to see the sidewalk dividing the tracks empty of people and slip into the massive railway. The voicing of departing passengers disappears slowly. There are also the screams of merchants that attract customers to their business. The atmosphere slowly turns into a neighborhood. You walk on the rails and the more you move between the cabins, the more you are wrapped up by a sense of unique social discomfort.
The adults are composed and very dignified despite the extreme discomfort and poverty. The life buzz feels like that of a normal village in India. Women are intent on homework: there are those who wash their clothes, peel the potatoes, or clean the vegetables, and who wraps the wool with old rusty needles. There are also women, the youngest, who pull lice from the heads of their little ones. Men almost always find themselves seated with their legs crossed or crouched in the rare shadowy areas, intent on a card game, or with their faces bent on a chessboard.
The more you move away from the station's hub, the more the shacks take on a degrading aspect. Just over a meter away from the rails are improvised recesses made of rags, old plastic pieces held together with adhesive tape used for parcels. There are cartons recovered from industrial packaging, wooden boards and deformed and weathered plates. There is no electricity, life is dictated by the rhythm of light and when the sun disappears behind the palaces, there are just the kerosene lamps to light the dark of night.
The major metropolis of the Bengal state, with about twenty million inhabitants, is one of India's most important cities and has nearly three thousand slums spread over an area of ??nearly 200 square kilometers. Thousands of neighborhoods populated by humanity without rights and living in unbelievable misery, which day by day, increases with the incessant immigration coming from the countryside. Park Circus residents do not like being referred to as slum people. Instead, they say they are "squatters", just temporary railroaders, waiting for a better future.
The railroad’s path goes on as far as the eye allows, without seeing an end on the horizon, as if this infernal place was infinite. Strangers are rarely seen here. Children, always curious, greet with the few English words they know and do their best to attract attention. Little girls, as always in these cases, are the most loquacious and enterprising. There is one girl with a striking look. She is no more than twelve and well-dressed, in stark contrast to the rest of her "team" who are dressed in torn and dirty clothing. She makes contact with the stranger. Her attitude is discreet and polite. She only asks for my country and tells me her name: Monika.
Monika’s striking green eyes are in clear contrast with her dark skin. It's inevitable to look at her and want to take her picture. But she does not want to. She moves on the railroad tracks with elegance, in the symphony of the sounds and the voices of the place. At times, the degrading intoxication of poverty stretches the limit of endurance, in sharp contrast to her face. Monika, in her modest English, tells me that the "squatter town" will never have an end. Day after day new huts are being built, where the latest arrivals will accumulate with the hope of a temporary visit that will never end.
The slum of Anand Nagar, the city of joy where the famous work of Dominique Lapierre was inspired, no longer exists. Today there is Park Circus, with its nauseous odor, its undrinkable water. The rubbish dumped behind the shacks that stand by the iron wire, within site of the people who pass the days waiting for a train. As every train passes by and moves in the distance, the hope of ever leaving this dreadful place fades in Monika's green eyes.