Railfanning – A traveler’s gaze on railways & rail travel

KuppamRailwayStation

Between 2010-2012, I was a frequent traveler on Chennai-Bangalore rail route. Quite often I traveled on an unreserved ticket and invariably standing by the door of the coach. The door side of an Indian railway coach (for those who aren’t familiar) is quite a vantage point for the tribes of sociologists, anthropologists, aimless wanderers, intrepid travelers, mendicants and anyone under the sun who doesn’t care about having a place to sit and is curious about the world around him, including the lovely landscapes that the train traverses. Understandably, I have always held that I belong to the doors and rightfully take my place by the door as soon as I board the train.

Now, once the train is on the roll a slice of the grand Indian bazaar unfolds in front of you – books, pirated cinema DVDs, cheap toys, key rings, wallets, handkerchiefs, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, that typical puffed rice tossed with fresh greens, tomatoes and a dash of lemon, snacks from the pantry (if the train has one), tender coconuts, a range of fresh farm produce depending on the season… the list is as diverse as the land and its people!

Blind, partially blind and not really blind people, all hawking wares as blind men seems like a thing going on forever in these trains. Elsewhere in the coach young men and ladies take a look at a range of key rings, parents browse through a collection of cheap coloring, sketching, cursive handwriting and story books assuming that their kids better have one of these than bother about those toys being hawked. The highway like aisle is occupied by sellers of everything that can be sold in this market on rails. Pantry vendors call with trays of whatever the kitchen on wheels is cooking that evening. As stations roll by, the range of offerings from the pantry change.  This activity filled train rides are an idler’s delight and perhaps a sociologist’s curiosity. And for a writer, inspiration and stuff worth ten pages at least!

This fascination for the railways, travelers and the sheer variety of thing happening on rails made me look at some of them more closely. Of this milieu, hawkers are one set that have interested me. Joining them at work for over three weeks last year, I have learnt a great deal about another form of quick to emerge and quick to adapt form of livelihood which exists somewhere on the boundary of the legal and illegal ways of earning a living. A bit of that was posted here as fieldnotes. Illegal? This really is the imagination of Indian Railways and which is something I am trying to understand. But, this aside I think we (my team) as entrepreneurs don’t even half the courage and half the risk taking ability that these people take in their work and lives. This post is just an admiration and appreciation of these awesome folks who not many of us happen to notice on our journeys.

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Field Notes from Kuppam- II

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The field study on vegetable hawkers from Kuppam has been an interesting experience on several fronts. From a traveller who went a little beyond what he saw to an anthropology enthusiast who wanted to explore how Clifford Geertz’s ant’s eye view of development can be effectively employed in multi-layered study like this one, it has been a valuable experience.

The second set of field notes (first set here) reflect the sort of titration point that we reached in striking relationship with the hawkers. The rapidity that sets from day 5 onwards is a pattern that I have seen in our earlier works as well. A lesson that comes home again is that in field studies and investigations where several factors are not known or are uncertain, one must still persevere. It is important not to get disheartened or drop out of interest in the first week of a field study because the difficulties of the first days are the very same which at first look insurmountable challenge but later become a key theme in the study. And surviving that first week sets you free. For example, in our study it got very difficult for us to gain a sense of physical and social spread of the town we were living in. Adding to this was the fact that we did not know if there are a sizeable number of hawkers from this town. Both these unknowns in the later part of the study reveal themselves in a manner that it strengthens the study in terms of insights. Once this sets in the disjoint observations from earlier days suddenly start making sense and we have multiple layers of the entire study taking shape.

So, here is the second set with which we ended our study. Back in the university, we set up a small poster exhibition which highlights some parts of our study.

Field Notes from Kuppam- I

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First in series is this ongoing field research (a descriptive sort) that I am doing with a team in Kuppam, a town near Bangalore. A detailed write up got to wait for a later time. Meanwhile, here is a short slidedeck about it (and this is team work).

(Updated on 07/11/12. An excerpt from the field report)

My team has been interested in experiencing the multi-layered interactions – law, livelihoods, rights and assertion of spaces, which play out in everyday life in India. A simpler question that we posed from an experiential point of view was “how does it feel to earn a livelihood selling wares on the streets or on trains?” and how do such apparently “insecure”, “uncertain” livelihoods exist in hundreds of towns across the country. A nearer case was that of hawkers on trains which our team had often noticed. This in a way gave us a ready ground to go out, experience and have a close quarter look at these individuals who haven’t probably meant much to people other than providing a service which again not many seem to care for. It is an early experiment in conducting a quick backyard variety of anthropological study. We were cognizant of the requirement that this exercise of field immersion required us to do. And in that vein, we only see ourselves furthering the goals and improving the potential outcomes of such an activity so that it is rewarding for us individually as well apart from serving the academic requirement.
The contested space as we see is located between the Indian Railways as an institution, which is asserting its right over property and hawkers who flout this property right every day to earn their livelihood. It was a conscious decision to venture out and strike alliances with the people on our own. Any mediation (via NGO, activists etc) we reasoned might dilute the nature of our experience and desire to test if we can take a green field approach and execute it or not. We focussed on the hawkers on the Bangalore-Chennai section of Southern Railways.

The hypothesis with which we begin with is:

  • Is criminalization of an act of plying livelihood on trains just? What are the underlying determinants of such a relationship?
  • Who are the claimants of this system?
  • What IS the nature of access rights in this form of livelihood?