Depending on the field work for the day, I can take two different modes of transportation (the metro or the suburban train). The Kolkata Suburban Railway is a suburban rail system that serves the suburbs surrounding Kolkata. In India, railways are heavily used infrastructures and used by a majority of the population. Based on the number of stations and track length, the Kolkata Suburban Railway is the largest suburban railway network in India.The first metro railway in India, the Kolkata Metro is the second busiest metro system in India. The metro offers 300 services daily and carries over 650,000 passengers. From my observation, unlike the Kolkata Suburban Railway (suburban rail system ), the Metro has air conditioning. The Metro is clean and filled with blue-collar and white-collar workers and students. Their clothing is mostly modern. I get uncomfortable stares that makes me feel like an alien. I try to work on my Bengali and try to engage in small talk, but the language barrier is hard to overcome. I was asked once if I am a soccer player or date an African soccer player. I told them that I am a student and conducting a community-based research focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. The train ride is usually short and doesn’t give us enough time to have a full lengthy conversation.
The suburban rail system doesn’t have air conditioning since people large number of people can’t afford it for long distance. Hundreds of local people use the suburban rail system to travel. The trains are very dirty and ruin down and have not been replaced by the government. The train travels a long distance. My commute to the South 24 Parganas takes about 1-1.5 hours depending on the stop. The train is stuffy, jammed packed, not and hot. Sometimes the train is charged with high energy of people laughing and vendors selling fruits, vegetables, toys, knick-knacks, snacks and other miscellaneous items. I like to purchase the hard candy, popcorn and key chains. Although I am only 68 inches, I feel like the former wrestler, Andre the Giant. I shadow over the other women and sometimes the men on the train. Their clothes are often traditional. On good days, I get to ride on the women only carts. I feel more comfortable sitting in the women only cart and have meet a few transgender women. I wonder If they have ever been harassed by other people on the train. The mixed cart is mostly filled with men, sometimes makes me feel tense and uncomfortable. The high volume of people and lack of cleanliness makes the train very dirty. Compared to the suburban rail system, the metro carries less people for a shorter distance. The trains are more comfort and upgraded. The suburban rail system transports more people and travels are longer distance.
Unlike the Metro, the rail system is jammed packed especially during high peak time. It is even packed on the weekends. I never have room to move and normally stand for the entire train ride. My conversations with the local travelers are usually through eye contact. A few conversations are facilitated through my Indian colleague who travels to the field with me. I have been asked questions that range from “Who am I”, “Where am I from”, “Why am I here” and “Do I speak Bengali”. Even if I cannot answer a majority of their questions on my own, I usually meet their interests and curiosity with a smile.
Depending on the final destination, the fares are less than $2 each way. I’m fortunately to be able to afford a personal taxi and have the privilege to choose the suburban rails system and Metro as my primary mode of transportation. Some of the reasons for this decision are: (1) I am frugal, (2) I live in a major U.S. city and like taking public transportation, (3) public transportation gives me a better sense of the community and public policy and (4) I feel more like a neighbor ads less like a tourist and foreigner. This always me to be fully immerse in the everyday life of local residents and understand the Indian caste system. I noticed that although we purchase roundtrips tickets every day, the conductor never comes around to check our tickets. I always wonder what will happen if we do not purchase our tickets on our way to the field. Every morning, I look forward to taking the Metro, the rail system and the tok-tok. It is my gateway to a community that I admire and respect.