[Reader-list] Bombay Central Railway Station

Zainab Bawa coolzanny at hotmail.com
Fri Dec 3 20:24:55 IST 2004

Zainab Bawa

2 December 2004
Bombay Central Station

Sudha asked me to come if I was interested in visiting the station with him 
while he did his photography job. I went along. Sudha is an interesting 
character. Unlike me who watches everywhere and the puts down emotions, 
feelings, faces, people, stories, etc. in words, Sudha simply catches the 
moment with his camera. He is sharp. At times, I don’t understand what he is 
shooting, but I am sure that like everybody at the station, he too has a 
strong sense of purpose. He catches people on this camera, their moments and 
their spontaneous and posed expressions. Sudha is like a cat on the prowl. 
His gait and style of walking are sharp and alert. He does not talk most of 
the time. He only walks, shoots, walks, shoots …

We are at the outstation railway platform known as the main line station. To 
me, this space is a process of practicing familiarity with New Delhi because 
I normally board a train to New Delhi from here. Once I am at the Bombay 
Central main line station, I already put myself onto the experience of New 
Delhi railway station. And in the train, I start conditioning my mind and 
instincts for Delhi through the encounters that I have with the North 

The main line platform has changed a lot since I first knew it. It has 
become a customized railway station. It has the McDonalds on it which is 
famous for the bomb blast that took place in it some years ago. By the way, 
Bombay Central main line station is a high alert station because it is very 
much prone to crime and terrorist attacks. You find the RPF manning it 
constantly as well as the GRP. The security on the railway station gives me 
another scent of New Delhi, a high security city! A TV screen is suspended 
from the ceiling at one point on the station. I don’t think people care too 
much for this one because it involves craning one’s neck and straining the 
eyes to obtain any pleasure from viewing it. Thus more pain than pleasure so 
let’s forget the damn thing! There are coffee machines by Café Coffee Day as 
well as Coke and Pepsi fountains. The only thing familiar and normally the 
landmark area on the station is the Wheelers Book Stall. It is part of 
everybody’s memory who have been used to train travel through India, whether 
by VT, Bombay Central or some other railway station. The Wheeler’s stall is 
one of the spaces on this railway station. It is a meeting space, a space to 
browse books carefully and leisurely, a space to pick up a quick copy of a 
paper or a magazine before boarding the train, etc.

The station has undergone marbling at various spots. There are pillars at 
some points and a marble seating has been built around each such pillar. The 
seating spaces are the other spaces on the train station. Sudha tells me 
that these are high energy spaces. People are sitting there, waiting for 
their train. Or they are sitting there and chatting with their near and dear 

People are sleeping at the station. It is a sight you would encounter at VT 
station as well. They are sleeping on the naked ground or have spread out 
newspapers and sheets to make themselves comfortable. Announcements are 
happening about arrivals and departures. One segment of the station has 
glass panes and windows. A look at those segments makes me feel like I am at 
an international airport. From outside the windows, I can see a dish antenna 
and people walking along the bridge overlooking the window. It feels like 
Frankfurt airport at Bombay Central Station. Whoever said the station is but 
one entity! It is multiple, simultaneous, several!

We walk inside, on the platforms. We are a legal people who have bought 
platform tickets. Sudha is shooting the kids on the station. These are kids 
who have run away from their homes in their villages and have now settled at 
the railway station. The station is now their home. Later when I speak to 
the kids, one of them tells me that it is both fun and torturous being at 
the railway station. The fun part is that the station is a place for work as 
well as play. “It’s like a playground,” one of them tells me. Also, you can 
get different kinds of foods from inside of the different trains that arrive 
at the platform. The torturous part is the harassment by the police. At 
night, when they have to sleep, they find hideouts in order to settle into 
slumber. The top berth of the various canteen stalls on the station is one 
of their hideouts. They sleep on it in the nights so as not to be caught by 
the officials. One of the persons on the team informs me that these children 
run away from their homes and when they land at the railway station, the 
existing gangs and groups on the station accept these kids into their little 
ghettoes and groupings. Thus, the kid finds his/her support. I imagine then 
that the railway station is also home. It is not simply a transitory space. 
It is how transitory you and I make it out to be.

We start to walk. Sometimes I am on the bridge, sometimes I am on the 
platform. I am unable to fathom everything happening at the station. As 
trains like Rajdhani and August Kranti arrive and stay scheduled there, I 
notice the trends and fashion prevailing among the hi-fi Punjabis and North 
Indians who travel by these air-conditioned trains. There is a clear 
contrast existing on the station, the clear sights and pictures of the haves 
and the have-nots. And everybody is going along with their business. Nobody 
is overly involved in issue of social justice. Perhaps the very difference 
between the haves and the have-nots has been accepted, internalized and 
practiced. No moral qualms or dilemmas here. Perfect!

Constantly and at regular intervals, the team is asked to show the 
permission letter for shooting on the station. I am told that we are being 
followed by various people who are keeping a watch on us to see whether we 
adhere to the time restrictions and limitations that have been specified in 
the permission – basically, permission with ‘catches’ attached to it. I am 
enjoying this adventure trip actually and am not the least bit perturbed 
about being watched and followed. Chalta hai!

There are two kids with us and they are posing in various forms, formats and 
against various kinds of landscapes. Sometimes I find these landscapes 
contradictory. At one point, one of the kids carefully takes out a 
fifty-rupee note from his pocket and goes somewhere. He arrives with a smile 
on his face and a little packet of Kurkure Chips manufactured by Pepsi 
Foods. This is his desire, his want, his cherished flavor. I am amused 
because I don’t know whether I am supposed to feel something at this sight. 
Am I supposed to?

The kids and me are chatting. These are very clever children. I think about 
the children of the streets, the children of this city. I suddenly feel like 
all these are my own children and how can I think of disowning them. And 
perhaps precisely this is what government and governance is out to do – 
remove these bastard kids; they are delinquent, have a bad effect on ‘the 
children’ of our society. But whoever said that going to school means you 
are a good child? Isn’t the street a live school? Sorry boss, there is no 
space on the streets these days. We are converting all of them into parking 
spaces! Kuch samhje bhai? If not, get lost and don’t ask too many questions.
I love these children, whole-heartedly. As I walk along the station, I ask 
myself whether I am a researcher. What am I searching and researching? Maybe 
I am no longer a researcher; I am a perfect participant. Maybe research and 
participation are not two different things at all. There is perhaps no 
dichotomy after a point. You are the means and you are the end – YOU! Isn’t 
that lovely? Perhaps, research is but a spiritual experience in itself. I am 
a cool researcher!

I come out of my thoughts and look at the various water fountains that have 
been installed on the platforms. Several of these are out of acts of 
charity. And mind you, the marbling and the structures are renovated and 
well take care of. I hope some attention is being paid to the water as well. 
I notice some children of the railway station who have gathered several 
empty plastic bottles still in good condition and are filling it with 
chilled water. I don’t know what they are going to do with these bottles and 
the water. But they are dedicatedly filling them up and storing them into 
huge black plastic bags. Maybe this is the water that you and me will drink 
later when we commute by these trains or buy water at the platform! I think 
water and the children of railway stations have a very strong and close link 
between themselves. It is their livelihood. These water fountains are spaces 
too on the platforms, just as there are other spaces.

I notice the steel benches that have been installed on the station. These 
are not new. I examine the construction of the station. This is a half-half 
station with cement, concrete and steel. Somehow, steel gives the station a 
feeling of lightness and the very characteristic of speed. The steel seats 
on the station are like modern furniture set against a colonial Indian 
backdrop. They look a bit weird and are yet light in the feelings and 
sensations they arouse in me.

Earlier, Sudha was shooting a little boy who was into the business of boot 
polish and shining shoes. This boy was lovely. He had this Rajnikant style 
of polishing shoes, tossing the brush in the air after a point and then 
moving it in the direction opposite to that which he was first moving it in. 
I have heard stories of how the boot polish itself is a drug if you intake 
its odour repeatedly and I wonder whether these little boys are addicted to 
it. But these are adept kids and they well know how to make decisions. They 
are jolly, living each day as it comes for to them. There is no future or 
tomorrow in the dictionary of their lives. Everything is today, now, right 
now! And that is how they live! They walk around the station with their 
thailas which contain a little wooden stand and the boot polish samaan. 
Vagabonds of some order nah?

Sudha asks me how is the walk? I am enjoying it. Then he asks me to look 
over and see how people are waiting between two barricaded gates, waiting 
for the train to arrive. These are people who will jump into the unreserved 
compartment even before the train has stopped on the platform. “I would 
never travel like this,” Sudha tells me, adding, “It is so inhuman nah?” I 
wish to tell Sudha that I have stopped thinking in terms of humanity and 
inhumanity. I am into this business of discerning anymore.

It’s over an hour since we are here. Sudha manages to somehow get hold of 
his last few subjects whom he is going to photograph. He goes into a train 
to shoot and then moves to the other side, the narrower platform. I am able 
to see him through the windows. Finally, he comes out and shrugs his 
shoulders, “Permission, permission, permission – everybody wants 
permission!” Sudha, this is no longer a permissive city …

With love,

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