Of Speculation, Gossip And Small Talk On The Railway Platform

I phoned one of my friends who, in his student days, was inclined towards literature and is now retired from the Pakistan Railways. I asked him about the conversations or gossip or speculation of the waiting passengers at the platform

Of Speculation, Gossip And Small Talk On The Railway Platform

Choosing the perfect title for an essay is always a challenge for me. Perhaps it is domain of the editor, or it should be left to a reader to decide after reading the piece. Honestly, I am not sure what the title of this brief essay should be. Perhaps a reader could decide better after reading it – as to whether its heading could best be “Railway Platform Speculations,” “Railway Platform Gossip,” or “How do Passengers Pass Their Time at the Platform?” I hold that discussion for a while and start this essay with a personal note. It goes like this: like other weeks in the month of January 2024, this week also went well. In fact, I am happy about the past week for two reasons.

First, I presented my paper at a three-day International Conference on “Exploring the Impact of Urbanisation, Disasters, and Protection Strategies on Folk Medicine and Cultural Heritage of Sindh” from January 18-20, 2024. The conference was organised by the History Department at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro.

The second reason was an informal conversation with Dr Zulifqar Ali Kalhoro, who is currently the only scholar/anthropologist, who has single-handedly, without any financial assistance, documented more than 30,000 heritage sites in Sindh. Another companion was Mr Aziz Ranjhani, who has documented Sindh’s lakes, floods and other water-related bodies spread in plains and hilly ranges of Sindh. Over the course of two days, we talked about a lot of ideas related to heritage, culture, built culture, floods and heritage buildings and archaeology.

At the end of the day, I noted down the key points of the discussion in my diary. Afterwards, I prepared a list of themes/titles that could be documented or researched. Interestingly, the themes related to railways appealed to me. The idea was so compelling that I couldn't resist the temptation and opened my old notebooks and diaries from my student days to see if I had written anything about my train travels.

During the entire last years of the 1970s and the early two years of the 1980s, I frequently travelled by train from Piaro Goth Station to Sindh University Station or Kotri Station. Encouragingly, a considerable number of pages from the diaries of 1979-1982 showed various entries about railways. The diary’s entries represented various themes. I am not sure if I will be able to work on all these themes or not, but in today’s write-up, I have translated some titles of the passengers small talks. While doing so, I have improved the text for clarity and better understanding, but I have retained its originality. Prior to proceed, let me share with the readers that these speculations of passengers are related to the railway stations or platforms of Kotri, Sindh University, Dadu, Piaro Goath, Sita Road (now Rahmani Nagar), and Radhan.

Railway Station Kotri Junction, Sindh

Based on my diary’s entries, I have grouped the small talk of waiting passengers into the following categories: 1) The signal is down (indicating that a train is coming); 2) The platform vibrates (suggesting that a train is arriving); 3) The rail track vibrates (indicating that a train is not far away); 4) A heavy sound is heard (signalling the arrival of a train); 5) The signalman has appeared (implying that a train will come soon); 6) The nearer signal is still up (leaving passengers waiting for unknown reasons); 7) The train will be late (an overheard assumption); 8) It seems the number of compartments will be low (an assumption or fear of not getting a seat); 9) The platform is crowded (unforeseen reasons of a rush); 10) I have to buy a ticket today (fear of ticket checking); 11) There is a fault (assuming for the train’s lateness); 12) The Station Master knows the reason but hides it (the assumption that the master knows the reasons for the delay); 13) There might be a strike (leading to the train being late or already delayed); 14) There might be an issue with the crossing (explaining why the signal is down for a particular train); 15) The time is up, but the arrival has not been announced yet (suggesting a possible late arrival) and 16) There will be a raid on free boarders (assuming based on the unusual movement of officials).

In this regard, I phoned one of my friends who, in his student days, was inclined towards literature and is now retired from the Pakistan Railways. I asked him about the conversations or gossip or speculation of the waiting passengers at the platform. He was not sure, but he told me about the railway station-goers. I have noted his words in an ordered way.

He told me that people spend their time at the stations, and their time spent can be categorised into these areas: i) social gossip – this group call friends or make a plan with them their friends to visit stations, and they engage themselves in non-focused discussions, just a kachahery or a ghupshup. The common topics of this group are local politics or issues related to their jobs. If they are educated or part of the salaried class, their meeting place is the railway station’s restaurant; ii) a watch and walk group, this band just looks at the other people. These people may be categorised as “Others’ business is our business.” They travel from one end of the platform to other and pass their time. However, their focus remains women or girls, who are waiting for the train; iii) a group that look at vendors, book stalls, hawkers, these people only watch the vendors, bookstalls, and hawkers, but never buys any item; iv) a regular group, this particular group regularly visits the railway stations along with friends or guests.

Generally, they visit in the evenings or when a particular train arrives. He added that in the 1970s and early 1980s, college students from Dadu, Larkana, and Rohri used to welcome certain trains.

Let me apprise readers that railways and related scenes are portrayed in the English literature of the Subcontinent, and it must be the case also in the local languages. Immediately, the name of Rudyard Kipling comes to mind, as he wrote numerous stories about railways. Another notable author is Ruskin Bond, who has written about the Indian Railways. Some of his stories have been published in the book titled ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ which presents railway-related stories from small towns and big cities during the English period as well as the present times.

Before returning to the platform speculation, a question arises in my mind: is there an anthology in the Sindhi language that presents stories related to railways, trains, platforms, compartments, and stations? More on that later, but for now, let me revert to the themes of platform speculation or gossip. Upon careful reviewing, it becomes evident that out of the fifteen themes, the initial seven are related to the train schedule, while the other themes revolve around the social aspects of society. However, there are some fundamental questions about the nature of the platform talk (speculation or gossip – whatever it might be). However, most of the researchers are agreed that such talks broadly fall into psychology, but I am not sure.

Sindh University Railway Station - Jamshoro

Based on my initial observations, poor management of railway systems - such as trains’ late arrivals, sudden changes in schedule, inadequate services at platforms, and a general lack of care for customers/passengers - triggers waiting passengers to engage in gossip, assumptions, speculation and commentary. Some of their small talk shows a sense of connectivity, but a larger part consists of mild complaints about the system's poor performance.

While flipping through the pages of an old diary from 2004, I came across a notebook containing notes about a joke book by KR Vaidyanathan called A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes. I described the book as a collection of jokes and anecdotes related to railways, capturing the essence of train journeys during the Raj era. I mentioned that the book revolves around trains, travellers’ tales, train robberies, and railway personnel such as guards, station masters, and booking clerks. I concluded my diary note by stating that A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes captivates the reader from start to finish, offering a delightful mix of real-life stories. Its pages transport readers back to the vibrant steam age, vividly depicting the colourful world of railways. It stands as a testament to the enduring charm of railway literature.

Recognising the unique appeal of railway literature, it becomes evident that there is a need for more focus on such literature in the Sindhi language, as well as in other national languages of Pakistan.

Sindh’s rich history of railways invites authors to write about its various dimensions. However, when writing or researching about railways, one should not overlook or undervalue the role of railway stations. The work on railway stations can be further divided into sub-themes such as design, construction, operation, maintenance, repair/rebuilding, and services.

Moreover, railway stations and their services must keep pace with the development of the city. Therefore, research or writing about railway stations or any aspect thereof, whether it be environmental, social, cultural, political, or economic, should be based on the demands of the city. This is a rule of thumb for authors who aspire to write about railway stations, and the rule also equally applies to literature and subjects within the disciplines of the social sciences.

Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He may be reached at junejozi@gmail.com