The official at the Border Security Forces office with the small cheery moustache laughed when I told him I wanted to see the border fence at Jayantipur. “That is impossible,” he said. “It is a restricted area.” Otherwise, he and the other soldiers in the office were friendly and happy to answer all my questions. They told me that in some places, the fence separates Indian farmers from their own fields, and that the fence itself was likely inspired by the “Palestinian Wall,” but I couldn’t get anywhere near it.
I had come by train that morning from Calcutta, and even though my intention of seeing the border fence was bust, it was worth coming to the area just to get out of the big city. This was my first foray out of the teeming Indian megopoli since I arrived in the country. It was a relief to be able to breathe the air.
I hired a bicycle rickshaw man with red, paan-stained teeth to bring me from the train station to the border post. At first we were stuck in a jam of similar rickshaws, carts, and bicycles. Most were armed with an old-style squeeze-bulb horn that the drivers honked continually. It sounded like a riot of angry rubber ducks. Eventually the traffic thinned out and I was on a wide road lined with trees and barbers’ stalls. In this part of rural India, the villagers use cow dung for fuel, and nearly all the trees along the road were spotted with the drying brown patties. Each had a hand-print in the middle left by whoever did the splatting. We passed over small rivers and beside clean ponds where women bathed and boys swam. After Calcutta, I was struck by how green everything was. In the cities, even the trees seem grey.
After being denied access to the fence, I walked into Jayantipur anyway, curious as to how far I could go. A teenage boy on a bicycle stopped me. He spoke a little English and when I told him I was just going for a walk he shook his head. “That way is Bangladesh,” he warned. “No-man’s land. Soldiers.” He mimed a soldier firing a rifle. “AK-47!” He beckoned me to follow him back to the main road and offered to double me on his bicycle back to the train station. We rattled back along the main road. My driver – whose Bengali-Muslim name escapes me – was thrilled to have me as a charge. Each time we came upon a friend of his he jerked his thumb back at me, smiled and shouted “Foreigner!”
I returned to Calcutta just in time for the evening rush hour. At the station near the border, the Indians waited in tidy queues to buy tickets, but once the train arrived, it was bedlam. I was swept up in the current of pushing bodies and launched into the train purely under the power of the mob. But this was nothing compared to the scene waiting at the station in Calcutta. There must have been a thousand people fighting to get on the train as the rest of us tried to get off. Again, I had no power over any of my movements. I was ejected from the train by the surge behind me, then forced across the platform to the exit in tiny steps, trying to keep from falling. Or weeping. I’ve never seen anything like this.
Crazier still, was that the street people who sleep on the train platforms did not move. They risked being flattened by a thousand footfalls. I almost stepped on one woman. She lay on the ground, impossibly asleep in her white rags, as the wave of commuters seethed above her and did their best not to trample her to death.