Diwali, the festival of lights, is an ancient Hindu celebration during autumn every year. Spiritually, the event signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In eastern India, it coincides with Kali Puja, a festival dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali.
A few years ago I decided to explore how Diwali is marked by some of the most impoverished sections of Indian society: those who live in slums along the railway tracks of Kolkata, the city where I am based.
The suburban railway of Kolkata, once regarded as the second city of the British empire, is the largest of its kind in India by track length and number of stations. Kolkata’s establishment as an imperial city led to an explosion in population during the 19th century, when authorised slums called bustees first came into being as migrants moved in from the countryside to serve the colonial rulers and their families.
Rapid expansion of the railway network greatly facilitated this migration and more slums were formed as the textile and engineering industries boomed, as well as during the war effort of the 1940s. Waves of refugees between Partition in 1947 and the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 added to the population. A third of Kolkata’s total inhabitants, or 1.4 million people, live in slums, according to the 2011 census.
Today a large number of these slums are situated beside the tracks, which both men and women often use for sanitation purposes in the absence of basic services. Electricity and water supplies are often denied to households; water is stored in large buckets for daily use. The constant threat of evictions lingers and fires are also frequent.
The railways continue to occupy a central place in the country’s imagination as well as its social, political and economic life. Contrary to a popularly held belief that the British-established network was a boon to India, bringing modernity to its hinterland, the railways were instrumental in draining the nation of its wealth and resources. They also brought the plague from the cities to the countryside during the early 20th century.
During the recent brutal Covid-19 lockdown enforced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, migrant workers undertook odysseys on foot to get to their home villages. Harrowing news emerged of a train running over 16 people who had simply collapsed on the rail tracks from sheer exhaustion.
In my Rail Diwali project, these same rail tracks that have been witness to some of the most gruesome events of recent memory become a place of refuge, belonging and community. It is this camaraderie that the project celebrates.
Living under a constant threat of eviction, these lives sustained in semi-permanence stand in contrast to the traditions they seek to maintain every year. While the slums have a look of disrepair, civic neglect and dereliction, the little lights and decorations during Diwali lend the atmosphere an air of ethereal luminescent magic.
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