The Peculiar Ms. Kamalaben | Milaap

The Peculiar Ms. Kamalaben

I saw the sun-kissed Miraj Passenger train slowly stop at Ghataprabha railways station. To my horror, I was late and had just arrived on the platform.

The Miraj Passenger Express

With adrenaline ringing through my ears, I ran like my life depended on it. I managed to zig-zag my way through the dense working crowd and the vada-chai sellers near the platform. When I was close enough, the train’s horn blew. I knew I had exactly 10 seconds to get on the train. I was on pins and needles now.

I noticed a swarm of the loud brightly dressed saree clad women trying to get into the second-class compartment of the train all at the same time.

A crowd of women getting into a train. Credit: YouTube

Women were elbowing each other with their child in one arm and a grocery bag of vegetables in another. If you’ve travelled by Indian local trains before, you’ll know that it was indeed a bloodbath.
I got hold of a railing and managed to lift myself into the compartment just as the train began its journey.

As part of the Milaap fellowship, I found myself on the Miraj Passenger train to Raibag, a tiny village in Belgaum district, Karnataka. I was on the unreserved ticket, in the ‘general’ coach. I was sure I wouldn’t get a seat amongst the tired chattering women, the white dhoti-clad men and the chaat sellers with their freshly-cut raw mangoes. I delved deeper into the compartment and heard the most peculiar sound in the early morning train. In the sea of tired faces, two women stood out laughing and bent towards each other. Like a moth to a flame, I made my way towards them.

Rekha and Kamalaben in the Miraj Passenger train.

One middle-aged woman in a dark orange saree was bent over an older woman in a bright green saree. They both happily looked at each other like they were children sharing a secret. The woman with the green saree noticed my presence and turned her radiant smile towards me.
She had worry lines on her forehead and paper thin skin on her hands. She introduced the orange saree draped women as Rekha and herself as Kamalaben.
In conversation with Kamalaben, I found three things that stood out about her.

1. She had kind eyes and a grandmother-like smile. She looked at me like she wanted to feed me.

2. She made sure everyone within her gaze was asked whether they ate breakfast and if not, she offered them a portion of her channa.

3. She had dried toothpaste on the side of her mouth and was not aware of it.

I politely handed her a tissue and pointed it out. She shyly smiled, took the tissue from my hand and said,
“It’s been one week since power came to my house.”

Rekha pursed her lips and angrily agreed with her companion.

The reality of Kamalaben’s situation at home is contrary to what was promised to her village. On 28 April of this year, the government announced that every village in India has access to electricity. Although infrastructure such as power grids was provided to electrify the village houses, the grids do not guarantee reliable power every day. Recognising this issue, the government has now committed to providing electricity 24×7 in each and every household by March 2019.

A rural woman cleaning power grids. Credit: SheThePeople

She lives in one among the 17% of villages in India that has no access to reliable energy. To live without a week of electricity for the urban populace in any metropolitan city would surely cause a twitter storm. Kamalaben with one of the oldest versions of the Nokia phone and no access to social media expresses her distress to the passengers on Miraj Express. Instead of likes and shares, she gets empathetic nods and sighs. My privilege rose up like bile in my throat.

Kamalaben scrubbed the toothpaste from the side of her mouth. It seemed to be stuck on like glue. She looked up asked me, “Which gaav (village) are you from?”

“I’m actually from Bangalore.”, I said.

“Oh. You must have no problems there”, she wondered.

“We do have power-cuts but not all the time. Some days it goes off for an hour or two, sometimes it doesn’t”, I sheepishly replied.

She looked at Rekha with her mouth slightly ajar. They both turned to me.
I remember seeing a spec of sadness in their eyes, but it was gone long before I could make sense of it.

Kamalaben’s wide smile wrinkled her tired eyes. There was a glimmer of hope seen in them.
She said to herself, “Her house must be covered with solar panels!”