Calicut: It changed the way of life in colonial Malabar – the railways. Many files of the late 19th century were transacted on the subject. Land acquisition, laying of tracks and deciding on the stations dominated official communication. In Malabar, the railway line initially stopped at Beypore and was stretched till Calicut in due course. The Calicut railway station was a matter of intense curiosity and interest for residents. However, archival files show that the residents put themselves in a spot over the railway station.
Files from 1887 show that the residents created considerable confusion over the entrance to the station. Railway authorities were mulling having an entrance at the Big Bazaar side. This proposal rattles the inhabitants of the city centre and they petition the railway authorities. But they soon realise that their petition will invite new troubles and petition again. The petitions reflect the extent to which caste considerations regulated lives in colonial Malabar.
Having a station entrance on the Big Bazaar side prompts the town council chairman and several others to petition Francis B. Haune, Agent and Manager at Madras Railway Company. In the petition written in November 1887, P. Krishnaswami Iyer writes, “Inhabitants of Talli, Chalapuram, Azchavattam, Mankavu and Kallai understand that the Madthukar Road, that is the road branching westwards from the Beypore Trunk Road into the Calicut railway station compound is to be closed and that the only entrance to the station is through the Big Bazaar.”
Residents argue that a walk through the crowded bazaar may not be a pleasant idea, especially for women. Instead, they suggest retaining a small entrance through the road variously spelt in the letters as Marthakar, Maduthukar and Maduthakar road. “The peculiar customs of Malabar forbid our ladies from appearing in public bazaars,” says the petition. They request “not to wall up the compound but to allow an entrance into the station through Madukathar Road also.” A short-cut for the residents of the centrally-located areas, it also granted women privacy.
Haune gives the petition due consideration. He responds to the petitioners, “I have requested the chief engineer to have a wicket gate opened at the bottom of the Marthakar Road and to make a footpath for passengers from thence to the Calicut station.”
However, this positive response wakes the residents up to a new issue. They want the small gate alright but only for a select few. Caste comes in and the residents shoot off another petition, this time to make the road exclusive.
In the second petition, they play the religion and caste cards. The inhabitants of Nagaram and Kasaba amsom write that the small Maduthakar Road, “…may be advantageous to the limited section of the inhabitants of Tali, Chalapuram, and other places comprised in Kasaba amsom, so far as a convenient entrance into the railway station is concerned, (but) we beg to bring to your notice a religious governance.”
Next to the road, they write, is an “ancient temple of Kallinkal Peroo Moopan which has attached to it a well and Moopan’s original tharavad.” “There are moreover many houses and wells on both sides of the road that require freedom from pollution,” they add. The petition states that the Maduthakar Road has so far not been used by the people of the “lowest castes.” They explain how the railway’s move will hurt the sentiments of the upper caste inhabitants. They write, if “the road is to be converted into a thorough fare for all castes without distinctions the temple situated in neighbourhood of the road will be polluted to the great grievance of a very large portion of the inhabitants of Calicut.”
The petitioners want the best options for themselves. With the opening of the gate, they want a “notice” put up “forbidding the ingress and egress through the gateway of people of the four castes.”
All are equal
While Haune was sympathetic to the first petition, he is no mood to relent to the whims of the petitioners this time around. He writes back cryptically. “Railway Company cannot recognise caste distinctions amongst passengers. If therefore the gate at the west end of the Marthakar Road is opened it must be so far as the Railway Company is concerned for all passengers alike.”
Haune also sends a note to the Collector of Malabar seeking his opinion. He asks “whether it will be for the general good that the gate should be opened or not.”
The Collector agrees with Haune that caste should not determine public mobility. He writes, “Opening a gate at the west end of the Maduthukar Raod may be decided without reference to the petitioner’s objection to certain castes using the road.” He goes a step further and says if the petitioners have objection to certain castes accessing the road they can approach the court.