Calling up kids at 10 pm in the night and dealing with their suspicious parents was scary enough. Therefore, you can imagine my plight when I decided to write a story on train hawkers and my teacher said to me, "get good quotes".
I don't really remember who told me that selling goods on trains is illegal but I thought it would be an interesting idea to follow up. However, I was scared of two things. First, I was scared of talking to the train hawkers as I felt they might misunderstand me, get too friendly or too aggressive. Second, I realized that I might need to speak to police officials too, and this was even scarier than the first part.
I started in small doses, pretending to be interested in buying jewelery or foodstuffs, while trying to make conversation. The easiest question I asked was, "where do you get your stuff from?". Most hawkers were forthcoming about this and soon I had collected enough data in this part. I now needed to move on to tougher questions.
At this stage, I started actually buying stuff. I bought a pair of hairpins from a small girl, some chikki from an old woman, 2 bottles of nailpolish from a girl around my age. I bought stuff primarily because I felt that the hawkers would open up to me only if they didn't think I was wasting their time. However, I soon realized that I was buying more out of guilt, than anything else. Moreover, almost all the hawkers I spoke to were more than happy to speak to me, even when I asked the tough questions.
If you mention the word 'Police' in front of any "respectable" person, that person immediately flinches. I am not judging here, I belong to the same crowd. Since hawking is illegal, I expected the hawkers to turn cold or aggressive the moment I asked them if the police has ever caught them. To my surprise, they didn't even bat an eyelid. Most of them calmly told me that they'd been to jail more than a couple of times. I came to know much later on that RPF officials take haftas from all train hawkers, besides fining them. No wonder hawkers are still allowed to operate without licenses, as it allows RPF officials to make some money on the side.
In contrast to this, I asked a fellow commuter who was buying jewelery on the train if she knew that hawking on trains was illegal. She immediately started pretending that I was made of air. As a consumer, she is the last person who would be held responsible for buying illegal goods. It's ironic that she and people like us shy away at the first mention of anything illegal or related to the police.
I wasn't brave enough to ask RPF officials if they took bribes. The only information I got from them was that hawkers should attempt to get licenses. When I asked a few hawkers why they didn't get licenses issued from the government, one enterprising hawker told me, "Indira Gandhi ke zamaane mein license milta tha! Ab milta hi nahi hai!".
Despite taking a lot of initiative, my story was incomplete because I didn't have the guts to ask the toughest questions. However, I think it was a good start and it made me realize that every person has a story to tell. You just need to be attentive enough to know where the most interesting part of the story is.