Two women from Kolavade village, Pune, sing about a steam-pulled train to Mumbai, the journey on board and life that awaits in the big city

The train’s engine has a brass neck [chimney]

The train comes from Boribunder, Byculla

In this ovi , singer Radha Sakpal, 72, describes a train with a “brass neck”, referring to the smoke-spewing chimney of its steam engine. Endowing the train with beauty and strength, the chimney booms in rhythm – bhakka bhakkaa, bhakka bhakkaa .

Radha Sakpal and Radha Ubhe from Kolavade village in Maharashtra’s Pune district have sung this set of 13 couplets. Working at a grindmill, the women sing of a steam-pulled train, its passengers and their journey to the city of Mumbai. The ovi describes what life in the big city means for the people who migrate there in search of jobs and a source of income.

In a couplet, a woman asks for a soadchitthi or a letter seeking a divorce from her husband before she boards the train. Could this be an outcome of the separation that the couple has to live through as one of them migrates to Mumbai for work? Or, the result of a stressful life of working long and hard hours in the big city? Or, the woman no longer wants to live with a cheating husband?

As the train chugs along in the ovi , a woman anxiously asks her co-passengers, “Now, in which bogie is my brother?” and “Now, O woman, in which bogie is my son?” Alternatingly, the ovi states that she is travelling with her brother, son, or both. The narrative outlines a train abuzz with activity when the woman is separated from her co-travellers.

PHOTO • Swadesha Sharma

"Here is the train, spewing smoke bhakka bhakkaa ! "

The next few couplets teem with striking imagery. The billowing smoke emanates from the train’s chimney in colours “black and blue” as the whistle is “roaring and shouting”. The profusion of noise and colour in these lines reflects the woman’s sense of panic. Estrangement from the familiar and a more immediate separation from her travel companions worsens the woman’s disquiet.

Every object has a gender in Marathi; interestingly, a train is deemed feminine. The ovi parallels the chaos during the journey with the woman’s anxious search for her companions.

The woman calls Boribunder (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) both the train’s parental and marital home. The train rests momentarily when passengers get off and empty the compartments at this last stop.

Soon, a new set of passengers get on. The train must diligently carry them all to their destinations – an unrelenting routine similar to a woman's who carries out all her daily chores from morning till late at night.

PHOTO • Samyukta Shastri

Radha Sakpal in the lavender saree. The older woman in the floral print saree is her mother-in-law. The two photographs on the wall behind them are of Radhabai’s late husband and his second wife

In another couplet, the singer mentions that building a train would have required melting a lot of iron. She says this fact would surprise "a woman who has no daughter," implying that raising a daughter requires continual negotiations with patriarchy. The woman sings that bringing up a daughter and seeing her well-married and settled needs a lot of effort from the parents, and only someone who has a girl child would understand what it means.

The narrative of the ovi progresses to describe the life of a woman migrating to Mumbai. The last five couplets trace both her excitement and her nervousness. “To go to Mumbai, the woman was all decked up,” the ovi describes. As the train passes through the hilly terrain of Khandala ghat, she remembers her parents. The treacherous stretch of the train route brings to her mind the difficult life ahead away from her parents.

When in Mumbai, the woman does not like the fish she gets to eat. She misses her lifestyle in her village where she ate chila (pigweed). The woman recounts that whenever she went back to her village, she would wander the familiar fields looking for them.

The ovi describes how the woman’s life changes in Mumbai. She runs an eatery and devotes herself to cooking and serving her customers, often migrant men. At first, she takes pains to adapt to the ways of Mumbai – she applies oil on her hair and combs it neatly, she no longer sits on the floor like she did in her village. Soon, she becomes so engrossed in her work that she has no time to oil her hair or even eat. Grappling with the work in the eatery, she begins to neglect her husband – “she attends more to her customers than to her husband,” women sing at the grindmill.  This last couplet signals marital discord and the divorce letter, prophesied when the ovi began.

PHOTO • Swadesha Sharma

Let us listen to the songs of the train and life’s journey chugging along.

Listen to ......

बाई आगीनगाडीचा, हिचा पितळंचा गळा
पितळंचा गळा, बोरीबंदर बाई, भाईखळा

बाई आगीनगाडीला हिची पितळीची पट्टी
पितळंची बाई पट्टी, नार मागती बाई सोडचिठ्ठी

बाई आगीनगाडीचा धूर, निघतो बाई भकभका
धूर निघतो भकभका, कंच्या डब्यात बाई माझा सखा

अशी आगीनगाडी हिचं बोरीबंदर बाई माहेयरु
बाई आता नं माझं बाळ, तिकीट काढून तयायरु

बाई आगीनगाडीचं, बोरीबंदर बाई सासयरु
बाई आता ना माझं बाळ,  तिकीट काढून हुशायरु

आगीनगाडी बाईला बहु लोखंड बाई आटयिलं
बाई जिला नाही लेक, तिला नवल बाई वाटयिलं

बाई आगीनगाडी कशी करती बाई आउबाउ
आता माझं बाळ, कंच्या डब्यात बाई माझा भाऊ

बाई आगीनगाडीचा धूर निघतो बाई काळा निळा
आत्ता ना बाई माझं बाळ, कंच्या डब्यात माझं बाळ

बाई ममईला जाया नार मोठी नटयली
खंडाळ्याच्या बाई घाटामधी बाबाबये आठवली

नार ममईला गेली नार, खाईना बाई म्हावयिरं
बाई चिलाच्या भाजीयिला, नार हिंडती बाई वावयिरं

नार ममईला गेली नार करिती बाई तेल-फणी
बाई नवऱ्यापरास खानावळी ना बाई तिचा धनी

नार ममईला गेली नार बसंना बाई भोईला
बाई खोबऱ्याचं तेल, तिच्या मिळंना बाई डोईला

नार ममईला गेली नार खाईना बाई चपायती
असं नवऱ्यापरास खाणावळ्याला बाई जपयती

bāī āgīna gāḍīcā hicā pitaḷacā gaḷā
pitaḷacā gaḷā bōrībandara bāī bhāīkhaḷā

bāī āgīna gāḍīlā hicī pitaḷīcī paṭṭī
pitaḷacī paṭṭī nāra māgatī bāī sōḍaciṭhṭhī

bāī āgīnagāḍī hicā dhura nighatō bāī bhakābhakā
dhura nighatō bhakābhakā kōṇatyā ḍabyāta mājhā sakhā

aśī āgīna gāḍī hica bōrībandara bāī māhēyāru
bāī atāna mājha bāḷa tikīṭa kāḍhūna tayāyāru

bāī āgīnagāḍīca bōrībandara sāsayaru
bāī ātā nā mājha bāḷa tikīṭa kāḍhūna huśāyāru

āgīnagāḍī bāīlā bahu lōkhaṇḍa bāī āṭayīla
bāī jilā nāhī lēka tilā navala bāī vāṭayīla

bāī āgīnagāḍī kaśī karatī bāī āubāu
ātā mājha bāḷa kañcyā ḍabyāta bāī mājhā bhāū

bāī āgīnagāḍīcā dhura nighatō bāī kāḷā niḷā
āttā nā bāī mājha bāḷa kañcyā ḍabyāta mājhā bāḷ

bāī mamaīlā jāyā nāra mōṭhī naṭayalī
khaṇḍāḷyācyā ghāṭāmadhī bābābayē āṭhavalī

nāra mamaīlā gēlī nāra khāīnā bāī māvhara
bāī cilācyā bhājīyīlā nāra hiṇḍatī bāī vāvayīra

nāra mamaīlā gēlī nāra karītī bāī tēla phaṇī
bāī navaryā parāsa khānāvaḷī nā bāī ticā dhanī

nāra mamaīlā gēlī nāra basanā bāī bhōīlā
bāī khōbaryāca tēla ticyā miḷanā bāī ḍōīlā

nāra mamaīlā gēlī nāra khāīnā bāī capāyātī
asa navaryāparāyīsa khāṇāvaḷyālā bāī japayatī

The train’s engine has a brass chimney
The train comes from Boribunder, Byculla

The train has a brass strip along its side
The woman asks her husband for a divorce

Here is the train, spewing smoke bhakka bhakkaa !
In which bogie is my fellow-traveller, my brother?

Boribunder is the train’s parental home
My son is now ready to go, with his ticket purchased

Boribunder is the train’s marital home
My son is now ready to go, with his ticket in hand

A whole lot of iron was melted, to build the train
This fact surprises a woman who has no daughter

O woman, the train is roaring and shouting
Now, in which bogie is my brother?

O look, the train spews black and blue smoke
Now, O woman, in which bogie is my son?

To go to Mumbai, the woman was all decked up
In Khandala ghat, she remembered her parents

The woman goes to Mumbai, she does not eat fish
She misses chila vegetable, and looks for it in the field

The woman goes to Mumbai, she oils and combs her hair
She attends more to her customers than to her husband

The woman went to Mumbai, she does not sit on the floor
Woman, she has no time to apply coconut oil on her hair

The woman goes to Mumbai, she has no time to eat chapati
She attends to the customers in her eatery, neglects her husband

PHOTO • Samyukta Shastri

Performers/ Singers : Radhabai Sakpal, Radha Ubhe

Village: Kolavade

Hamlet: Khadakwadi

Taluka: Mulshi

District: Pune

Caste: Maratha

Date: These songs and some of the information were recorded on January 6, 1996. The photographs of the singer were taken on April 30, 2017; at that time, we could not trace Radha Ubhe.

Poster: Urja

Read about the original Grindmill Songs Project founded by Hema Rairkar and Guy Poitevin.

Namita Waikar is a writer, translator and Managing Editor at the People's Archive of Rural India. She is the author of the novel 'The Long March', published in 2018.

Other stories by Namita Waikar

PARI Grindmill Songs Project Team: Asha Ogale (translation); Bernard Bel (digitisation, database design, development and maintenance); Jitendra Maid (transcription, translation assistance); Namita Waikar (project lead and curation); Rajani Khaladkar (data entry).

Other stories by PARI GSP Team
Illustrations : Swadesha Sharma

Swadesha Sharma is a researcher and Content Editor at the People's Archive of Rural India. She also works with volunteers to curate resources for the PARI Library.

Other stories by Swadesha Sharma
Editor : Dipanjali Singh

Dipanjali Singh is an Assistant Editor at the People's Archive of Rural India. She also researches and curates documents for the PARI Library.

Other stories by Dipanjali Singh