No, it is not about being nostalgic and unnecessarily romantic. There was indeed a time when even in a crowded sleeper class I could retain my poetry and positivity. My romance with railway stations and running trains used to enchant me. Seeing the landscape through the windows of the train; feeling a sense of connectedness with a tree, a temple, the echo of an old Geeta Dutt song wafting from a tea shop near the railway track, a village girl on a bicycle moving towards school, farmers sowing seeds in the expanded paddy fields of the Gangetic belt, women washing clothes in a pond; and suddenly the vibrations of an old town as the train begins to enter Mughalsarai Junction (officially known as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction now) – I was really awake and alive.
And yes, it was also about constant negotiation and adjustment, despite the occasional loss of temper. How to accommodate even six other passengers in your ‘reserved’ seat ot how to share a newspaper or a magazine that you have just bought from the wheeler shop in a railway station. It was about how to talk endlessly – about family and politics, marriage and job, schools and hospitals, and reveal yourself before others whom you would not possibly see again in life: there was no burden of ‘privacy’.
Trains used to run late; and the toilets were dirty. Yet, every moment was a moment of thrill and adventure. Even in a crowded space, a hawker would manage to stand erect, and persuade the passengers to buy ‘I LOVE YOU’ pens for their dearest ones.
Once there was no reservation available; and near the toilet (it was not yet known as the ‘washroom’) in a general coach, a beggar (or a sadhu) accommodated me; the entire night we talked with cups of tea; and the Kalka Mail acquired a new meaning. The Brahmaputra Mail was running 20 hours late. Yet, seeing the jawans of the Assam Rifles playing cards, buying hot samosas at the Bhagalpur station, and bargaining with the hawkers selling the novels of Gulshan Nanda – we didn’t allow boredom to destroy a sense of humour and laughter. We still retained the ability to enjoy a packet of Janata food, or a plate of poori-sabji bought from the noisy platform of the Allahabad railway station.
‘The times they are a-changin’
Nothing, however, remains static. We change. As economists speak of the improved ‘growth rate’, sociologists announce the arrival of the new middle class, and management graduates begin to sell the packages of ‘good living’, our life-practices, priorities and choices change in a dramatic way. With smart phones, the magic of the virtual world, the preoccupation with ‘privacy’, and love for instantaneous comfort amid speed, our cultural-psychic landscape has acquired a new connotation.
I know I am not separated from this process. And I wish to share the tales of this process of transformation by narrating the experience of yet another train journey.
This time it is New Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express.
Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, the fragrance of perfume and shaving lotion, and plug points for charging mobiles or laptop – I know that I am not travelling in the sleeper class of the New Farakka Express – running at 40km/hour, sometimes standing for hours at a lonely railway station because the Guwahati-New Delhi Rajdhani Express has to cross, and always allowing the musical hawkers to enter, and sell papad, boiled eggs, and jhalmuri.
Here in this AC coach we are ‘individuals’ – self-conscious, obsessed with our distinctive identities (my position, my company, my family, my business); and we are in a hurry. And the likes of Shatabdi Express are designed for us. A recorded ‘feminine’ voice with a fancy accent announcing the arrival/departure time at Kurukshetra, Panipat or Ambala Cant, the packed breakfast served by young boys (badly paid, exploited and hired by the contractors), mineral water, Hindi/English newspapers at every seat – yes, the middle class in the neoliberal era has arrived.
Yet, amid this comfort, there is discomfort – the disappearance of the warmth of communion and relationships. Hardly anyone talks to others; it is rare to see someone – even a school-going child – to look at the landscape through the windows; and what exists is the new drug of ‘postmodern’ media simulation – absolute intoxication with the gadgets.
As eyes remain centred on the screen of the smartphone, there is nothing – be it a lonely village that exists beyond the paddy field as the train crosses Kurukshetra, an old lady with her grandchild walking slowly towards the nearby temple at Ambala Cant, or just the passenger sitting on your left/right side – that fascinates.
We are dead. Full of calories; yet, spiritually impoverished. Technologically empowered; yet, culturally underdeveloped.
Why is it so? Is it because we are all fearful these days – fearing and hence suspecting others as potential rapists, terrorists and thieves: a lesson that the normalisation of the surveillance machinery has taught us? Or is it that the armour of privilege has become a heavy burden making it difficult to laugh, to smile, to crack a joke, to acknowledge the presence of others, and to distribute a packet of sweet among fellow passengers one’s mother has made?
Or is it that ‘disciplinary’ time has become terribly utilitarian, and unconditional talking or listening is considered ‘foolish’ as seeing a film on the laptop, or talking about the business deal over the phone, or looking at the Facebook with a chronic anxiety whether one has missed something ‘viral’ is now our top priority?
Whatever be the reason, the fact is that the middle class has changed. Yes, in the coming years we will further insulate ourselves from the ‘ordinary’; we will celebrate ‘bullet trains’, construct gated communities, hire private security agencies for our ‘safety’,and forget about Chennai Mail, or Ghazibad Local.
With this ‘upward mobility’ – a token of ‘progress’, we will eventually move towards the graveyard of acute insulation and loneliness.
Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU