Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Train as Culture: The Great Indian Railway Shakedown

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the pioneer of Modern Hebrew, wanted Israelis to call the bus tziborit, which literally means ‘little public’. Unfortunately, autobuuus won out, but the deft little idea at the heart of his thinking still holds true today. What is the bus but a little public, the country in a microcosm?

In India, the tziborit is the train. The one great legacy of the British, its development has somehow been maintained, whatever the circumstances. Indian Railways is the world’s second-largest employer (behind the People’s Liberation Army), with around 1.6 million employees. While the trains don’t always run on time, they work. More than that, they’re a part of the culture, provides of a shared experience for a diverse nation, texts for reading the Indian psyche.
Before getting on the train, though, you have to go to the station. At the major stations, the contrast is between the grandiose atmosphere intended by the colonial-era architecture, and the reality on the ground, which is more like that of a refugee camp. People are everywhere – walking, crouching, sleeping, buying food, clambering across the tracks, begging, schlepping, living. Witnessing all this for the first time is what the term culture shock was intended to define.
Platforms multiply off into the distance, vast things, more like runways. You ask which platform the train departs from at enquiries; after that you hope for the best. The departing platform can be changed at a moment’s notice, but your chances of hearing the announcement (always preceded by a fantastic, technicolour wall of sound) are slim to none. This has happened to me on two occasions, but thankfully people in the know told me to move before it was too late.

The trains are as long as the platforms – which is handy, because they’ve got a lot of people to carry. They are divided into three classes, and I’ve traveled all three.

Third-Class: The cattle-car experience, with – and this is barely an exaggeration – ever so slightly more room to breathe than my forebears on their way to Auschwitz. I traveled this way from Agra to Jhansi, a journey of three hours, which cost me 60 rupees (80 pence). My entrance onto the train almost gave the other passengers a heart attack. Assuming I had made a mistake, one man demanded I show him my ticket. When I had proven that I was rightfully entitled to be there, he gave me a firm slap on the shoulder, as if thanking me for my solidarity. I carefully kept my place by the open door, standing the whole way, the plains rushing past, pondering the justice of justifying third-class by recourse to ‘experience’, while tens of millions of others traveled the same way, day in, day out, without hope of a more spacious, humanizing experience.

Sleeper-class: Most Indian trains run overnight journeys, so even if your trip is only a few hours, you’ll find yourself in sleeper. Here, people sit in open cabins, three facing three, with the seats folding up into beds come nighttime. During the day, however, it’s like so many markets, heaving with hustlers. A vendor announces his presence with a strangely endearing nasal whine – paneeee for water, chaaai for tea. But it’s not just food and drink. Scissors, soap, games, newspapers – you want it? Just wait a few minutes and it will inevitably appear. Then there are the sadhus and beggars, amputees or children who hope to curry favour by sweeping the ground beneath your feet.

There can be few more astounding anthropological sights than to see how Indians ignore their beggars. They are like little ghosts, spirits one is trained to ignore. Indian society is all too lacking in solidarity. As A.M. Rosenthal wrote in 1957, “An individual-to-individual callousness, despite India’s belief in her own spiritualism, was always part of India. No miracle has taken place. This callousness is still so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one’s soul.”

First-class: Now we’re talking. This is like sleeper, but with air-conditioning, linen and food provided. With all these creature comforts, though, there’s no need for the outside world, which is promptly shut out between stations. Windows are tinted, forming a Separation Barrier between the Great Indian Middle Classes and the outside world. Every country has a Separation Barrier to keep out that which it most fears; most countries operate theirs more subtly than mine. India’s rail system provides a poignant illustration of how this is done. Gandhi used to travel third-class (prompting the famous quip, by one Gujarati politician, “you’ve no idea how much it costs us to keep Gandhiji in poverty.”) With a rapidly-growing domestic aviation industry catering to a growing middle-class, Indian transport has the potential to divide more than ever. Sometimes it’s important to remember that we all ride on the same train, hurtling towards the same, ultimate fate. This is the shared culture.


Anonymous said...

The quip about it costing a lot to keep Gandhi in poverty is due to Sarojini Naidu, more known as a poetess to Indians, whose father was Bengali and mother Telugu (I think). I don't know where you got the Gujarat part. Not all Indian politicians were or are Gujarati like Gandhi - and for that matter, Jinnah.

Second, on Indian trains, there is no Third class. There is no First class either - they got phased out over the last few years. What we have is "First class - Air conditioned" but in Indian talk, this is referred to as "First A/C" and not First Class. It is too much to explain the various coach classifications, so I'll refer you to IRFCA [Indian Railways Fan Club], the authoritative guide for anything relating to Indian Railways:

The particular part which refers to passenger coaches can be found at

Incidentally, what you refer to as "Third Class" is "Second Class - Unreserved." I will let the comparison to Auschwitz - thank you so much! - pass.

I see that you can't resist the part about Indians ignoring beggars. One might as well ask why many Israeli Jews don't see the Palestinian plight and do something about it. (Forget those in B'Tselem and Peace Now and the like. We also have our NGOs - a lot of them, if you care to check.) Or why...oh forget it.

Alex Stein said...

Re - the quote: a simple mistake, not sure why you extrapolate from that the idea that I think all Indian politicans are Gujarati, but there you go.

I thought it was obvious that I wasn't going into detail regarding the different tickets available; one has to simplify somewhere - sorry you didn't get this.

As for the final point, if I wrote an article about Israeli apathy vis-a-vis the occupation, and someone responded by saying 'they are just as indifferent to injustice in India', I would say they were trying to distract from the issue at hand. The same applies here...

Anonymous said...

It is not a question of distracting attention. All over the world, people have been remarkably indifferent to other people's suffering. One could ask, how so many whites went on with their normal lives in apartheid South Africa. Yet, many did.

Those who are affected by other people's suffering to the extent of actually doing something about it are always a minority, in India and elsewhere. A Gandhi in India or a Joe Slovo in South Africa are very much the exception. It is the impression that one gets from reports such as yours - that Indians, unlike others, are somehow uniquely indifferent - that gets my goat. Presumably, we are "hard-wired" differently so that we can't feel others' suffering.

Having said all this, the presence of beggars to the extent that one sees in India is a disgrace. One could add also the ubiquitous presence of child labour (in spite of its being officially banned) all over the place. We (Indians) should do something about all this - and that does not mean hiding it from tourists such as yourself. A long time back, I used to live on a road which lead to Palam Airport in Delhi. I used to watch how whenever a foreign dignitary came calling, the "unsavoury" parts on the road - meaning the slums - were blocked off by high fences so that the dignitary would not see them as he/she passed along. That is not what I have in mind.