Stories from the train

The way to India's future will be worked out through the railway, in the way it is lived and the way it is imagined

In his speech on the 2012-13 budget for the Indian Railways, former Minister of Railways Dinesh Trivedi spoke of the inconceivability of an India without the Indian Railways. He envisioned them as "the symbol and substance of India's unity" and posited them as the path to India's fuller modernisation. As a cultural historian of the Indian Railways, I recognised both the symbol and the sentiment attached to it. Since they were first built, the railways have been the pre-eminent symbol of modernity in India. In particular, they have been a way to envision the modern nation. In my book, although I recognise the powerful ways the Indian Railways have helped bring a powerful nation into being through infrastructure planning, personal movement, and the power of imagery, I also explore the less celebratory side of this phenomenon. Mobility has not always equaled emancipation. A step back to look at the complex cultural history reveals how the symbol of the train has embodied tensions over the way to the future. This exploration offers an opportunity to reflect on the contradictions inherent in modernity itself.

The simplest definition of modernity is the notion of something that breaks with what came before the new. However, the term has come to be identified with Westernisation, an association that gave modernity and its more technologically-oriented counterpart, "modernisation" a divisive history. The railways came to India as a colonial development project, and this legacy as a machine of empire haunted its role in the construction of the new nation. Indian National Congress president Dadabhai Naoroji exposed the way the investment structure of the railway functioned as a drain on the Indian economy. Gandhi famously saw them as "the true badge of slavery" (though he later tempered that assertion). Jawaharlal Nehru, however, dreamed of advancing India through the railway, and saw the railway as India's "greatest national asset".

The notion of modernity as the path to emancipation continues in this contemporary moment, echoed in Trivedi's image and given substance by the symbol of the railway. But there have continued to be questions: to whom does the railway belong? Who does the railway serve? If it does help produce a nation, what kind of nation? To explore these questions, it can be helpful to see modernity as a dynamic imaginative form instead of a pre-determined path. To do this, one must open the concept of the modern to understand the different, countervailing forces within. The way to do this is to understand the complexity of its symbolism.

When we look at those who have imagined the train, we may see its dynamic history shaping India through narratives of mobility. Writers and filmmakers used the symbol of the train to offer their version of the nation, accounts that have reflected India's particular history. In Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, we find the train moving between the rural and urban parts of India, creating a dynamic relation along that seam. R.K. Narayan showed us, in the novel The Guide, that the coming and going of a train could bring elements of the nation to the individual on the ground. Anita Nair and Shuma Futehally envisioned women on the train authoring new identities as their trains criss-crossed the country. Artists have been inspired by the interior space of the train, as well as its external movement. The setting of the train carriage has acted as a moving box, a microcosm of society, in which writers could examine the relations between different faiths, genders, castes and classes.

The genre of film has always lent itself to trains. After all, both the train and "moving pictures" are modern technologies of mobility. The train, in Indian cinema, has been a place where people meet across social and gender boundaries, to challenge conventions, even when the narrative arc ultimately reinforces traditional social values. In Kamal Amrohi's 1972 film Pakeezah, Sahibjaan's foot taps the leg of a stranger who enters her compartment. Raj and Simran are forced together from their disparate worlds by a shared compartment in Aditya Chopra's 1995 Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Even though the train has done much to further the idea of a unified India, images of the train have shown the difficulties of national consolidation. The images of the "ghost train" in Khushwant Singh's work haunt the symbolic legacy of the train. This is an image of the failed promises of the modern nation as a space that represented secular sanctuary, but ended up crystallising communal divisions. The images of Partition's "death trains" are echoed in representations of the "terror attacks" on the train, such as in Nishikant Kamat's film Mumbai Meri Jaan. Attacks on the train have changed the nature of a space French philosopher Michel de Certeau envisioned as a "closed and autonomous insularity." The spaces of modernity continue to be unstable ones.

I have found the familiar image of the train as a symbol of unity to be powerful, but misleading. Debates about fare increases are really debates about access to the modern nation; the contentious nature of that debate led to Trivedi's resignation. The new leadership will doubtlessly continue to assert technological development as a means for emancipation. Whatever happens, the way to India's future will continue to be worked out through the railway, both in the way it is lived and the way it is imagined. When we look at the stories that emerge from the train, we may retrieve the complex, contradictory and compelling story of modernity and mobility.

Aguiar, associate professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of 'Tracking Modernity: India, Trains, and the Culture of Mobility'

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