Book review

Indian Railways has long thrived in the popular imagination. Is this cultural story about to end?

The railways are about food, films, literature and culture, not just transport, argues a ‘biography’.

As a child, I was always perplexed by the fact that the concrete or wooden blocks laid perpendicular to the railway tracks were called sleepers. Till today I have found no satisfactory explanation for this. Perhaps, as many writers say, every sleeper is the only remaining trace of a labourer, who, owing to malaria, dysentery, overwork or starvation, died while laying down the two parallel lines of hard steel that would bind a nation.

Though the names of these labourers are forgotten (who can say if they were ever recorded?) the institution they helped build perseveres. The history of the Indian Railways can hardly be said to be a bloodless and uninteresting one. It has, therefore, always attracted historians, anthropologists, engineers, architects and even management experts. A new book on the subject, The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways, comes from Arup K Chatterjee.

One would be perplexed at first by the audacity of a writer who, without the formal training of an historian or anthropologist, the technical knowhow of an architect or engineer, or even the managerial experience of a retired bureaucrat, would venture to write on such a subject. In the prologue, Chatterjee outlines his orientation: it is one unabashedly focused on the cultural, social and literary production inspired or influenced by the Indian Railways.

For the author, the railways is not just an actually existing entity, but is, rather, a myth of tremendously Indian proportions, invoked and evoked in all forms of the national and popular imagination. The prologue begins on a note of trepidation, with Chatterjee mindful of the censure his work might attract from both sides of the aisle – the academics who would accuse him of not being academic enough, and the writers of popular non-fiction who would attack him for not being readable enough.

Like the trains he is writing about, Chatterjee has to navigate both the inhospitable terrain of academic writing and the fertile forests of imaginative non-fiction. This makes the task he has set for himself doubly difficult. This book attempts not just to create a new genre, but to set down new tracks for thought, method and writing in the area of culture studies.

A new mythology

The book attempts to comprehensively cover all eras of the Indian Railways, starting with its inception as a fledgling concern in 1843 and going on to its role in India’s Independence movement and the myth of Gandhi, its image of being the carrier of corpses across the borders after the Partition, and the place of the railways in modern cultural representations. What is central to the book is not the railways itself, but its representation in writing, cinema, and cultural production. The perspective Chatterjee brings to this subject is a new and courageous one: rather than drafting a catalogue of novels, films, diaries and journals that have the railways as their theme, which would be expected in such a work, he investigates how the railways themselves affect the form and content of their own representations.

The first few chapters are dedicated to the railways as part and parcel of the colonial enterprise. The discourse of civilisation and enlightenment was amplified and channelled through the figure of the train and projected onto the Indian terrain, which like its natives, lay incumbent, waiting for the gift of civilisation. The opinion of the natives was hardly taken into account, and as Chatterjee writes, “The Indian masses, at worst, were seen as neither critics nor proponents of the rail-system but tiny spectators, gazing upon the arrivals and the departures of the leviathan, with queer amusement or subdued fear”.

Aptly, he calls this the discourse of the technological sublime. Of course the arrival of the railways in a country where there were no roads worth their name was certainly an event of both wonder and mystery. However, what was perhaps even more wondrous was the alacrity with which the impoverished natives adjusted to the actuality of the terrain and even began to mark their daily existence and sense of history on the tracks of the railroad.

One of the first Indians to write about his travels by train, Bholanauth Chunder, actually structured his understanding of recent Bengali history through the lens of the railways. As Chatterjee writes, the railways soon began to displace and replace an older system of myths with new ones. That of Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was one constructed almost entirely on his association with segregation in the railways and his consequent use of the symbolic power of third class travel to construct a pan-Indian national movement.

A tea party

The colonial writings of Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Louis Rousselet and others are examined in some detail by Chatterjee as they shed light on what he calls the hauntology of the Raj. This persistence of the traces of the Raj in the railways is most evident in the hierarchy between first class and third class. This colonial hierarchy fostered a culinary hierarchy as well, and it cannot be denied that train travel is inexorably connected with culinary delights. What is served up, however, differs based on whether one is travelling by the Rajdhani Express or in a sleeper carriage passing through the countryside, halting at every station to allow itinerant samosa vendors and chaiwallas to hawk their wares.

In fact, the railways played an important role in the culinary history of India. Chatterjee informs us that they were central in habituating Indians to their most preferred beverage, tea:

“The Indian population which remained largely alien to the taste of tea till the 1900s, was, by the end of the twentieth century, consuming over 70 per cent of its own produce of the crop.”

A symbol of many movements

The representation of the railways as the engine of the nationalist movement can be seen in the quasi mythical retelling of the revolutionary escape of Subhash Chandra Bose or the third class travels of Mahatma Gandhi. But more than its representation in the stories of the Independence Movement, the figure of the train occupies a central site in the representation of the Partition. The communal genocide is still best symbolised by train engines rushing across the borders dragging behind them bogeys full of corpses. It was this bloody history of the Partition that the railways attempted to forget and repress, but always unsuccessfully.

The Godhra train burning incident of 2002 was perhaps made more evocative a symbol of violence because the image of Hindus caught inside a burning train recalled the massacres of the Partition. In the chapter dedicated to this blood-soaked history, Chatterjee approaches the senseless violence not solely through archival material but also recent representations like the Bollywood movie Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. This cinematic turn is followed through in the next two chapters, with a detailed and highly interesting take on movies that gave a central role to the figure of the train or the railway station.

Films like Sonar Kella, Garam Hawa, Sholay, and Burning Train were structured by their representation of the railways and they are remembered for the famous shots and scenes of moving (sometimes racing) trains as symbols of mobility, virility and the harbingers of a more techno-scientific world to come. The film that ushers the railways into the contemporary forms of representation is undoubtedly Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, with its famous last scene on the railway platform. For Chatterjee, this movie is a symptom of incredible change, marking India’s repatriation to the colonial West and its entry into the neoliberal globosphere.

It is also the revival of a certain nostalgic ethos fostered by the rise of a diasporic class, both within and outside the country. For this diaspora, the representation of the railways marks the advent of an era of moral neoliberalism, where new age spaces can exist side by side with traditional family values. It is in this neoliberal age however, that the railways seems to face its greatest challenge, as profits go dry, fares double, and infrastructure seems to be on the verge of collapse, leading to derailments almost every month.

It is this question that the book raises in the last chapter: are we slowly inching towards the post-railway era? Perhaps this book itself is a symptom of that change, in which the cultural and literary representations of the railways give way to a more academic, scholarly and nostalgic perspective.

The greatest achievement of this book is that it gathers and collects the myths, narratives and histories of the Indian Railways from sources as disparate as colonial archives and popular movies. Chatterjee successfully conjures up the magic in a lucid style, while maintaining the gravity and solemn tone reminiscent of a train journey.

The Purveyors of Destiny styles itself not as a history, but, rather, a cultural biography of the Indian Railways. Yet in many ways Chatterjee is aware that this biography could very well turn into an obituary, a last longing look at the Railways as an institution integral to the nation it gave birth to.

The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways, Arup K Chatterjee, Bloomsbury India.

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