On Becoming A Second-Class (Train) Citizen

I was nine years old when I became a second-class citizen. At least as far as train travel was concerned. Before then, before another day of infamy that lay in December, the date of my father’s retirement from the air force, my family and I had always traveled by first-class on our train travels. My father was an air force officer, entitled to discount first-class travel for himself and his family; when the time to buy tickets came, we filled out the mandatory ‘D’ form required of all government employees who traveled and submitted it along with our train reservation requests. Just like that, we paid less than half of the full fare, and we were off. First-class was luxurious; we, a family of four, traveled in a private sleeper cabin with padded bunks. We had privacy; we had ‘room service’ of a kind for at periodic intervals, when the train stopped at stations, we bought food and drink through the bars of our windows. There was, most importantly of all, no crowding; certainly none of the chaotic, teeming, masses who were always present at Indian train stations were present in our cabin. We were insulated, quarantined, safeguarded.

I knew what the alternative was: second-class (or worse, third-class.) The second-class coaches seemed impossibly congested and messy, bordering on squalor. (This was especially true of third-class coaches.) There were no private cabins that slept four; instead, a series of metal and wood barriers cordoned off six bunks at a time, three on each side of the enclosed space. The folks who traveled in these trains looked crowded and unhappy; they appeared resigned to their fate.

I was not, at that early age, too sensitive to my social class. But I was dimly aware I was more fortunate than many around me; in some subconscious corner of my mind lurked the thought that I had lucked out in the great Indian sweepstakes of fortune, and happened to be born into a family that could take vacations every summer and winter, live in government-subsidized housing, and travel by first-class coaches for overnight journeys all over the country. But my glimpses of those who traveled in second-class and third-class did more to convince me of my great class-related fortunes than any other privilege of mine. I knew I didn’t want to be like ‘them’; my life was incomparably better, just because I traveled in first-class.

And then, disaster struck. My father decided his life in the armed forces was over; twenty years was enough. But when he handed in his papers, he also handed in his privileges. We went to being run-of-the-mill civilians, moving from a two-bedroom flat to a one-bedroom one. My brother and I began sleeping on folding cots in the living room; we had lost our ‘boys bedroom.’ But these were exceedingly minor blows compared to the disaster that awaited us on the trains. That winter, as we made plans to visit my grandfather’s home as usual, I learned we would not be traveling first-class any more. That family train journey in that private cabin, in which our family sat together and shared meals and jokes and stories and affection, was no longer ours.

The night of our journey, when we arrived at the train station, I was uncharacteristically subdued; I used to look forward to train journeys. But not this one. Something of the magic of the train was gone; a trial of sorts awaited. A tribulation that would remind me all over again of my fallen station in life.

 

Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

The Beating in the Bus

Violence against a ‘lower order’–visible and tangible preferably–is a time-honored technique of social control.  It brings pain and humiliation together in a cruel package and issues a stinging reminder of difference and domination; it has not lost any of its effectiveness over the years. This is a brief note on one such public display of violent assertion.

During my university years, I rode city transport–a bus–both ways to the campus on the other end of town. The city transit authority made available a limited number of buses exclusively for use by university students; these ran point to point from pick up locations in the city to the campus (and back.) Soon after I began using them, I became aware that the students regarded the drivers and conductors with what might be described as a kind of combative, yet perhaps even genial, contempt. Stories of edgy, verbal encounters with the transit staff were legendary, as were stories of fisticuffs. The reasons for these seemed to rise only one level above the trivial: the staff’s ‘rudeness’ seemed to be the most common reason for arguments or brawling to break out. This situation was made especially mystifying by the fact that interactions with the bus crew were minimal; the students carried monthly passes that meant we did not even need to buy a daily ticket.

One return trip from campus brought this needless conflict to the fore. On that day, a bunch of lads that rode in our bus–college athletes by the look of them–decided it would be a good idea to make it go on a little detour so that they could–rather more conveniently for them–alight at a spot closer to their final destination. They told the bus driver to divert; he ignored their rather brusque commands, drove on a little further on the usual route, and then halted at the next available stopping area.  He had done nothing else but stick to his prescribed duties. They did not, on pain of rational routing, call for idiosyncratic manipulations of the bus route on an ad-hoc basis by the bus’ passengers.

But hot-headed young men–perhaps uncertain of their futures, perhaps seething with resentment at the crushingly competitive futures that awaited them once they left campus, perhaps anticipating their domination by the economically privileged, and thus, perhaps seeking an outlet for their frustration–had been insulted. By a representative of those folks whose sole raison d’être seemed to be mindless chauffering them back and forth from the university; their only tasks, surely, were to take orders and execute them without complaint (and preferably with gratitude.) A lesson needed to be taught.

It was dispensed with remarkable efficiency. The driver was alone, not physically threatening in the slightest; the students were several and burly. A quick rain of kicks, slaps, and punches ensued; the driver, trapped in his seat and drivers cage, could not escape any of the blows; every one of them landed unerringly on his face, his jaw, his back. And then, his assailants were gone; we, the rest of the passengers on the bus, had been mere spectators. The driver was not incapacitated; somehow he composed and collected himself, and quietly drove on.

We rode on with him, silent in collective shame.