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.


56-Up: Checking In With ‘Old Friends’

Roger Ebert once referred to Michael Apted‘s Up series as the ‘noblest project in cinema history.’ In writing his review of 56-Up–the latest installment in the story of the Fab Fourteen–Ebert disowned those words as ‘hyperbole’ but its easy to see why he might have thought so. It is as straightforward–and as complicated–a film project as could be: take fourteen children, interview them at the age of seven about their vision of life and what it holds for them, and then, every seven years, meet them again to ‘check in.’ The original premise might have been to explore whether the British class system affected a child’s world-view and whether it locked their lives into unalterable trajectories, but over the years the Up series has grown into something else: an episodic cinematic document of a tiny cross-section of humanity.

Fourteen ‘ordinary’ people; fourteen ‘ordinary’ lives. Hardly the stuff of riveting storytelling, or so you’d think. Thirteen of them are white, one is black, four women, all are English. This is not even a very representative sample of the world’s humanity. And yet. somehow, over the years, they’ve managed to captivate millions all over the world who tune in, faithfully, every seven years.

Every viewer of the series has his or her own personal reasons for remaining riveted to it, for eagerly awaiting the next installment. In my case, it has been because, like many others, I’ve become personally interested in the fortunes of its participants, not out of pure voyeuristic curiosity, but because I’ve been growing too, and often find immediate, sharp, and personal resonances with their lives. There is the sometimes incoherent, sometimes acute vision of the seven-year old, the callow, rash pronouncements of the teenager and young adult, the maturing, sometimes rueful perspectives of the thirty and forty-somethings, and now, the slow, low, sometimes content glow of the mid-fifties. (They’re ahead of me; I’m not fifty yet, though the gap between my age and theirs has shrunk!)

It would be a mistake to say every life examined on this show demonstrates some universal truth or anything like that. Rather, each one showcases, in part, some of life’s fortunes and misfortunes; some get more than fair share of the hard knocks. But it is in the adding up, in the rendering of a composite image that one is able to see a glimmer of the complexity and variety of human existence: present and missing parents, loves–lost and found, illness and good health, passion and anger, ruefulness and exultation.

Of  the various cinematic techniques invented by directors over the years, I find the epilogue particularly poignant: the passage of time and persons, the looking back, the reckonings and accountings of a life.  Often it is because those episodes are tinged with regret for missed opportunities, sometimes because through them, we are brought face to face with the most basic facts of our existence: life is just one moment after another, the past already gone, the future yet to be realized. The Up series has often felt like a collection of epilogues even as we know–or at least believe and hope–another installment is forthcoming.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m looking forward to 63-Up.