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.


The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’