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.


My First Phone Number

I grew up–till the age of eleven–without a telephone in my household. A phone line was a rarity–expensive, hard to obtain with a long waiting line–even for the Indian middle-class, and in any case my family lived for the most part on air force stations. But even when we lived in the city, we made do without a phone. If you wanted to talk to someone, you visited them. Without calling. Sometimes they were at home, sometimes they weren’t. It was an acceptable uncertainty of sorts. If you just had to make a phone call–on the occasion of an emergency for instance–you relied on a neighbor’s generosity to share their phone line with you.  A phone was a big deal; only the select few had one.

Shortly after my father retired from the air force and started a small business, he ‘applied’ for a phone line (these applications were processed by the governmental telecommunications authority, which ‘awarded’ lines on the basis of need); his application specified that the phone would be a necessary accessory to his business, thus hopefully placing it higher in the prioritized queue of potential owners. News of the success of this application–a few months later–was greeted with some incredulity at home; was it really going to be the case that we were going to have that magical instrument at home, one that would let us simply pick up the receiver, dial a few numbers, and talk to friends and family?

Apparently so. Soon enough, a technician showed up to install our phone; cables were run along walls, a phone jack mysteriously appeared, and then, incredibly enough, a phone set itself, complete with black handset–the kind I had seen people cradling up against their ears–and a rotary dial. The moment of truth was here. Our family, our household, would now have a new address, a new association: our phone number.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I still remember it: 61-69-42. I break it up that way because that’s how I remembered it: Six One, Six Nine, Four Two. My mother was the first user of the phone; she called her mother to let her know the news. My father went next, calling an old friend. My brother and I had no one to call; we had never bothered to ask anyone’s phone numbers at school. We didn’t call our friends; why did we need their numbers? Indeed, I did not even know who among my friends owned a phone.

But the next day at school, I came to know who did. I told my classmates I had a new phone number, proudly rattling off its magical digits–there had been no need for me to write them down, they were instantly memorable–even as I asked for theirs and encouraged them to call me. Some did; conversations on the phone–some of which ran over an hour–now suddenly emerged as a magical new form of interaction with folks I had previously only known in the flesh.

Some thirty-eight years later, I hardly ever talk on the phone. Email and text messages rule the roost; when I do talk on the phone, I’m a model of efficiency. A quick exchange of information, and I’m done. Just like the phone displaced older forms of communication, it has been impolitely shoved aside by newer ones. No one’s grieving; we’re too busy being socially networked.

The Sunday Evening Movie, Blues-Killer Sans Pareil

It’s a strange business to have written about ‘The Sunday Evening Blues‘ on this blog, in such plaintive fashion, because for many years, Sunday evening was the time of the week that promised a very particular form of entertainment: the Sunday evening movie, for many years, an institution in the life of any Indian household that owned, or had access to, a television. Long before the video cassette recorder, before hundreds of channels and endless movies playing around the clock became de rigueur on Indian television, there was only one way you could see movies outside the cinema: on television, on Sunday night, via a Bollywood offering broadcast on the one and only channel, the national one.

The Sunday evening movie began promptly at 6 and ran without commercials, with one break for the evening news at 8 PM. It then resumed, ending around 9:30 PM or so. (Most Bollywood movies then, as now, ran over three hours). But what made the Sunday evening movie distinctive was that for many years, my family did not own a television. So we had to travel, perhaps to a neighbor’s house, perhaps to a school friend’s living room, but most commonly, it meant visiting my grandparents’ home, several kilometers away. My two uncles–my mother’s brothers–lived there too, so it was a relatively large family gathering. Every Sunday evening followed, roughly, the same pattern: departure from home in well-timed fashion (my father, as noted before on this blog, was an Air Force pilot, so punctuality in this regard was never a problem), arrival at my grandmother’s home, a quick procurement of seats before the movie started. At my grandparents’ first residence in New Delhi, we watched the movie in the living room; at the second, we congregated in my grandparent’s bedroom. Somehow, quite effortlessly, the eight or nine or ten of us would seat ourselves and enter movie-land. Talking during the movie was discouraged; my grandmother was especially strict in enforcing this rule. If the movie happened to not be of interest to me–perhaps a tearjerker, perhaps a ponderous, meandering romance, as opposed to a thriller or comedy–I still felt strangely compelled to keep watching: it never occurred to me to leave that gathering alone and go bury myself in a book, the way I did when confronted with many other family-centered social occasions.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the Sunday movie was the way it cleared the city’s streets, markets and parks: cricket, soccer and hockey games were suspended as was housework and homework. Somehow, mysteriously, Indian parents knew there was no point in trying to get schoolchildren to do their assignments at that time, or perhaps it was considered cruel and unusual punishment. The desertion of the normally bustling streets was uncanny and made even more so by the movie soundtrack that could be heard on them; sometimes, if the resonance and amplification came together, you could hear line by line, the progression of the script as you walked down a street. Perhaps the closest Indian streets came to this emptiness was when a big cricket game was on or when election results were being announced. But even those didn’t quite match the effect of the Sunday movie.

The Sunday movie as a social event disappeared quickly with the advent of a television in our house. The trips to other movie-watching destinations ceased; the family gatherings became more nuclear. Later, with the VCR, the novelty of the movie at home completely wore off. But what really killed the Sunday movie for me was growing up, the sense that responsibilities had to be taken on come Monday morning.