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.


A Boy’s Favorite Iron Horses

The domain of transportation often introduces us to dramatic, otherworldly creatures: the precision engineered soaring airliner, the majestic ship cleaving through oceans, the sleek automobile whizzing down highways. The steam locomotive was one of its most distinguished representatives; it quickly became, across country and culture and time, the vehicle–no pun intended–for a very particular romantic notion of travel.

And no aspect of that romance was more vivid than the first glimpse of the awesome, clanking, fire and brimstone behemoth, its pistons furiously pumping away, the hiss and sizzle of the steam it emanated from its every pore, the roaring flames of the combustion chamber, the grimy, soot-covered engine-men, the piercing whistle. A steam locomotive pulling into a station with a full load of passenger coaches, blasting through a countryside trailing a plume of smoke, taking a turn, or best of all, slowly, irresistibly grinding into motion, were all memorable sights that brought together power and beauty. A young boy, when confronted with such visions, could offer no resistance; his soul was putty.

The most common railroad journey in my childhood–that to my grandfather’s home in Central India– tracked the displacement of the steam locomotive quite well.  When my family began undertaking it, we caught the Upper India Express from New Delhi, a coach from which was attached to the Bombay Mail at Allahabad. The Mail then took us to our final destination. At first, a steam locomotive powered the entire trip. Later, a diesel locomotive took over for part of the journey. Still later, when portions of the railway lines had been electrified, an electric locomotive took over partway. That line is now fully electrified. The changes sometimes took place at night, sometimes at day, but I could feel the difference in the way the train first moved out of the station – the acceleration of the engines was quite distinct. At night, lying in my berth, still awake, I could hear the difference in the whistles.

When a train journey in the days of the steam locomotive was over, and I had reached my destination, one of my first tasks was to shower and wash my hair; the soot blowing back from the locomotive had swept in through the open windows of my coach and come to rest on my scalp. That washing out, that cleansing, was tinged with disappointment, not relief; it signaled the end of not just a holiday but a journey as well. And that is always cause for a peculiar melancholia all its own.

Note: The Wikipedia entry for steam locomotives has a disappointingly short section on their use in India:

In India, steam locomotives were built as late as 1972 and in use until 2000; they were replaced by a combination of diesel and electric locomotives. A steam locomotive celebration run was organised between Thane and Mumbai to commemorate the 150th year of railways in India.

The brevity of the passage above is partially compensated for by its seeming accuracy. Even though, as Wikipedia notes, worldwide, steam locomotives were, from ‘the early 1900s…gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives‘, in India, they were still being used extensively much later; I think the last time I might have seen a steam locomotive in action would have been in the mid-eighties.