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Making a nation with tracks: The Railways’ impact on India

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Title: The Purveyors of Destiny – A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways; Author: Arup K Chatterjee; Publisher: Bloomsbury India; Pages: 322; Price: Rs 599

In these days of low-budget airlines, it is only thought a common, time-taking mode of travel. But given Mahatma Gandhi, the Kakori conspiracy, the Partition refugees’ trains, Godhra, or even films from “Aradhana” to “Dilwalwe Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” and “Sonar Kella” to “Sholay”, would India have had the same trajectory to its nationhood, freedom, politics and culture without its railways?

It seems difficult, says scholar Arup K. Chatterjee in this fairly comprehensive account of the impact of the railways’ over century and a half old presence in the subcontinent.

Citing a British author, who had in 1865 – when the railways had just begun to come up in India – held that they could do the task of making India a nation which any native ruler, be it Akbar or Tipu Sultan, had not managed, Chatterjee notes that “how efficiently the railways did, or did not, nationalise India has occasionally come under scrutiny”.

“But what has been of perennial interest, in the life of Indian Railways, is the wealth of culture, literal, cinema – in short representational media that have frequently conjured the media,” he says.

It is this aspect that Chatterjee, currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Law of the O.P. Jindal Global University, seeks to explore threadbare, though politics, and its rather extreme manifestation of terrorism creeps up, especially in the modern era.

But the author, who at the outset, cites an anecdote to about a British author approaching George Bernard Shaw to ask if he should attempt a biography of Oscar Wilde, says this may “appear bewildering and obscure” but there are “two decisive reasons”.

“First is, of course, reading and literature almost always complete a train journey,” he holds (of course before electronic devices crowded them out) and secondly, and the “underlying rationale” of the book about how “trains are not always experienced directly but through their interstitial nodes and operating indices”.

For those who have been left a bit winded by the last sentence must know that this is also one of the book’s challenges. While Chatterjee has been most assiduous and diligent in his research and usually lucid in his account, some parts of it use too much of an academic approach, with its own arcane language.

And while he notes that his work straddles both worlds – “the open-ended galaxy of nonfiction and the closed universe of academic writing” but is “passionately different” from either as well as that it may attract criticism from both sections.

But as noted, he has been most through and sketches the railways from the time there were impassioned debates in Britain if they were suitable for India, the mammoth task of building them – quite evocatively expressed through Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Bridge Builders” he cites, and the critiques of their utility.

This is complemented by Indian reactions from acceptance, mishaps (as happened to Okhil Chandra Sen, as per his 1909 complaint, when “the guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhoti in other”), or subversive utilisation, as the Mahatma did in his third-class journeys across India to interact with people, and later revolutionaries who targetted trains as a symbol of imperial rule.

And after the unsettling chapter on trains during Partition, Chatterjee really hits his stride as he chronicles half a century over intense cultural presence of railways from the stories and films of Satyajit Ray, to a whole yard of Bollywood films, and the novellas of Ruskin Bond. There is hard to find any cultural manifestation he has left out, save say that excellent edgy Partition film “Lal Batti” or the opening of “Jaani Dushman”.

Politics wise, the mysterious death of rightwing ideologue Deendayal Upadhyay and Congress Minister Lalit Narayan Mishra at railway stations are omissions.

But for any train buff who can endure the academic dissections of “Dilwale..” and some other aspects, it is a repository of rare treasures about our lives’ intersections with railways down the years – which will survive phasing of steam engines and meter gauge lines.

IANS

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