Chennai trishaw, by me
There is an overwhelming feeling that things must be better, could be different. But that place is rarely here, always there, this made all the more deceptive because it is truly, in a Buddhist sense, here. But, in the ass-backwardness of life, the grass is always greener or so forth, though it is not a lawn that one desires, rather another shot at the cosmic iPod shuffle. There must be a better song on.
Carriage, take me away with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears! (Baudelaire, refrence in De Botton)
To view the website of Indian Rail is to glimpse a panopoly of opportunity, more myriad than their Gods. It, the abstract system, is perhaps more a ‘machine of motion’ than the train itself. Baudelaire used to like to watch ships, saying they made him think of ‘a vast, immense, complicated but agile creature, an animal full of spirit, suffering and heaving all the sighs and ambitions of humanity.’
In the same way, the system of Indian Rail is a sublime peeking into the veins of Mother India. India Rail carries literally millions of passengers everyday. They range from the poor to the now entirely first world middle class. Yet there is no chaos at the terminal, nor even tickets really. Me, I simply booked the train online. I paid online, through a panopoly of bank options, and was wait listed. Then, in a great bureaucratic shuffle, people booked and unbooked, slowly bumping me up the list. By the time I checked in a Chennai Internet Cafe I was booked and seated. When I arrived my name was printed on the door. The train left on time and an admirably moustachioed man came and burlily checked off my particulars. The system works, it works with failure and cancellation, and it works with the vast diversity that is India.
And that’s just the seat. Beyond that there is constantly food and drink coming in and out of the carriage. So far I have eaten vegetable buriyani, dhose, and vade. Sadly, the only innelegant mechanism seems to be the toilets, a hole which gutters onto the track below. Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made from our rears.
Compartment C, Car 293 (1938), by Edward Hopper
The Loneliness Of Travel
Perhaps not the best segue, but I’m going by the book. Edward Hopper is an American painter who documented transient places, beautifully. His works portray beautiful, lonely scenes, a woman in a diner, a man at a gas station. All with that 1950s class and restraint, belying great tension underneath. What most of his places seems to imply is thought, introspection, a place apart from the norm where one is civilized yet alone. These are not homes and there is no content in the context. It is simply a woman in a hotel room, or inside a train. These are no more her places than they are anyone elses, so all personality is internal and implied. This effect is largely of sadness, but also come. And so the loneliness of travel.
Now, for example, I am alone. I am typing this on the Bangalore Express, as the sun has set and the steward ushered us away from the open door. There, in the shuffle, I chatted to a Tamil gentleman from Hamilton, Ontario and smiled at a father and her child. Inside the cabin, however, we are alone again. The light has gone down on the dirty windows and I can’t see anything but my own reflection, I hear my headphones and feel the rumble of the train.
There is a flux here, in these places. You see girls you have no introduction to, hear snatches of conversation and pass through a hundred lives. It is strangely chilling to walk through the Chennai station and imagine that it is Mumbai. That men could open fire at such a nexus, one feels the possible carnage keenly, it seems a familiar scene. The place is crowded as a church, and strangely hallowed. After the Mumbai attacks, also fragile, that tension drawing it to the sublime.
Here one is alone, yet here alone one can think. There is time for one thing, but there is also a lifting of the usual routine that binds our thoughts and regulates our inhibitions. Much of the day is prescribed and many of our thoughts are put there or guided by other people. Transit, however, is simply college ruled paper, blank and nondescript. You eat, sleep and occupy space according to some norms, but there is no personalization. Your affairs and accomplishments and failures are all in your head, packed discreetly in your carry on, to be unburdened only if you meet someone you know. It’s a effectively a blank slate.
If we find poetry in the service station and motel, if we are drawn to the airport or train carriage, it is perhaps because, in spite of their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.
By tossing oneself in the transport shuffle one hopes that one also enters the cosmic shuffle, a place pregnant with the possibility of something different, better and new. That is one hopes for a change. Something better, something different, something new. Personally, I think it’s a destination that doesn’t exist at all. You may never get there, but while you’re going it all seems possible.