The camera moves from Durga to the telephone pole focalizing the scene through her eyes. A discordant horn blares incessantly in the background. The camera pans out into the vast landscape strewn with kash flowers, an occasional tree, and metallic poles carrying phonic message. The crisp sound of water as Apu wades through it actualizes the sense of mystery. The image of Apu and Durga ducking behind a bunch of kash flowers and looking out with wonder to the passing smoke-spewing monster has been hailed as a classic moment in Indian cinema.
The train traverses the rural landscape belching black smoke against silvery autumn sky. They run to see the train up-close, Durga trips, Apu almost makes it. Ray’s brilliant audiography matches his cinematography to foreshadow the fate of these two siblings in this ominous scene. The clanging sound of metallic wheels ushers in an industrial future in a newly independent India. Durga dies not long after and Apu’s family leaves for the city in search of work. This Satyajit Ray classic, Panther Panchali (The Song of the Road), was made in 1955.
Cut to 1995. A trendy looking young man waits on a neat railway platform and is followed by a young fashionable woman. These two strangers run helter-skelter looking for a train. He rushes in and barely manages to pull the young woman into the already moving train. Raj and Simran are first-generation British-Indians out on a holiday trip to Europe.
Needless to say, it’s another classic moment in Indian commercial cinema. Apu and Durga’s sense of awe and wonder is replaced with a complete sense of being-at-home as Raj hums: “Hum tum ek kamre me bandh ho (“You and I are locked in a room”), lines borrowed from another Indian classic of the seventies. The train traverses through the picturesque European countryside. The protagonists in Aditya Chopra’s hugely successful commercial venture, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Large Hearted Will Take the Bride) are not mere spectators; they are travelers singing jolly well on the road to prosperity. In a sense, Apu’s children have not only caught up with the train but are comfortable in it.
Trains. A symbol of modernity and economic progress as in colonial India? A space for romance? A space for socialization? A space of violence as in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956)? A space for disinterested reflection? A space of ultimate rational utopia as Michel de Certeau claims?
Michel de Certeau writes, “A travelling incarceration. Immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by. What is happening? Nothing is moving inside or outside the train. The unchanging traveler is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated in the grid of the railway car, which is a perfect actualization of the rational utopia. Control and food move from pigeonhole to pigeonhole…Only the restrooms offer an escape from the closed system. They are a lovers’ phantasm…a little space of irrationality, like love affairs and sewers in the Utopias of earlier times. Except for this lapse given over to excesses, everything has its place in a gridwork. Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity – that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots” (The Practices of Everyday Life, Univ. of California Press, 1984, 111.)
We are certainly pigeonholed but numbered, regulated? de Certeau would have theorized differently had he traveled from Old Delhi station to New Jalpaiguri in Mahananda Express! Or from Shalimar station, Howrah to Cochin/Trivundrum, Kerala! Not only does the train “make itself independent of local roots,” it carries the rootless migrant workers to different parts of India. The train as a closed system becomes a metaphor for the flow of capital in globalized economy. People follow capital wherever they are invested. The panopticon of power embodying rational ordering dissipates as the migrant workers fill the train from the floor to luggage rack. A traveling pregnant woman delivers her baby in the train! It no longer remains a space for disinterested reflection but becomes a space of bodily production.
A coda: I travel to Columbia University to listen to Terry Eagleton’s lecture, “The New Atheism and the War on Terror” (10 Nov, 2010) but fail to get in as the lecture draws a capacity audience. On my way back, I travel in the NYC subway. Once the train starts moving, a group of teenage boys starts dancing to the beats of rap. As the boys move and shake at impossible angles, the passengers are mesmerized. From India to America, the space of the train is appropriated by the rootless, homeless, and underprivileged!