31 January 2012

Some notes on the railway station: Or reasons why Orientalism makes some sense

There’s some point to Orientalism, you know. Of course some of its tenets are completely preposterous and only so much bosh, but you can’t deny that in some ways it does make sense.

Rail travel makes that abundantly clear. All you have to do is take a train from any of the more frequented stations on our vast rail network in the subcontinent. You can always tell a station is near by the sheer chaos which rules the roads leading up to it. Teeming crowds coming and going, numerous roadside vendors, countless men peeing, all sorts of road transport, from rickshaws to state buses, everything that can be there in all its varied variety. Start walking in and it only gets worse. People and luggage of all sorts sprawled all around in all possible free space, all along platforms, stairs and corridors. Incessant announcements which you can hardly ever make out in the din and confusion. Hurry all around.

That’s what I could not but feel when I was last at Old Delhi Railway station. The train was two hours late. Of course, that wasn’t announced in advance, we got to know that over the period of those two hours as it got late first by ten minutes, then twenty, then an hour and then indefinitely, coming only around at the bewitching hour of twelve, some two hours behind time. There weren’t many benches and so, of course, we had to stand and when that got too much somehow manage on top of our luggage. We could’ve gone to the waiting room, yes, but even if those weren’t crowded the fear of missing the train – the display kept us hoping that it would be chugging just any minute now – kept us glued miserably to the spot.

So we waited. People rushing by, big, slimy rats running across the tracks and hopping along the platform, carts being pushed from one end to the other, babies crying boisterously, the din of expectation all around. We waited and we waited and we waited and so finally, two wretched hours of waiting, we finally had our train comfortably putting in along the platform.

That’s the Indian station and Indian railways for you. Chaos all around, almost nobody knowing anything and yet professing everything, all sorts of people confusedly jumbled together. There is some sense to Orientalism, is there not, when this romantically chaotic image of the busy thoroughfares of the exotic East is posited? If not too romantic, they most certainly are chaotic. So much so that I can sympathise with a Victorian merchant who travelled all across the subcontinent in the 1862 and, being amongst the first Occidentals to experience rail travel in India, wrote about it as part of his memoirs.

We started from the Howrah terminus of the East Indian Railway, then pen to Raneegunge, a distance of 120 miles; and it may be premised that the characteristic features, according to the example here furnished, of a ‘railway station’ in India, would afford Mr. Frith, who has immortalized the subject in England, a fresh and lively theme for the pencil. The native mind does not take matters easy while travelling, and the presence of a leisurely person on the platform is quite a phenomenon. The place is therefore a Babel of sound and confusion, in which the varied tones of manhood mingle with the shrill call of women and children, more or less lost to one another in the crowd. Dark eyes flash, dishevelled turbans stream and white togas flow, in the impatient rush for places, as if such hot haste afforded the only chance of securing them...the confusion is further enhanced by the presence of such articles as cooking-pans, clothes, and bedding, which the owner desires to carry around him...

So writes John Matheson, manufacturer and commercial bigwig of Glasgow, of his first impressions of a rail station in India. Allowing for perceptual biases, one can still not deny that there is no mean degree of truth in this description. No matter how much the poor Ministry tries to modernise them, Indian rail stations are like that.

Charmingly so though, hmmm? True there’s lots of noise and confusion and things tend to not go as they ought to, but it’s not as if it doesn’t work, right? Now, I’m not making an argument for corruption and attendant inefficiency here. What I am arguing for, instead, is that very sense of chaos and confusion which Orientalism tacitly implies as undesirable and a sign, even if somewhat quaint, of social primitivity. I don’t think it’s a sign of primitivity, but just because it has been presented as that I’m also not willing to dismiss the truth of the matter.

It’d be unnecessarily pricklish to do so, wouldn’t it be? When we object to Orientalist writing, Orientalist descriptions, to the very idea of Orient, we obviously seek to demolish the racial biases which underline these conceptions and unearth the ways in which economic needs and practices shape such discriminatory conceptions, but at some level do we not then also desire an equality which is clearly Western, Occidental in nature? If, as in this particular instance, we’d rather that our railway stations were well organised and everything in perfect order, then aren’t these notions of good organisation and perfect order clearly corollaries of what the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism have made them in Europe and the US of A? Whether there’s something undesirable about these notions is another debate but regardless of that, doesn’t Orientalism in some ways make happy sense?

After all, things do work that way. The (supposedly) Oriental way i.e. Chaos on streets, haphazard urban planning and shared, common public spaces are all markers of an Orientalism which is as much the so-called Orient’s as it was the Occident’s. Accounts of medieval European cities and medieval town planning indicate as much, hint just such an apparent confusion in all walks of public life. If the Orient is necessarily primitive because it’s chaotic, then for me that chaos is a cause for celebration instead of a roundabout condemnation, for when I do condemn it, I assert the diktats of an Occidental Rationalism as universal, supreme and undeniably the height of perfection. That is so because that chaos, that confusion is created so, is conceived in those terms because the lessons of an Enlightened Rationalism have been too deeply internalised for other basis of discrimination to be successfully sustained. Again, whether that is desirable or not is a different though not unrelated discourse; what interests me more here is the persistence of this supposed chaos, this apparent irrationality of public organisation and interaction which, despite centuries of mind games, we subcontinentals have still not let go. Ultimately, it is also in that sense that Orientalism, as a consolidation of all this chaotic irrationality, makes some sense.

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