I love train journeys, although I am not quite fascinated by the structure of the train itself. Too much of metal. I can’t quite explain it. It’s silly, I know, for I surely do not have wings that could transport me across the fields and rivers and mountains without having to plonk myself in a mobile iron cage. (I have never been on an aircraft. So I don’t know what that experience is like). But then again, I love the movement of the train, especially at night. Then , it is like being gently rocked to sleep by its rhythmic motion over the rails. So there are a few unreconciled paradoxes in my relationships with trains.
Ever since I took up a job with the Railways, way back in 1981, train journeys had become an essential part of my life. When the kids were small, there was at least one long journey every Summer, when the schools closed down and we went home to Kerala. In those days, the excitement began days in advance, or even months in advance as , one had to book the tickets early enough to be assured of confirmed berths. Till one became entitled to travel in an AC coach, with my first promotion, we travelled by Second Class and one couldn’t think of undertaking the long journey in the heat of Summer , without proper reservation. The Konkan Railway has now made the journey time much less than what it used to be for those travelling from the North to Kerala.
Nowadays, when I’m mostly travelling by myself, some of the anticipatory excitement of packing clothes and foodstuff etc. is no longer there. But as I said, train journeys will probably continue to be part of my life. You see, even though I have taken voluntary retirement, I can still travel free and so any other mode of travel does not even come into the reckoning as an option.
This time, when travelling to Bangalore to spend a few days with my daughter , Francis Fukuyama’s “The end of History and the last man” and a steady stream of anecdotes and gossip about a marriage function from a family travelling in the same cabin, kept me company.
The wife talked mainly. The husband listened intently. The son went off to sleep soon after the family boarded the train at Bhopal. Starting with a physical appraisal and hearty approval of the gifts that they had received(they were saris, suit lengths etc.), the conversation drifted from one relative to another. Seeta Didi , whose daughter was the one getting married, was quite angry that her cousin , on whom she was depending to help with the hundreds of little things to be attended to, arrived only at the last minute, “just like any other guest” and that too when Sita Didi had so wholeheartedly co-operated when the latter’s daughters were married off. ” Quite true”, agreed the husband. “Even if she didn’t really run around, her presence would have been a moral support for Sita”.
Chachi was looking rested, the wife went on. The grief over the death of her husband and her eldest son, soon afterwards, seemed to have abated . The daughter ‘in-law took care of Chachi well, even when her own loss was so profound. Pratap, a distant cousin , was staying with them. It was he who looked after the cultivation and supervised the retail shop. He was good and honest and considerate. The buzz going around was that Chachi would probably will at least a part of her property to him. Her own children wouldn’t mind, as they understood and respected the role he had taken on, in their mother’s life. Working in high places, with enough money for themselves, they wouldn’t grudge Pratap her benefaction. They were only too happy that the void created by their distance from home was filled up by someone they could respect and trust. They had all been there for the wedding and the warmth between them was evident.
Nandini Mausi was really something !. She had taken on all sorts of customs on herself. She wasn’t eating anything the first day, as apparently her “mangalsutra”, had broken and it was inauspicious to partake of food with a broken mangalsutra, she held. She was eating the next day, so she must’ve got it repaired. ” Or may be, she hunted out a duplicate chain for it”, her husband interjected laughingly.
Ramesh Bhaisaab was there too. Not much was left of the handsome youth of yesteryears. He was now a portly looking man with a prominent paunch. “Forty lakhs he spent on his son’s education abroad and the young man went and married a South Indian girl!”. “But you have to give credit to Ramesh Bhaisaab”, the wife went on in an approving tone. ” He really took it in his stride and welcomed the girl into the family. Didn’t you notice? They look so nice together”.
Cousin Anita’s daughter in law looked okay now. So did the baby in her arms. “And to think that both of them could’ve died had cousin Anita persisted with her stubbornness. Her grandchild would have to be delivered normally, she had insisted. The daughter ‘ in- law was not to have a caesarian. “The water had broken, you know, and there was some other complication as well and if her son had not been around and decided to take control, why his wife and kid would’ve bid goodbye to this world. Cousin Anita still feels that the operation was unnecessary and that the doctor just wanted to give them a fat bill”.
And so the stories went on. My attention kept wandering from the pages of my book to the snippets that were being delivered in such an animated style. I have to confess that the Fukuyama’s learned treatise was quite boring in comparison. What he had to say was this, at least that is what I could understand after reading pages and pages and more pages of the same thing; there was a linear evolutionary direction to all of Man’s history and that all the clashes and wars and the turmoils between various systems of power and governance could essentially be traced to the influence of the “thymos” or the human spirit that craved recognition for itself. In other words, it was not merely about survival alone. According to Fukuyama, the populations all over the world had increasingly kept evolving towards democracy because that ensured maximum recognition to the individual, in that there was no distictinction between the ruler and the slave and the power to govern came from the masses themselves. The more liberal a democracy, offering opportunities for individual growth, the less reason for strife and according to him, the liberal, capitalisitic democracy would therefore come to stay, as there was no other system that could be better.
Well Fukuyama wrote this book in the 90s. Looking around at the global recession, set off by the excesses of a too ‘free and unregulated market, looking at the at the terrible levels of inequities existing in different pockets, it looks like we have a long way to go before we settle down to a world free of strife. Add to that the effects of global warming and “The end of history and the last man” may have different connotations altogether.
Who knows, all this may be part of the evolutionary process after all. May be our journey has to now necessarily be along a path which is more ethical and where the benefits of development and progress have to be more widely distributed rather than being concentrated in the hands of a greedy few. May be we will learn to be moderate in our spending. May be spiritually we will learn to satisfy our “thymos” by our own individual journeys towards being better human beings. May be