Saturday, March 5, 2011

Third class in Indian railways

Third class in Indian railwaysThird class in Indian railways by Mahatma Gandhi

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Third class in Indian railways
This is a collection of six essays written by Mahatma Gandhi after his return to India from South Africa. The essays are, with one exception, a description of Gandhiji's philosophy and thinking. The lone exception is the eponymous chapter, "Third Class In Indian Railways", which, as the title suggests, is a mini-travelogue of his travels and travails on the trains in India at the time.
The chapters are:
  1. Third Class In Indian Railways
  2. Vernacular as Media of Instruction
  3. Swadeshi
  4. Ahimsa
  5. The Moral Basis of Co-operation
  6. National Dress
As can be seen, chapters two through six spell out the substantive part of Gandhiji's political, personal, and social  philosophy that were to drive India's independence struggle agenda and vision. Even after his death, his ideals have inspired transformative movements in such places as South Africa, Poland, United States, and more recently in Egypt.

Gandhiji's style of writing reflects at times his innate sense of humour. Most of it is evident in the first chapter, when he struggles for the right and strong words to describe the squalid state of rail travel at the time. Some comments could well apply in today's times, unfortunately.

Refreshments sold to the passengers were dirty-looking, handed by dirtier hands, coming out of filthy receptacles and weighed in equally unattractive scales. These were previously sampled by millions of flies... [Highlight Loc. 26-28]

Passengers have no benches or not enough to sit on. They squat on dirty floors and eat dirty food. They are permitted to throw the leavings of their food and spit where they like, sit how they like and smoke everywhere. The closets attached to these places defy description. I have not the power adequately to describe them without committing a breach of the laws of decent speech. [Highlight Loc. 36-47]

On Indian trains alone passengers smoke with impunity in all carriages irrespective of the presence of the fair sex and irrespective of the protest of non-smokers. And this, notwithstanding a bye-law which prevents a passenger from smoking without the permission of his fellows in the compartment which is not allotted to smokers. [Highlight Loc. 52-54]

When talking about Swadeshi, Gandhiji cleverly brings in the issue religion as being an integral part of swadeshi. At the time of his writing, his aim was at the proselyting efforts of missionaries, while acknowledging the often stellar role played by these missionaries in performing much-appreciated social services.

Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote. Thus, as for religion, in order to satisfy the requirements of the definition, I must restrict myself to my ancestral religion. [Highlight Loc. 103-5]

...will not the great missionary bodies of India, to whom she owes a deep debt of gratitude for what they have done and are doing, do still better and serve the spirit of Christianity better by dropping the goal of proselytising while continuing their philanthropic work? [Highlight Loc. 116-18]
Seeing how the political narrative in India today sees religion and politics divorced from each other on the face of it, yet tightly locked in the most unholy of alliances, Gandhiji would have been pained no doubt.

I do not believe that religion has nothing to do with politics. The latter divorced from religion is like a corpse only fit to be buried. [Highlight Loc. 131-32]

I am not sure I would see tea in such a negative light as the Mahatma does. Coffee has been a staple ingredient of the Indian, South Indian for sure, diet for a few centuries, but then again, credit (or discredit) for its spread must again go to the English. I wonder how he would have taken the even more insidious spread of cola beverages in India...
Lord Curzon set the fashion for tea-drinking. And that pernicious drug now bids fair to overwhelm the nation. It has already undermined the digestive apparatus of hundreds of thousands of men and women... [Highlight Loc. 173-75]

Third class in Indian railways


© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.