The place: a train leaving for Kathgodam from Old Delhi Railway Station.
Dramatis personae: four passengers.
The time: 10.45pm.
As the whistle sounds, two passengers begin commandeering the little side tables, clothes hooks, ceiling fans and all available baggage space. Bags, mufflers, coats and magazines are variously stowed, but some articles still lie on the seats. They belong to two other passengers who have been allocated the upper berths. In a coupe with four berths, only two passengers may have confirmed access to the lower berths. The other two, banished to the upper berths, are expected to pick up their stuff from seats that do not belong to them and climb up to berths located in a way that they can neither sit nor dangle their feet, but must lie supine till sleep or their destination arrives.
As any seasoned train traveller in India knows, once the train snakes out of the station, the lucky owners of the easily accessible lower berths, even though they are strangers to each other, will reveal a remarkably spontaneous solidarity. They will scowl at the unauthorized occupants, yawn audibly, and ask in too loud a voice, “Are these yours?” pointing at the miscellany of objects deposited by those that must climb up or else risk being thrown out. Looks are exchanged and meek offers by the upper berthers for swap on health or age grounds are rejected through clenched teeth. But since the upper berth passengers are also seasoned travellers and getting any berth in a night train is nothing short of a miracle these days, matters seldom get out of hand to the point of open conflict.
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If you do not belong to Mumbai, you may think this is irrational behaviour. After all, for passengers of all kinds the railway coach happens to be just a temporary domicile through which they are merely transiting to their own destinations. But we all know that despite this, even the most insignificant space in a railway coach must be defended by those already seated therein with a fierce tenacity bordering on open violence. Once ownership is firmly established, people go back to doing what they were doing earlier. Ironically, once the coach has been secured against intrusion and the train begins to speed, the question most asked by fellow travellers is: “And so, what is your native place?”
In a manner of speaking, all of us in India belong to the clan of train travellers, having traded territories some time or another. Since no nation has an absolutely ethnic home-grown population, all of us began as intruders in the “native place” we claim to hail from now. Like all groups of asylum seekers, we also cling to an identity that we have built for ourselves. We do two things to this end: We rapidly set to work on concealing and denying our origins. And we also secretly start searching for “people from our side” in the big alien city, so we may together seal a masonic brotherhood of sorts and feel at home.
For centuries, simple, rootless, mostly unskilled people from the eastern part of Hindi-speaking India have followed this pattern as they migrated west, sometimes unwillingly as indentured slaves, at others voluntarily as migrant labour desperately looking for jobs. Men and women have risked life and limb and broken families only to earn a living in the west. As labourers, they have been exploited, walled in, spied on and even killed by xenophobic regional groups who justify their aggression on grounds of the “otherness” of the victims who speak an alien tongue. Last week, one of the readers of my column asked angrily, “Why have you not spoken in your article about the fact that Lalu Yadav deliberately chose to hurt Marathi sentiments by publishing advertisements for railway jobs in Hindi? Why did he not use Marathi?” If Hindi is so offensive to Mumbaikars, one wonders how all those huge Hindi hoardings in Maximum City should have gone untarred and why should Bollywood, the heart of Hindi film production, not be sent packing?
What happened to our celebrated diversity of languages? Of opinions? Of religions and cultures?
And now the chief minister of the state speaks at long last. Of course, Mumbai needs outsiders, he says, to do jobs that the native people are reluctant to take up. Obviously, concerns of expediency and ethics have become so muddled in India’s politics that they are difficult to disentangle. The chief minister offers asylum but simultaneously underscores what sort of jobs the aliens must expect if they migrate to his state: the most unwanted. Such comments may shut up local critics but will keep the issue simmering on the back burner to be used some day, should the aliens begin to want an equal status.
Groucho: One night, Columbus’ sailors started a mutiny.
Chico: Nah, no mutinies at night. They are usually in the afternoon, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Groucho: That’s my argument. Restrict immigration.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org