Mohandas Gandhi returned to India from his travels in 1915. He was 46 years old,a young man by contemporary standards. The Dandi march,which demonstrated his grip over Indias imagination,was still 15 years away. The tipping point of Quit India was a quarter of a century away. Having participated in the South African civil rights movement,and having served paradoxically,non-violently,in the heat of battle with his ambulance corps,he was preparing for a peaceful assault on the jewel in the Crown. His first step was a recce,a Bharat darshan of the sort that a contemporary Gandhi hazards now and then,with indifferent results. Mohandas did it more systematically,criss-crossing the country by rail over two and a half years. He spent between six and nine months of that time in third-class compartments,travelling from Karachi to Calcutta,from Lahore to Tranquebar.
Historians of the British Empire like to present the worlds biggest rail system as a valuable gift to India. They conveniently forget that the railways were created to further imperial purposes,commercial and military. Connecting hinterlands with markets and ports,goods trains were essential for efficient globalised trade across the Empire,the first modern transnational enterprise. And being the fastest troop-carriers of the time,passenger trains were an insurance policy against another mutiny. The needs of Indians came in a very distant third. They typically travelled third class in compartments without even a toilet. So what Gandhi was doing was pointedly subversive. He was using the railways,an important cog of the imperial machine,but travelling unimportantly in third class,to attack the Empire from below.
Gandhi recounted his experiences in an essay written in Ranchi in September 1917,which was published by RP Soni for the Gandhi Publications League of Bhadrakali,Lahore,in a collection titled Third Class in Indian Railways. I have never seen a copy in print but there are about a dozen e-texts out there in the wild.
By the time Gandhi embarked on his travels with a Bombay-Madras ticket purchased for Rs 13 and 9 annas,railway compartments were fitted with water closets. According to legend,he owed the luxury to one Okhil Chandra Sen,who was left behind by his train in Ahmadpur station (in modern Samastipur) in 1909,when he had stepped out to relieve himself because his belly was too much swollen with jackfruit,as he explained later in a written complaint. Third-class compartments were apparently fitted with loos after he railed at the rail authorities in Sahibganj (now in Jharkhand). In impeccable babu English,he reported that while chasing his departing train,with lotah in one hand and dhotie in the next,he was fall over and expose all my shockings to man,female women on platform. However,since the original letter has never been seen by human eyes,since only the text not a photo-reproduction is on display at the Rail Museum in Delhi,and since multiple versions of the text exist,Okhil Chandra Sen could be the Kilroy of the Indian Railways,a man who left his mark everywhere but was seen nowhere.
Real or not,he ensured that Mohandas Gandhi had a water closet on his Bharat darshan. But it had no water in it and Gandhi reported,without fear of challenge that it was pestilentially dirty. The compartment itself was evil-looking. Dirt was lying thick upon the wood work and I do not know that it had ever seen soap or water.
Gandhi described overcrowded compartments without berths in which men travelled sitting up,or standing,or lying on the filthy floor,without working toilets,on journeys that lasted for days on end. Many fasted to avoid having to use the nonexistent amenities,and to escape being poisoned by standard railway food. More than the discomfort,Gandhi protested the waste of a civilising opportunity of giving a splendid education to millions in orderliness,sanitation,decent composite life and cultivation of simple and clean tastes Instead of receiving an object lesson in these matters third-class passengers have their sense of decency and cleanliness blunted during their travelling experience.
Through a series of accidents in Africa and Asia,the railways shaped the fortunes of the Empire in unanticipated ways. An ignominious ejection at Pietermaritzburg,where the platform is now a tourist attraction. The trains ferrying the human cargo of Partition across the border between the Punjabs,living and dead,foreclosing a happy ending to the colonial era. And between these terminal events,a middle-aged man who lived in third-class compartments for six months,perhaps nine,travelling alone in filth and squalor,listening for the birth cries of nations that were still in the womb of time.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines