- Reviewed by
Since Lord Dalhousie’s “Railway Minute” that instituted the railway in 1853 as a means to shrink distances and secure British rule over India, the train has held a prominent role in the country, often referred to as its “lifeline” (149)—a role far from weakened by decolonization, since Nehru called it the greatest national asset. One of the main qualities of Marian Aguiar’s Tracking Modernity: India’s Railway and the Culture of Mobility is the way it highlights this exceptional closeness of train to nation and to expose the complex nature of this relationship: “The railway’s ability to reconstruct space and time through movement made it a primary source for the constitution of new national identity. The train was an agent of deterritorialization because it transferred its occupants into a new collectivity out of their original local context” (84–85).
This compelling study traces how the technological object that is the train, loaded with its ideological and historical assumptions, was appropriated, used, and represented as a specific cultural object in India. To do that, the author brings together three main domains of inquiry: a history of India since the nineteenth century through the prism of the railway; a praxis that is specific to a place (India); and India’s literary and cinematographic representations throughout the years, both in South Asia and in the West. This three-fold approach makes for a fascinating reading of a scholarly work that manages to bring together images of crowded stations, platforms and food stalls, [End Page 199] ladies’ coupés, berths, seats, roofs, engines, clocks, timetables and the fantasies associated to them, while at the same time working through the challenging questions of network, movement, space, authority, utopia, reason, and politics.
The introduction posits mobility as a key feature of modernity—especially colonial modernity, born out of travel, displacement and exploration. Colonial government, by claiming to bring technological progress, imposed the railway as a site of reform, where the project of assimilation was to be implemented. The method favored by the author is to approach modernity as rhetoric, “with important historical consequences,” and the study consists in “exploring the history of this rhetoric as it functioned through a cluster of representational and material practices” (3). Aguiar astutely chooses to tread in the footsteps of French philosopher Michel de Certeau, whose 1980 groundbreaking work L’invention du quotidien provides her with the notion of the train as “rational utopia” (11): the train, offering “civic” insularity (28), carries the civilizing project of extending social boundaries and removing caste or gender biases.
The first chapter attempts to show that this project had deep contradictory effects, which were best demonstrated in literature. Colonial writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Flora Annie Steel showed that the train was in fact “porous” (32)—consider, for instance, the call uttered by a train passenger to Kim in the eponymous novel: “Do not be afraid. . . . Enter!” (43). Fiction sheds light on how the so-called marginal people make use of their ingenuity to profit from the powerful—in short, they implement what de Certeau identifies as poaching (or “braconnage” in French). Other counternarratives of Indian modernity were produced at the end of the nineteenth century by a number of Indian “social critics” (49), whose work is analyzed in the second chapter; they denounced the railway as an emblem of British rule, which resulted in high human cost. In the early twentieth century, the spiritualists such as Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo, or Vivekanda questioned the railway as a metaphor for colonialist material and cultural binds. These authors imagined, as a counterpart to the rational utopia of the railway born out of the Enlightenment, an outside of modernity by looking at the past.
Chapter three dwells on the event of Partition and the train that became its very icon. In the 1980s especially, a series of texts emerged, all aimed at giving testimony to the horror of the massacres committed in the name of communalism. From instrument of reason, the train became, according to...