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Reviewed by:
  • Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self
  • Ananya Jahanara Kabir
Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self Laura Bear New York: Columbia University Press, 2007xii + 346 pp., $49.00 (cloth)

In one of the most memorable Bollywood scenes of recent years, superstar Shahrukh Khan and a full supporting troupe dance agilely on top of a train that moves, slowly but surely, through breathtaking mountain scenery. The film is Dil Se (From the Heart, Mani Ratnam, 1998), a revolutionary exploration of postcolonial nationalism, marginalization, bureaucracy, and violence. While it failed at the box office, the train sequence continues to circulate on South Asian cable television programs devoted to Bollywood music. Notwithstanding the attractions of Khan and his faux-tribal dance partner, its enduring qualities are subliminally linked to the shaping importance of trains within the Indian psyche. As the train chugs through the Indian heartlands to the nation's peripheries, signaled by the mountain scenery, it literally carries forth the fantasies of modernity and progress through which the postcolonial normative subject (the character played by Khan) imagines he will benevolently transform its other, the subject on the national margins, figured in the desirable yet unknown "tribal" woman he dances with. Suturing center and periphery, fantasy and normativity, the train here functions as what Laura Bear, in the book under review, calls a "vector of capitalist modernity" (1). Yet, as the film goes on to reveal, that modernity, again in Bear's words, is shot through by "the hidden histories of the effects of colonial bureaucracies and popular responses to them on both intimate and public forms of life" (9) and by an ever-present sense of "the inappropriate irruption of the past in the present" (17).1

Lines of the Nation does not reference Dil Se, but it does cite modern Indian poets, peri-urban folk singers, and novelists to reinforce its basic premise: that the tight, almost axiomatic, link between the railways as a colonial project and the emergence and consolidation of India's modernity unravels, on some scrutiny, to reveal an altogether more fraught role relationship to modernity borne by this venerable institution with a robust postcolonial life. This complexity is drawn out through Bear's focus on the historical relationship between Indian Railways and the community known as Anglo-Indian (the South Asian term that replaced the original "Eurasian"). The book is thus a simultaneous exploration of the Anglo-Indian world and the Indian Railways, with both foci pressed into mutual illumination. Two major sources offer the primary material for this task: colonial archives of the Eastern Railway, headquartered in Calcutta, and the lives, stories, genealogies, and memories of a cluster of Anglo Indian railway families from a long-established railway colony at Kharagpur, some few hours train journey away from Calcutta; to sharpen the significance of the latter, parallel material from Bengali railway families and Anglo-Indian families from Calcutta (rather than Kharagpur) is also included. The book, accordingly, falls into two roughly equal parts, which follow an introduction that establishes its premises. Part 1 is a historical account of the ways in which colonial bureaucracy sought to establish and manage the railways as an institution and the foundational role played by the Anglo-Indian community within this enterprise. Part 2 is an ethnographic account of selected Anglo-Indian railway families whom Bear interacted with in the course of fieldwork, showcasing, in particular, their continuing [End Page 339] sense of being genealogically intertwined with the railways—as the very term "railway family" implies.

Holding together both aspects of the book is Bear's argument for the colonial formation and postcolonial perpetuation of the Anglo-Indians as a "railway caste." The biomoral and racialist logics of high colonialism demanded an ideal colonial community, free of the cumbersome accoutrements of jati (in the narrower sense of "caste" as well as the broader sense of distinctive "community") that, from the colonizer's perspective, rendered Indian groups variously unsuitable to the daily management of railways. Instead, domiciled Europeans and Eurasians, assumed to be free of such baggage, were mobilized into filling this niche. But paradoxically, this mobilization...


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