George Orwell once said: “Either we all live in a decent world or nobody does.”

As part of a survey on digital governance, I found myself on a train to Ghatshila, a tiny town on the border of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I was on an unreserved ticket, in the ‘general’ coach — the penultimate one, sandwiched between an air-conditioned coach and the last coach with the signalman. Over the years, Indian railways have come to symbolise something that is inherently Indian — the reproduction of entrenched class hierarchies in the various grades of coaches: AC, second-class sleeper, and, at the bottom of this horizontal pyramid, the ‘general’ compartment.

I was perched in a corner, next to the exit, with just enough place to stand on both feet. A quick count indicated there were 24 people sitting in a space meant for eight. And this excluded the sea of humanity that occupied the floor of the train.

This wasn’t the first time I was travelling in the general coach. But on this journey something curious caught my eye. One of the two bathrooms at the end of the coach had been taken over by a group of six squatters who had, for lack of space elsewhere, turned the 3×3 feet bathroom into their refuge for the 36-hour journey. One of them had used a bedsheet to create a kind of hammock strung diagonally inside the bathroom. To curb the overpowering stench, another had stuffed the commode with newspapers and placed a bucket on top of it. The bucket served two useful roles — it acted as a stench guard and also doubled up as a seat. The young man sitting on it was smoking a beedi and gently gyrating to a tune playing on his mobile phone.

Aslam, standing next to me, worked in a factory in Gujarat and was returning home to his village near Kharagpur for Eid. He was carrying gifts for his children. He had the unique ability to smile beamingly beneath a network of worry lines furrowed on his forehead. His t-shirt read ‘Generation Stride’. He had been standing continuously for around 28 hours now. He finally got exhausted and joined the squatters in the bathroom. He squeezed out a few square inches of space on the edge of the bathroom next to the bucket and heaved a sigh of relief as he finally squatted down.

I got off at Ghatshila. I waved goodbye to Aslam, but by now he had fallen fast asleep next to the commode. Ghatshila is the home of legendary writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, whose novel Pather Panchali became the first film of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. In the novel, Harihar is away in the city, leaving his wife and children Durga and Apu back in the village. Harihar returns home with gifts for his children. When he calls out for Durga to give her the sari he has bought her, he learns from his wife that Durga has died for want of medical care. Grief-stricken, the family leaves the village for Varanasi in search of the ever ephemeral better life.

Question of dignity

The novel was written in the early 1900s. The parallels between the fictional Harihar and the modern-day, real-life Aslam were striking. I hoped that Aslam would have a better life in store than Harihar when he greets his family for Eid. I would never know.

George Orwell said: “Either we all live in a decent world or nobody does.” At the heart of this quote is a question of dignity and justice. Such casual normalisation of indignity puts a veil of acceptability on squalor. The constant battle for survival for those on the margins of society makes such hardship seem like it’s par for the course for existence. Aslam hesitated for 28 hours before he caved in and decided to sit inside the bathroom. He craved merely to sit, something most of us take for granted, and finally his fatigue overcame his resistance to the indignity of resting his head on a bucket upturned on a commode.

One wonders how long a society beating its chest about space missions and digital India will stay so indifferent to such everyday indignities.

The writer teaches at Azim Premji University and has trouble distinguishing the sublime from the ridiculous.

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