The joys of being ‘third class’

Third class as a journey meant the magic of Indian Railways… families travelled like refugees, with trunks, and you adjusted, shared food...

Modern theories of efficiency and equality are such that one loses a celebration of the marginal. Ever since socialism, we have removed the category called “third class” from our trains and our lives. As an upwardly mobile nation, we want to travel first class and as a truly global country we want our institutions to be world class. Our presidents and vice-chancellors were upset when they realised that our IITs and IIMs are not world class.

As a child and as a student, I loved the word “third class”. I always felt while travelling in trains that first class was distant, second class was prim, but the dabba called third class was a joy, a celebration of its own — a place where joy blooms even in discomfort.
Third class was an invitation to adventure, a promise of surprise and hospitality, a claim that those who had less had more to give and more to share. A third-class compartment conveyed a sense of surplus, a belief that its space, no matter how dense or Malthusian, was ready to absorb a few more. When the government introduced the category “third class sleeper”, I felt as if a new category of luxury had been invented in our socialist land. As a child, I swore I would write an autobiography as my memoirs of a third-class life.
In an age where “first class first” was a pomposity, brittle as an Indian ego, third class evoked subsistence and surprise. I loved the third-class minds of my school. They huddled in the back and created an esoteric culture of their own. I believed third class was a category that meant a lived democracy, popular, populous but never populist. The third class was prudent, humble and careful about the present.
I wanted to make a list of third-class cities. Kolkata, both real and imaginary, topped it all. Kolkata was excess — the city of the defeated struggling for survival. At a time when the word “development” had blue chip quality, Kolkata was gloriously third class, a third-class world that Marx, Mother Teresa, Naxalites, poets and revolutionaries embraced. Kolkata was my favorite third-class city where nothing worked and everything was workable. It was a perpetual compost heap of the defeated, dumped, damned — all living out the last juices of hope.
Third class as a journey meant the magic of Indian Railways, where families travelled like refugees from place to place, where suitcases were huge trunks and Samsonite was still a distant word. Third class did not spell scarcity. It had an accordion-like quality. You just adjusted, lived with what you have, accepted limits, shared food, enjoyed the magic of puffed rice called moodi, and celebrated little things which acquired a sense of cornucopia.

Third class was my naïve idea of Indian democracy. Democracy to me was a theory of hospitality, of sharing, of adjusting, of acknowledging presence and not worrying about rights. Rights screamed the worlds of contract and property, but democracy was sharing, give and take, adjustment, the ability to improvise with little, to allow for discomfort so the perpetual miracle of one more person could be accommodated in this elastic commons.
Third class emerges when people have little; it evoked a different notion of everydayness. Today the label “third class” sounds like a death sentence, a denial of possibilities. In my childhood, third class was an ecology of tolerance, a sense that most people did not have enough and yet life was worth living. Third class was a way of life. It was secondary. It was definitely not affluent. But something about the struggle and joy of people made sure it was not second rate. Materially, there was not much. Hope provided colour to the drabness and an occasional success story provided a shared fraternity for all those who failed to make it. Third class was a cosmopolitan world where failures told stories of unbelievable success. Third class was the domain of storytelling, an Arabian Nights world where every struggle, every exam, every battle to keep your neck above the water acquired a heroic quality.
I will tell you what destroyed the everydayness of the third class. It was not the stratification system which thought whites and babus were first class. Those worlds did not bother us except for the gossip and occasional scandal we relished. It were economists and development experts who coined the term “Third World”. As a student, I resented the idea of the Third World. It was a cage which created a museum of my world and its limits. It took the fun out of the word “third class”. Now third class was mediocre, backward, underdeveloped. It was subject to analysis. We could not be, because we had to be developed.
Third World took contentment out of the world of the third class. It created a new social realism where our world was drab, colourless and mediocre. The romance drained out of the term. It was a tragedy that few recognised or analysed. The death of the third class had no storytellers. What was a continent and a way of life now became a pejorative term, an object of contempt.
Nostalgia summons me but I know I cannot return to my third-class world anymore. It has lost its cultural power, desiccated by the puritans of success. It is a lost world, and as one of its munshis, all I can do is mourn and miss it.

The writer is a social science nomad

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