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Great train snobbery

But above all, what made me want to become a full-time Delhi Metro commuter — once some doubts about comfort and efficiency were brushed aside — was the Metro’s in-your-face urbanness. Indrajit Hazra writes.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2009 23:26 IST
Indrajit Hazra

For those of you who’ve been using the Delhi Metro to commute to work before Friday morning, skip this column and read my fellow troubadours on this page instead. (Life is short, so rolling over and going back to sleep is another excellent option.) But since I stepped into the Dwarka-bound 9.58 for the first time on a gloriously grey and nippy Friday the 13th morning from the spanking new Mayur Vihar Phase 1 station to go to office, a few steps away from Barakhamba station, I decided I wasn’t going to tingle your bojangles with my opinion on grave or important matters this Sunday. Before my breathlessly long sentences get longer, courtesy the childish thrill associated with my new mode of daily travel of choice (as opposed to the earlier jaunts that were simple joy rides), I’ll air my views on the Delhi Metro commuters’ ethics and aesthetics instead.

Mumbaikars may care to note that I haven’t mentioned ‘train commuters’ ethics and aesthetics’. This isn’t because Mumbai’s local trains don’t have a commuting Manusmriti. It’s just that train travel there and its associative station-hopping references have their own set of codes and mythology.

The Delhi Metro, like Delhi itself, is in the early stages of its urban legend-building. So new entrants to the Delhi Metro Commuters Club — or the Noida-Delhi Metro Commuters Club — such as myself, will be making the rules and setting the code as we travel along. It’s a bit like Elizabethan explorers setting future smoking trends by tasting the tobacco brought from the New World in the 1590s.

The first big-ticket observation I made while hurtling above the Yamuna is that unlike the Metros in most other cities I’ve travelled in, the Delhi Metro, especially across its new eastern stretch, is overwhelmingly overground. Apart from a stunning view of a till -now unfamiliar city — whose car’s eye-view I’m usually familiar with — opening up, my experience was closer to that of my favourite mode of movement: flight. There’s also a huge difference being in a train that’s perpetually tube-lit in which the only view is reflections of fellow travellers on the glass and that of hurtling city scenes outside.

But above all, what made me want to become a full-time Delhi Metro commuter — once some doubts about comfort and efficiency were brushed aside — was the Metro’s in-your-face urbanness. An Indian Railways train, with its never-really-changed-from-the-80s decor, passes through great swathes of nothingness — the geographical equivalent of what Karl Marx once called the “idiocy of rural life” — even as it may connect great, buzzing towns and cities. The Metro train, on the other hand, is a beast hurtling through the city, a shark swimming among the fish.

The Metro station is so different from the over-romanticised, perpetually B-towned stations and platforms of the Railways. The air-conditioned, escalatored climes of a well-lit Metro station, with its kiosks and its signs and its personnel in smart uniforms, are kissing cousins of today’s airports — minus the latter’s many hassles.

So how should the Delhi Metro commuter fashion himself? For one, he or she simply must cultivate the ironic look. On my way back home, I practised my bored look to what I thought was perfection. Even if I was brimming with a certain sense of coolness that I usually radiate in swaggering times, I forced myself to behave as if I was making this very journey for the 200th time. For one of the thrills of Metro travelling is to be cocooned in yourself (even) in a crowd. God made Man invent the iPod for a Metro ride.

Travelling regularly by the Metro makes economic sense. It’s also great for showing upper-class twits how amphibious you are about your class affiliations. For those ‘caring types’, leaving behind smaller carbon footprints can be the turn-on.

But those are all besides-the-point reasons to be sold to the righteous. The only real reason for me to have become a full-blown Delhi Metro addict — with its rituals of packing the right book for train reading, the right newspaper that can be folded smartly, the right music that amplifies the deception of being solitary and stationary even as we are among people and on the move, and, of course, the right train clothes (which I’m still working on) — is that it makes me feel completely modern. It makes me feel like a dandy.