Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023 | Last Update : 10:38 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  05 Nov 2022  Shashi Warrier | Capitalism and the future of train travel

Shashi Warrier | Capitalism and the future of train travel

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.
Published : Nov 6, 2022, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Nov 6, 2022, 12:05 am IST

“No one remembers cassettes,” I said. “Youngsters these days don’t even know about CDs!”

View of a man looking out of an Indian train. (Representational Image)
 View of a man looking out of an Indian train. (Representational Image)

The other day the missus and I decided to visit relatives in Kerala. We took an early morning train, and, after I’d found our seats and put our bags on the overhead rack, I went looking for breakfast. Standing in line at the counter at the restaurant, I saw a man ahead whose back seemed vaguely familiar. As I stood staring, he turned around, and we recognised each other at the same instant.

It was my old friend Alex, and we hadn’t seen each other for twenty-eight years. We discovered we were heading the same way, and, in fact, in the same coach. When we got back to the train, I introduced him to my wife: we had got married after Alex and I last met. We had two seats in a row of three, but the passenger in the third seat offered to take Alex’s seat so the three of us could sit together.

Alex and I had first met on a train in the early 1990s, and over the first hour we brought each other up to speed. Alex, an engineer, had started his own business, dealing in home appliances, while I had continued muddling along, writing a bit, teaching a bit, just about getting along. And, of course, I’d got married in the meanwhile.

After we had caught up, the conversation inevitably turned to how much rail travel has changed since we first met. A passenger in the row directly in front of us was speaking on a cellphone, giving very loud instructions on how to handle a package. We could hear only his end of the conversation and I was glad I didn’t have to work with him. “It’s all these mobiles,” I said. “You can talk to anyone at any time from anywhere. If we’d had cellphones in the 1990s, we would never have struck up the conversation that got us started.”

“Yes,” he replied. He’s a balanced kind of person, so he added, “But you make friends on social media. Maybe we’d have met that way.”

“Right,” I said, grinning, “but I’d never have spilt a cup of chai all over your shirtfront when you were on your way to an important business meeting.” That had happened on another morning trip like this one, when the train had braked suddenly while I had the chai in my hand. The chai had cooled a bit by the time I spilt it, and we had managed to restrict the damage to his shirt. I had taken him to a shirt shop on the way to the meeting where he had bought a new shirt that he hadn’t particularly liked. That incident had somehow drawn us closer. “That kind of thing never happens on social media, but it’s the kind of thing that ties people together: shared thrills and spills.”

“True,” he said. “Real life doesn’t intrude on your relationship on social media.”
The person who had been talking on his cellphone hung up and began to play loud music on his device. I peeked over his backrest and found him watching what seemed to be a TV serial on his phone with the volume turned up to the maximum. It was unpleasant, so I asked if he’d mind turning the volume down.

He got earphones from his bag and settled down to his serial, leaving us in peace. “There was none of this entertainment back then,” Alex said as I sat down. “At best you had a Walkman… I wonder how many people now even remember those things, and what a difference they made to music lovers!”

“No one remembers cassettes,” I said. “Youngsters these days don’t even know about CDs!”

In a seat across the aisle a ten-year-old girl produced a phone with a large screen from a backpack and began a WhatsApp video call to an old lady, who turned out to be her grandmother. The girl and her mother were going to see her grandmother, and the girl made the WhatsApp call just to tell grandma that she was on her way. After she hung up, she turned to her mother. “I told grandma,” she said. “Now can I play Candy Crush?”

Just in case you get the impression I was eavesdropping: I wasn’t. People were speaking so loudly I couldn’t help hearing what they were saying. In the midst of the hubbub, Alex leaned towards me. “You know what?” he said. “I think Internet-based apps will develop so much that people won’t have to travel to meet people. That girl across the aisle, for instance: with 3-D viewing, she could stay at home and meet grandma whenever the old lady’s lonely!”

By this time the ambient noise level was so high that it was impossible to have a soft-voiced conversation. The arrival of a man vending coffee and snacks was a relief. The coffee man passed, leaving behind a strong odour of deep fried snacks, triggering appetites all around. “What’s for lunch?” my wife asked.

“Lunch is on me,” Alex said. “We can order on the Internet, and they’ll deliver.”
He got to a site where you could order food to be delivered to trains. There was a menu with pictures of the dishes available, and we spent twenty minutes deciding what to eat. Alex marked the dishes we wanted and pressed the submit button. There was a pause, and then the helpful message, “This service is not available on this train at present! Try on another train!”

Alex put his face in his hands in disgust, and I heard him mutter, “So much for 3-D viewing!”

Tags: social media, whatsapp, candy crush, kerala