Engines vs. Elephants - Train Tales of India's Modernity
The encounter between engines and elephants was represented in colonialist writings as metaphors for ‘clash of civilizations’. Precisely because of this reason, the essay uses this binary to delve deeper into the train tales of India’s modernity. Peoples, technologies and places together made up India’s railway modernity. In events, claims and histories such as those of alleged British superiority and native ignorance lay the train tales of India’s modernity.
In encounters between engines and elephants we find the everyday practices of this modernity. Institutions and their role in the process of nation-state building of course give us a bigger picture of political and social change. Laws, regulations and policies do speak about the intention of the state and the production of subjecthood (or the lack of it in some cases). But stories connected with quotidian matters, fantasies and imaginations, satire and rhetoric, and more importantly their retellings are no less powerful than factsheets of institutions to understand the complex encounters and adaptations that constitute modernity in its processual form. The power of steam was pitted against the force of Oriental beliefs. The essay, which makes use of a largely untapped rich visual archive available for railway studies, however argues that the tracks of modernity often did not erase the site of tradition. In place of simple framework of competition and co-existence it proposes to explore the transport modernity of India through regional and functional segmentation and dependence.
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