It happened today - April 16, 2016
Do you like trains? I do. I really miss the Flying Scotsman without ever having been on it. But my attitude is more than a bit peculiar because I am nostalgic about trains whereas in their heyday they were hugely disruptive agents of modernization, about which I am not so much ambivalent as negative.
Take, for instance, the first passenger railway service in India, which opened on April 16 1853, connecting Bori Bunder with Thane. OK, I have no idea where either of them is, or at least I wouldn’t if Bori Bunder were not described in my source as “Bori Bunder, Bombay” which means it’s in Mumbai. (And it turns out it’s slang for “sack storage” which lacks the exotic feel of Bori Bunder.) Thane is a few miles up the coast. These things start small. And the next thing you know, you’re checking them out on Google Maps.
Including if you’re in India. For in the end the railway, and modernization, transformed India profoundly, unifying it, leading to an independence movement and, after a long detour through Soviet-style central planning, making it one of the genuinely promising emerging economies with a substantial high-tech component and a vast if frequently trite film industry. In short, an increasingly modern place.
I do not think most Indians would today wish to jettison all those things and go back to ox-carts and petty rajahs that are very quaint to read of in books or see in TV dramatizations. But I do not know how they feel about the fact that it is only because the British came, built railways, established schools, and set an example of a modern society that India is what it is today.
Without Adam Smith and James Watt, the Indians were not going to invent trains spontaneously for a very long time, probably ever. Without the West and the Industrial Revolution, there would not be one electric light switch anywhere in the South Asian subcontinent or, indeed, the world.
It is many years since I was in India and rode on what were then comically Third World railways, dirty, alarming, crowded and riddled with demands for baksheesh. I expect they are a lot nicer now and again I do not expect anyone to be nostalgic about what they were then like except tourists who get to swoop in, take photos and swoop out again. But perhaps some Indians are nostalgic about a world in which trains were a strange and dazzling novelty instead of a fading technology in a world where the elite flies, owns private cars and dreams of self-driving cars.
I do wonder how most people in India feel today about the British. When I was there the notion that British rule had been basically bad, unfair and insulting, and independence was at once the beginning of all good things and a reconnection with a pristine past unsullied by imperialism was still pretty much a shibboleth. Hence renaming Bombay Mumbai among many other things. But it was very bad history. Perhaps it is now recognized in part as such.
As for me, my nostalgia for steam engines is self-consciously paradoxical, a longing for a world that was not yet so dramatically transformed by modernization as to be as vulgar, hollow and materialistically empty as our own seems on a bad day. I even miss those early Indian trains because they are part of that vanished world in which Queen Victoria set the standard for decorum. Yet it is those same romantic trains that carried that world off. And I know it.