Have you heard of an author called Heather Wood ? Have you heard about this book “Third-class ticket” (1980)? No? Neither had I, until recently. But someone gave it to me, suggesting it might be interesting to read, and I took it along with me during this trip to India.
There has never been such a book. It’s unique. Somebody says somewhere inside that it’s more a story of gods than of men. What he means is that it’s a story which belongs to reality, not fiction. Men can only tell stories which come out of their imagination, and in that they are limited by their imagination. But gods do not need imagination: they see things as they are; their stories are the fabric of our lives, and what our lives reveal.
Third-class ticket follows a group of Bengali elderly villagers along their lengthy voyage across the Indian subcontinent. Here’s the map:
The reason for this 7-month trip, by train, is a village landowner who has herself travelled throughout the world, and knows of the knowledge it can bring, and wishes the people of her village to open their minds to the reality of this world. She has no family to whom bequeath her fortune, and goes to Delhi to open a fund from which the Indian Railways will draw to enable parties from the village to go on tours of India. The first to go are the village elders, all 44 of them. And the introduction of the book says that the author, Heather Wood, is a Canadian anthropologist who has been able to follow them during their travels.
But why is the story so fascinating? Because of the proximity of truth. Because the voices we hear, the faces we imagine, the figures we feel beyond the words are real, and the overall balance of personalities which compose the group of villagers is one of unity against hardships, of thirst for discovery and knowledge, of honesty and disinterestedness, patience and generosity. There is folly and bigotry, resentment and silliness, but the negative is so well counterbalanced by the positive that one is given a picture of a growing community because it bases itself on common sense and friendship. The difficulties of the long and adventurous travel are faced with the ingenuity of children, but also the wisdom of the old. Away from the sheltering and recognised biases and habits of their homes, the villagers must revert to their collective consensus before they go on with a decision. They cannot invoke traditions or village practices any more. The rules which work there are no longer self-evident, or do not apply because the initial conditions aren’t the same.
The group is in fact testing their own lifelong resources in new experimental situations, out of their familiar environment. And we are made to witness this experiment in humanity: a group of poor Bengali villagers thrown out of their lifelong milieu, equipped with their traditions and limited understanding of the world, who must confront and compare other worldviews, other social, religious and economic perspectives, and try to make sense out of them. But they aren’t youngsters; they’re elders who carry with them an experience and wisdom of human affairs. One could expect them to have built their worldview for good, and not be able to change it. Well, if some cannot, or won’t, most will be able to do it, and that’s what the book is about, we witness how their acquired knowledge of a very limited portion of the world, a small Bengali village, and the fifty or seventy years of life there, has prepared them to abandon or at least bend their former conceptions.
Their travels quite normally bring questions into their minds, such as that about “India” – what is this India? Why are we part of it? Are we really “Indians”, and what relationship does this new identity have with the fact of being Bengali? Same thing with democracy: they discover it is they – by this system – who elect the members of Parliament, and that they should not let the money-lender tell them for who to vote. A lot of practices seen or heard about are a source of much puzzlement and debate. The book is full of these debates, and the villagers are made to talk in succession, often without the indication of who is talking, thus giving their exchanges a Chorus-like effect. We are no longer, in those cases, faced with Reena or Nirmal, with Babla or Surendra, but only the voices are heard, that evaluate the problem, express agreement or disapproval, question, criticise, admire. Inevitably, they come to realise that they have changed; their ways are no longer those they used in the village, where everybody knew them and placed them in their histories. Confronted with other travellers, people from different origins, different languages, there are forced as a group to define and defend their identity, they understand that what Uma Sen, their benefactor, has done for them is something which everybody wonders at, sometimes disbelievingly, or disparagingly (“waste all that good money on old illiterate Bengali villagers”) and this gives them an importance, a recognition which they have to cope with. Among the group, some think their pride will be their downfall, that they have offended the gods, that their destiny wasn’t written out in that way.
Most importantly, the voyage challenges their eating habits. Elderly people on a trip need good meals to remain active and pleased. But they only eat food prepared by their own hands, or by a cook who knows what they eat in Bengal. But this can only last for a while. One day, their cook leaves, and they have to resort to their own limited resources, and soon suffer from hunger. They will not eat what other people prepare. Some fall ill because the travels and the visits are too tiring with limited food. A doctor has to come to look after them, and after that they understand that their lifelong beliefs will have to be changed, that they won’t be able to last long if they don’t eat food prepared by other hands, with other ingredients than those they know. They agree to this alienation because something more important has dawned in their minds: understanding and discovering means changing, and relinquishing customs once thought intangible and self-defining. Through this alien nourishment, their bodies will no longer be controlled by themselves; they depend now on others, and have become different from who they were first. This is the classic benefit of travels, of course, but it takes a special interest here, because the villagers for most of them are uneducated and poor. And so their education is humbling to us who have been lucky to profit by it at an early age.
Education! What a paradoxical theme for a story which revolves around 40 odd senior citizens, some of which are illiterate. Could they learn something? And if they do, what will they do with what they’ve learnt? Won’t it be wasted on them? Yet, strangely, these poor elderly villagers are the best pupils. Their simplicity and honesty have kept them ready to see and learn. They are able not only to recognize beauty and truth, but appreciate them and proclaim them. They have no prejudices (or lose them as they go), to stop them from going towards truth and goodness, even when the latter are shown under a foreign attire. Most of us have a hardened system of references which often stops us from welcoming what is good and true outside this frame. But if you haven’t been too educated (you need some prior tutoring), then you do not feel a new fact or emotion is running against what you already know. This is their position.
Then of course everything takes on a religious or spiritual meaning. Their travels are soon understood as a pilgrimage; Uma-Sen is their guide; her picture in the railway carriage is garlanded with flowers. The villagers confer special significance to chance meetings, sometimes to little words or events (which some say is superstition and others not); the temples and rivers are all devoutly visited, even rapturously so. They criticise the tourists who just tour without an overall mission, intent on photographing everything without really seeing, and apparently giving no heed to gods and religion. Some of them even consider other religions’ gods as worthy of respect or veneration, and they fight over this issue, as some believe that entering a heathen shrine will bring impurity on all of them. But this minor attitude is soon brushed aside, because together they evaluate other people’s lives with a clear-headed common sense, and learn a lot by way of tolerance.
The group itself is a marvellous collection of personalities. There’s Surendra, the sturdy, resistant cultivator who’s always smoking his biris, and who acts as an unconventional philosopher; there’s “simple” Deepaka, the wonderful open-hearted and generous mama. She’s the ever welcoming, ever loving, profoundly religious protector of the group. There’s Reena, the incredible story-teller who enchants everyone with her talents, and knows how to soothe with words, making everybody forget time and space, worries and sorrows. She goes round India collecting books of stories to bring back home and in the end is praised as being India’s living memory. Narend is the dependable giant of the group, who saves many while on their exhausting climb in the Himalayan hills. He’s a wise man, a strong soul who slowly evolves from silent guardian to great friend and educator. His old wife, Rhunu, also burgeons out during the seven months; at first retiring and shy, overwhelmed by the social negation that women are made to feel in her village, she is slowly given confidence and praise, for she’s a wonderful colourist. Like Mitu, another villager who sketches their sights and lives throughout the travel, she captures the essence of the group in her drawings, and is spotted by a museum curator who asks her to paint after the trip is over. Most extraordinarily, her formidable husband accepts that she go, leave the village and stay in Calcutta for the period of this practice at the museum. Such is the beauty of the transformation that has taken place!
We are also introduced to many other charming characters, Harischandra, the most learned of them all and the translator, Ashin, the little teacher who dies of pneumonia, Amiya, the revolted widow and aspiring doctor who has been denied her medical career and learns to cure everybody before she is shocked into folly and death in one of the book’s most moving incidents. Old Nirmal, who has to be sent back by plane, Uma and Jaydev, Elder De, traditional Babla, proud Arundati, Bankim, not forgetting caring M. De, from Baroda House, who follows the group from afar, entrusted by Uma Sen with the mission of organising of the travel details and resources. One person is strangely absent, and that’s the author, Heather Wood, who is supposed to have travelled with the party “for a short time” (says the Author’s note). But she’s probably that “western girl” whom they meet first in Aurangabad, who is never identified as the author of the book, but holds a special place in the story. She comes back later, near Cape Comorin, and is considered as their “daughter”. If she’s the one who wrote the story, one can only marvel at her reconstructive powers, because according to the narrative, she only stays with the group a short time, and yet she tells the story from beginning to end, 340 small script pages long. A long and patient work of investigation is implied in that reconstruction.
There is a beautiful ending to the book, when everybody has reached Calcutta, and before they take the final train back to the village; the story focuses independently on a few of the aforementioned characters: Deepaka, who goes back to see the priest who had given her a lotus before leaving on the journey at the beginning, and who meets a little beggar girl that night in the streets. With the help of the priest they manage to offer her a position in an orphanage where perhaps she’ll stay, provided Deepaka comes to fetch her for the holidays, at the risk of being branded as crazy by her family back home. Surendra goes through the city in search of a tiger to complete his overall capture of his country’s diversity! He knows it’s a little foolish, but he’s that kind of dreaming, unpredictable old man who still retains some of the child within him. Reena pays a visit to the Belvedere Library and despite difficulties to enter (she’s considered as a beggar, something which all of them have had to fight against all along), she earns the right to be considered a citizen of the world of letters. Then there is the scene already alluded to, when Harischandra, Mitu, Narend and Rhunu go to the museum and are met by this intelligent curator (they have met so many dumb or prejudiced people during their travel that even if intelligent persons are not infrequent, it’s always a relief) who detects real talent in both Mitu and Rhunu, and offers them the possibility to come and study and work for the museum institution. Then Harischandra who has kept a written record of the journey is asked if his book can be copied by the museum services as a precious testimony of village traditions and anthropological document. All are abashed and bemused; nothing, almost, had prepared them for this recognition. Here is what the curator tells them:
“Listen friends, what gives a people hope? Is it good harvests? Is it the weddings? Is it a feast? No, these pleasures will pass. We hope because we have children and we see again all things new in their eyes. You say that cannot be so for all, since you all do not have children, and all who have them are not happy. Yes? Is it so? Listen again. For a nation, for a land of many people, children are the times to come, the lives we have not led, the houses not yet built, the pictures not yet made. All that gives us hope, gives us reason to struggle through the illnesses and the loneliness and the years of drought. Why? I shall tell you. Because we are taught by all we know of the past that what each can do becomes greater if his chances become greater. (…) You have just lived through something which one year ago could not have happened. Out of it you have made a treasure for those who come after. (…) It gives me hope that all that is good can never be crushed away and hidden. There must be a remembering. As long as there is remembering there is hope. The power of India lies in the cities, and mostly I think it is wicked. But what endures all powers? The village. The life you lead which is here in your pictures. That is the memory which India must hold to hope and withstand whatever the powers do.” (p. 313)