Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Soul of a Commuter

[. . .]
People like to compare commutes, to complain or boast about their own and, depending on whether their pride derives from misery or efficiency, to exaggerate the length or the brevity of their trip. People who feel they have smooth, manageable commutes tend to evangelize. Those who hate the commute think of it as a core affliction, like a chronic illness. Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out, and, if your ears are tuned to it, you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere: mode of transport, time spent on train/interstate/treadmill/homework help, crossword-puzzle aptitude—limitless variations on a stock tale. [. . .]

Some take on long commutes by choice, and some out of necessity, although the difference between one and the other can be hard to discern. A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth. [. . .]
Nick Paumgarten in a brilliant essay in The New Yorker on commuting: There and Back Again—The soul of the commuter.

There's much in that essay that a Mumbai commuter would relate to:
  • The loneliness quotient of the commute.
  • The "compulsive attributes" of a commuter: figuring out where to stand on the platform to get into the correct compartment, which compartment would be the best for exiting at the destination, which would provide the best chance to get a seat.
  • The hardening of commuting habits in order to "alleviate the dissipation of time and sanity."
  • The "illusion of fellowship" in crowded public transport where even alighting from a train or a bus "requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations."
And much more: How "regulars" instantly recognize a novice, the routines of the pros, and that tragedy of long-distance commuters for whom "loneliness is no longer merely existential. They hardly even have the opportunity to feel estranged at home, their time there is so brief."

Take it from me there's much there for a commuter to identify with and ponder over in that essay. I should know: I am one of the extreme commuters—I spend nearly five hours traveling, by train and by bus, to and from work every day.

Though commuting is generally deadening (and sometimes fearful) often things happen that infuse the daily "there and back again" with some lightness and fun. Check out this post, and this one. Maybe this one as well. Commuting by a bus in Mumbai's monsoon is usually a horror, but not when the city is receiving the first rains of the season.

And you should read this book.

No comments: