ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Heather Wood’s Third-class Ticket 

A Subaltern Inversion of the ‘Gentleman Traveller’ Motif

This forgotten and out-of-print travel book remains perhaps the sole document of the countrywide tour of 45 Bengalis in 1969.

The “modern travel book” has long been shaped by the archetype of the elite “gentleman traveller.” Paul Fussell, in his influential work Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, coloured with sentimental colonial nostalgia, identifies erudite and eccentric figures such as Robert Byron and T E Lawrence as the “founders” of this genre. Even in postcolonial times, the “gentleman traveller” persists as a trope, exemplified in the travel writings of V S Naipaul and Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975). Here, I explore a postcolonial and subaltern inversion of this trope through Heather Wood’s unique, now out-of-print book, Third-class Ticket (1980).

Third-class Ticket depicts events from 1969 in rural West Bengal, where a philanthropic landowner bequeaths her wealth in a trust fund to enable batches of villagers to travel across India and “broaden their minds”—a radical postcolonial reimagination of the European “grand tour.” In this distinctive blend of fiction and non-fiction, Wood documents the transformative seven-month India tour of 45 Bengali villagers. An Oxford-educated Canadian engaged in anthropological research in Bengal, Wood aligns herself with the erudite tradition of “gentleman travellers.” However, rather than assuming the role of the journey’s protagonist, she places the unlettered villagers, travelling in a third-class railway carriage, at the narrative forefront. The book chronicles the local subalterns’ encounter with their “other”—the nation state of India. These villagers, identifying primarily as Bengalis, are largely ignorant of constitutional laws, which differ radically from their entrenched feudal, traditional village laws. This inversion of the genre challenges the norm, as the privileged author–persona takes a backseat, allowing the “other” to drive the narrative. However, this does not automatically translate to narrative agency for the subaltern as their subjectivities continue to be mediated through the gaze of the White anthropologist.

Forty-four village elders, accompanied by the village schoolmaster, Surendra, find themselves on a journey for which their patron goes to great lengths, even arranging for a cook on board to prepare Bengali food for them. The author’s path intersects with theirs in the south, and she shapes a narrative by altering names and withholding information about the villagers’ identities. The village itself remains unnamed, referred to only as “Srimati Uma Sen’s village at Sealdah.” The poor Bengali villagers become the focal point of this journey, the protagonists in a nearly coerced expedition that stands in stark contrast to the transnational, cosmopolitan travels of figures like Sasthi Brata, marked by Anglophile angst. These two distinct modes of travel coexisted in the late 1960s in Indian history; however, the documentation of a subaltern journey through mainstream India is a rare and unique phenomenon, challenging the prevalent motif of the privileged traveller/gentleman/bhadralok in mobility accounts.

Wood, the narrator, shifts her focus among the numerous characters, detailing the mundane routines of their train carriage lives, their petty conflicts, their struggles to break free from traditional thought structures, and their insightful observations and conversations throughout the journey. A specially provided third-class carriage by the Indian Railways, in accordance with the benefactor’s will, carries this group through a journey filled with hardships, mishaps, and travail in the most laborious sense. The journey unfolds in two dimensions: the physical train travel through diverse terrains and cultures, and at a psychological level, portraying the anxieties of the travellers—an aftermath of their almost forced encounters with alterity. The villagers lack agency in this situation; they did not request this journey or the establishment of a travel fund through the rich landowner lady’s will. The money, they believe, could have been better utilised for the welfare of the village and its impoverished, illiterate inhabitants. This forced confrontation with alterity brings great psychological and physical trauma to the villagers, including the death of their guide due to pneumonia and the subsequent descent into madness and suicide of Amiya, an elderly village healer.

Structuring it like a novel with an omniscient narrator, Wood only appears in the author’s note preceding the narrative. She describes the story as a real journey undertaken as part of a funded anthropological study on Indian history. She reflects that the tale of these villagers has continued to haunt her, even after her return to Europe, subsequent studies, marriage, and continued travels. The villagers routinely face discrimination as beggars when venturing into cities and towns. Mitu, the potter, busies himself creating sketches of the journey and the travellers, ultimately forming a valuable document of this extraordinary travail. Wood herself also makes an anonymous appearance in the book, described in third person, as the villagers head towards Cape Comorin.

The ticket collector admonishes her for purchasing a third-class ticket as a White foreigner, insisting that all affluent foreigners must travel first class in India, focusing on its culture and heritage while bypassing widespread poverty and scenes of misery. This underscores how the villagers find themselves as travellers, placed in this position by the whims of a wealthy benefactor. As they journey through the unfamiliar south, their sense of alienation intensifies, and Amiya, the healer, descends into insanity. After shaving their heads at Tirupati, her sense of dissociation from her former self is complete. Squatting on the railway tracks, she awaits a moving train and dies crushed beneath it. Though the villagers are shocked and anguished, many secretly feel relieved to be free of the burden of her escalating madness. They decide to conclude the tour upon reaching Calcutta, forgoing the planned journey to eastern Himalayas, anticipating that subsequent village groups could undertake more extended journeys in the future under the trust fund. Upon arriving in Calcutta, there are no officials to receive them at Howrah station, concluding such a gruelling journey that, beyond defamiliarising trauma and pain, has also resulted in two deaths.

The book’s conclusion unfolds through letters sent by the schoolmaster to a railway official. He details the bleak fates of the travellers upon their return to the village, now filled with refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War. Within a few months, elderly villagers from the veritable group of tourists die. No further documented trips occur under Srimati Uma Sen’s trust fund, and the inaugural journey, intended to establish an annual travel tradition, is presumably the last. Mitu’s book of sketches, an archive of the travel and the travellers, is preserved in the village temple, which unfortunately burns down a few years later, resulting in the loss of all records. Wood’s forgotten and out-of-print travel book remains perhaps the sole document of this strange journey.

 

 

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