Chennai Subway

The Chennai subway runs roughly from the Northeast Chennai Beach Station to the Southwest area of Guindy. But to call it a subway is misleading; there’s nothing underground. The sun passes through the train car and settles on the dust of vintage ceiling fans. This tired train service moves throughout the city like a good novel, it picks up speed in some areas, slows down in others. The activities within the passing landscape are as interesting as those within the train car. Along the tracks, teams of boys paint distance markers from white to brown, in the  background stands the neo-Gothic San Thome Cathedrale.

In 1848, Felix Cole, the pseudonym of civil servant Henry Cole, wrote Travelling Charts: Or, Iron Road Books–informative guides on historical markers one would likely find while traveling by train. Interestingly, the popularity of Travelling Charts coincides with the popularity of Physiologies, pocket-size books illustrating types of people one would find traversing the Parisian streetscape. Both book types are an attempt at locating static placemarkers within the fluidity of time and space. They are, in a certain way, the first example of moving maps.

Time continues unconsciously. Rail travel was the first instance of traversing space irrespectively to time. It was a monolith of not only modernity, but also imperialism.

19th century London was a fragmented entity of isolated pockets of activity. Its unification as a metropolis may be attributed to the iron and steel construction that established the network of transportation we know today. As London unified through its intricate web of transit, it also expanded outside the city limits, exerting a spatio-temporial dominance throughout the world.

In the 1860’s, Britain established major railway lines in India. These systems were not laid in the interest of moving people, rather, in the interest of pedagogy. The railway lines between India’s administrative capitals coincided with exhibitions such as the Nagpur Exhibition of 1865 and the Punjab Exhibition of 1864, exhibitions celebrating the economic prosperity of the Indian continent under colonial rule.

Taking the train from one end of Chennai to the other does not require an Iron Road Book. History is happening both outside and inside what de Certeau appropriately calls this “box of space.” The true picture of the past flits by, it shoots through both time and space and then turns to dust and settles on these rusty handlebars.

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