Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Synopsis : I look back at what we have discarded in the process of development and remember many things the British brought to India that we do not see any more. The modern era has ushered India into the computers and cell phones, digital world of TV and communication at a breakneck speed. No one can foresee what the future will bring but we can see the social effect of the technology that has made people less social, more apathetic and greedy. There were some good things about the past we have discarded.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow :

It is nice to remember the things that are no more or people who have long disappeared from the collective memories of humankind because one day we too will disappear wondering if anyone will remember us.

Let us face it. People have short memories and some one no matter how famous he was in his days is forgotten or dimly remembered by the old people but unknown to the young generation who one day also will become old and the next generation will not know who was Madonna or Rihanna or Barack Obama.

But I want to write about the time when I was young and saw and remember many things that have totally disappeared today.

In the 1950s :  The British had left India only a short three years ago but all things British remained in  India. I did not know any thing about the freedom struggle or who was Netaji Bose or Gandhi was but my father knew. He used to sing patriotic songs in Bengali to us because the independence was so new then and people were still trying to get used to it so the patriotic songs were still in vogue.

Our morning assembly at school always started with patriotic songs that I can’t remember now except a few lines but we were told that the British are gone for good and we are all free for the first time in our history, that our form of government is democratic and our leaders like Bose and Gandhi are the heroes.

But as kids we were not too keen on such things because we did not know what it was like to live under British rule and we had never heard of the massacre at the Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar or where Amritsar was. We learned about these things much later.

What we thoroughly enjoyed was the monthly show of Laurel and Hardy , Charlie Chaplin and other such movies that were shown on a big bed sheet strung up on two bamboo poles in our playground in school and we could sit on either side of the screen and did not care if Charlie Chaplin was using his right or left hand because he was so funny.The fee called entertainment fee was collected by the school each month but it was only 25 cents of a Rupee. Our tuition fee each month was only 3 Rupees but to put it in a proper perspective , one Rupee could buy one kilo of mutton and 150 Rupees a month was considered a good salary in those days.

The post card, envelops and inland letters were stamped so you did not need to buy stamps and glue it on . People used telegrams to send mostly bad news like so and so has died etc. so a telegram was always dreaded. The telegraph people often mistyped the words on a white paper ribbon which they tore off and glued onto a telegram form that were then rushed to delivery. There was no such thing as telex then.

Our home entertainment was around the Raymond radio that our father bought and strung up a wire mesh aerial on two bamboo poles to get a good reception. It was made in England as were most of the things then but the radio took a while to warm up the glass tube like receptors called vacuum tubes. There was no transistor those days.

There was no television either. The radio had to be licensed at the nearest post office and Pa had to pay an annual fee to use the radio.

People did not know that there are other kinds of radios like two way radios that police use because the police did not have radios and only carried sticks or batons as per British tradition.


I remember an old man bent with a ladder on his shoulder and a can of kerosene in one hand slowly walking up to light the lamp posts every evening because the street lights were just kerosene lamps and the old man was called the lamp lighter just like in England.

We had a small kerosene lamp that fit in front of our bicycle to give a little light but  not much. The adults wore long pants and a steel clip to hold the pants near the ankle so the pants would not get caught in the chain of the bicycle. Many men wore a British style khaki hat made of light material and kept well styled mustaches. Snuff was kept in a fancy small pocket size vial because that too was a British introduction to India.

The British were innovators par bicycle13excellence . I will give them that. They made a canvas bag called hold all in which one could keep a blanket, a pillow, some clothes, towels, shoes and other paraphernalia that people needed to travel with. This thing folded neatly and was then rolled up and tied with straps of leather and could be easily unfolded on a wooden bench seat on a train to make a comfy bed to lie down on .The third class in trains had only wooden benches and people got in or out through the windows if the trains were over crowded.

The trains waited near the outer signal before entering the station if the platforms were occupied .Now this outer signal was a piece of British sophistication in those days because it too functioned on kerosene lamp that some one had to light up everyday and keep the kerosene tank filled. The signal man pulled a long lever that brought the red , green or yellow lens in front of the lamp to give the appropriate light to the driver of the train. Ingenious. This was the same system in England. They had many different gauges of tracks. The broad gauge,the meter gauge and the narrow gauge making train travel difficult because one had to transfer from one gauge to other.


Source : Google photo of a steam engine

But what was most impressive to a child like me was the gigantic steam engine called Canadian engine that shook the platform when came and hissed and blew the horn to put fear into our infant hearts. The fireman shoved coal into the furnace to make more steam and the driver polished the machinery constantly. Once I took to train to Kolkata and arrived there looking like African, so dark was my skin with soot not to mention my hair but that was nothing compared to the joy of riding a train.

There were many such inventions brought to India by the British.1365874414-img_2876_primus_5_jnr_opt

One of them was called a Primus stove. This piece of wizardry had a place of it’s own because it was a small brass kerosene tank with three small legs with a small spindle in the middle with a cup around it. You filled this cup with alcohol or some flammable liquid , light it to heat a small metal disc on top and then pump the tank with a piston attached to it.

The spray of fuel on hot disc produced a high heat flame and made the disc red hot. It was like Bunsen burner that we used to use in our chemistry labs later in college days. You could cook anything on this stove in minutes except that it was unstable and sometime tipped over causing the fuel to spill and light up instantly .There were many accidents and women using this kind of stove died horribly so eventually it was banned.

Another British invention was the bachelor’s stove which was very popular with young British men who came to India alone and often worked in remote areas. This contraption was very simple and cylindrical. It had a charcoal burner at the bottom, and a series of cooking pots that fitted on top of each other with a handle on top.

You could put rice and water in the bottom pot,put a pot of water on it and put mixed vegetables in the third and so on . It all got cooked by steam and the bachelor had a decent meal anywhere. My father had one like that but I never saw him use it though.

Then they brought to India the famous DuckBack raincoat. Imagine that even a raincoat was imported from England. It was called Duck back because the rain fell off like from the back of a duck.

Well, the list is long but I just wanted to touch on a few things I remembered in those days but they all have disappeared now.

The railway uses modern electronic signalling system now installed by Siemens and gone are the steam engines and multiple gauge system. The trains now have bars on windows so no one can get  in or out through like in old days and the second class coaches have thick cushions so you do not need holdalls.

They also left behind marble statuary everywhere reminding us all that once they were the masters. The marble statue of queen Victoria sat under a huge marble canopy in the middle of the New York central park size park in our home town called Alfred park holding a scepter. It was brought from England and made to perfection but her nose  was broken by some kids later who had no fascination for her during the heydays of the freedom struggle.

Then there was a huge marble monument in another park called Minto park where the faces of royalty like Victoria,King George V, Lord Minto etc. were placed on each side of the monument but they are all gone now .The inscriptions are also chiseled out just like what the ancient Egyptians did to their pharaohs whom they did not like. May be the Indians took their cue from the Egyptians ,I will never know but it took them quite a while to remove all the statuary from India.

Today:  Today India is a very different country from those days when we were young. I saw the transformation starting to change the landscape when back in 1960s I saw the electric cable being strung up on top of the railway bridge that I used to cross everyday to go to college. Soon came the electric trains and diesel trains that doomed the old fashioned Canadian engines belching black smoke.

New roads, highways, bridges , airports ,housing and many such infrastructure sprang up like mushrooms every where. Massive new housing projects , new hospitals, schools and other such buildings came up just like magic and has not abated. India continues to grow at an astonishing rate and it can be seen. The new subway system in all major cities that rival the best in the world now carry millions of people daily.

You no longer have to wait in line to buy a railway ticket or bus ticket anymore because it is computerized and can be booked even on line.

The airlines issue e tickets and e checking facilities at major airports and the number of airlines has increased dramatically. Their service is another matter but the fact is that more and more people are travelling by air or in high speed trains.

What is remarkable is the number of motor vehicles on the road now that are creating horrible traffic jams in cities and parking is becoming a serious problem everywhere. People have graduated from bicycle to scooter to motorcycle to cars in a matter of only one generation.

No one during our childhood had a scooter let alone a car. We either had rickety bicycles or just walked. Most of these vehicles are now being made in India in mind boggling varieties of models and sizes.

There was a time when one had to wait for five years just to buy a scooter because it was a monopoly then. The monopoly was later broken allowing anyone to manufacture scooter or motor vehicles.

One can see another change in India that is very interesting. You can see towers of cell phones or communication towers loaded with antenna of all sorts in all parts of India specially in rural areas that are increasingly being electrified and joined with concrete roads. Farmers and the common people now use cell phones which has brought about major changes in business practices and the way social services are being delivered everywhere. You also see hundreds of wind mills and huge solar farms in some parts.

Gone are the days when people had to vote by ticking on a ballot paper. Now it is electronic and tabulated nationwide in a matter of days right after the election. People are given their salaries or monies earned directly to their account by the government cutting out the middlemen and reducing corruption and exploitation.

The government stores food grains, dals, sugar etc. in massive quantities in every district in every state to be sold at subsidized prices to every citizen so everyone has access to low cost food in the whole country. This is a big change from our days.

Another big change is in the availability of generic drugs that are made in India and sold at a low cost to anyone. This causes problems with international drug companies that want to sell their high price drugs but the Indian government is pro poor so encourages generics.

The school children in some states are given free bicycles, books and even cheap laptop computers which is a big big change from our days. The government feeds millions of school children daily. All children in all schools were given free vaccinations , eye check up and other free medical check ups that continue today. The small pox and malaria has been eliminated as a scourge in most part and people no longer die from TB these days.

We did not know about such things as computer, internet or cell phones because it did not exist .Nobody believed that someday you could talk and see at the same time on Skype anyone anywhere in the world for free. Nobody knew about digital cameras and its ability to send photos instantly to anyone anywhere . These modern  gadgets have brought profound changes in today’s society in the way they communicate with each other.

The television has come to India in a very big way almost beyond belief. I counted 82 satellite Chanel providers in one city alone so everyone is hooked to satellite TV watching CNN,BBC etc. but also foreign movies from Hollywood that are being dubbed in local languages and spread throughout India. Almost every home has the TV, fridge and other gadgets that were once limited to rich people proving that the middle class is growing and creating more demands for goods and services.

New malls are springing up in big cities giving people more choices and quality products and services that the old system could not.

Even Uber and similar services are at the finger tip of any one who wants to rent a car or taxi giving people more choices. India has opened up to the world in a big way.

In short the wide range of products and services that are now available have made life a whole lot easier than before for the average person but at what cost?

Tomorrow  : Now I come to the last part to assess the impact of the breakneck development on people and how they interact socially with each other.

Now the kids seldom play together like we used to and are glued to their TV or computer to play video games.

Now people seldom drop by to see how you are doing and have a cup of tea or take a walk together in the park like we used to.

Now everyone has a cell phone in his or her pocket peering constantly at it for new messages in Facebook or twitter and pays little attention to his friends or anyone.

India has gone from bullock carts to space age in a short time that took the western countries many generations to achieve but has also paid dearly in terms of devaluation of basic humanity we took for granted  during our time. One seldom hears the words like thank you or please and there is less emphasis on a person to person contact.

Now no one has any time for you or play carom board or ludo or monopoly. They say those are obsolete games today so the social interaction we used to have has diminished drastically.

If cell phones, curved TV or gadgets could improve the quality of life of a person then just look at the so called developed countries that are finding it so hard to cope with teen age pregnancies, immorality, gun violence , domestic violence , drugs and the social problems that are the result. People are being thrown into jails for years just because of a broken tail light or worse. A young girl suffering from cancer and with severe disabilities is thrown down and beaten by the agents at the airport just because she could not understand what they wanted. They showed no compassion.

A young man is shot dead because he was pulling out his Bible from his pocket  and an autistic child is shot dead because he was playing with a plastic toy gun.

Will India become like them in the race to become a developed country? I hope not.

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