Tramjatra Book , rmit_feed


In Kolkata you jostle for a position, boldly stretch out to the handrail and take a leap onto the doorless running-board to squeeze on for the ride. In Melbourne the hydraulic-controlled doors open when the vehicle is stationary and you take your turn to step into an air-conditioned cabin. Electric motors whir and hum. There's movement. A tram journey begins, departing from two tramways cities: Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, in India, and Melbourne in Australia.

The conductor gestures to you to take the vacant seat. I prefer to remain on my feet, from where I can move around and get a feeling for the passage. At one side is the word 'tram', of English origin. To another side is the Bengali word 'jatra'. Joining the two has us underway on a tramjatra, a 'journey by tram', weaving connections between two cities. A group of artists, activists, tramways workers and enthusiasts have departed Melbourne and Kolkata to be aboard a tramjatra since 1996, attracting new passengers along the way. The book in hand is a conveyance for further lines of travel marked by tramways.

Tracks are deeply inscribed in these cities. Parallel lines curve, rise and fall together, at times seeming to join or to veer apart. Tracks can place us on the routes of cultural tradition and have us reinscribe rituals and myths. Those lines can also carry us by blind habit and deliver us to stereotypes and worn-out positions. But their smooth surface is also always being reinscribed in new ways, disrupted and derailed, hybridised and reinvented. Contradictions present themselves. Hand-painted billboards viewed from the airport taxi announce 'Welcome to Calcutta, City of Joy' as I sense the familiar sweet smell and stinging eyes brought by diesel and petrol exhaust gases. The voice of an educated woman in the first-class tramcar tells how tiresome it is to witness that common path of the firingi telling her and the world yet another romanticised hardship story of her city. Back on the streets of Melbourne and we overhear the red-uniformed, volunteer City Ambassador beaming about her hometown's recent status as 'the world's most liveable city' whilst a homeless vendor spruiks for buyers of the latest copy of a street magazine: 'Get The Big Issue here!'

We move, and are moved, in so many different ways. Cars on the street display their State number plates that are adorned with the political party slogan of the State Government of the day, or yesterday, as the case may be: 'Victoria: on the move', or, 'Victoria: the place to be'. I overhear the conversation from the young student couple seated ahead: 'But we are moving beings!' We live out our pleasures and struggles amongst personal, political and philosophical differences. And so it is that State Governments in both West Bengal (India) and Victoria (Australia) have experienced the gaining and losing of power riding their own tramways policies, just as they have strategically deployed the large public presence of the tram for the purpose of bringing the public alongside with their own political imperatives. 'Tram zindabad!' cry Calcutta Tramways Company workers in line with three decades of rule by the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Tram travel is, after all, staged on the street. Tram after tram choreograph a beat to the movement of the metropolis whilst tramways infrastructure weaves through the public imagination. An endless variety of dreams are caught amongst an urban sky that is shaped into segments by the netting of tram wires. The ground underfoot vibrates in varying tones produced by heavy movement on well-travelled tracks. A grimy young man offers his seat to a hard-nosed woman as the screech of metal on metal resounds, and you smell your fellow travellers in close proximity, for better or worse. Being gathered in a tram is a dynamic experience of a community that is constantly created and recreated along the many different lines that pull us together or divide us apart. Hear the familiar ding-ding? The tram purposefully gathers us together to move. If globalisation of the contemporary world really does increase possibilities for making new connections, who chooses to move with whom?

A wave of closure to tramways systems swept throughout the world in the 1960s fuelled by the booming oil and automotive industries. The private automobile gained international dominance as the most influential mode of transport shaping urban development. Things are slightly different now, as a renewed development of tramways, originating in the late nineteenth century, has been occurring throughout the world since the late twentieth century, often now called 'light-rail'. What drives this? The wheel of the tram turns, and returns, travelling with a different logic to a century of linear-oriented urban progress driven 'forward' by industrialised 'development' and 'modernisation' with its associates of 'built-in-obsolescence', 'the individual' and 'upward social mobility'. Was the tram ahead of its time?

The back-and-forth of the tram makes a different kind of time. Rather than being driven by the overly simplistic modern march of time, tramways afford us a sense of the historically specific moment that resonates with memory and imagination. Tramways have been integral to the emergence of these two colonial cities. Yet tramways can also be seen to play a role in threading complex networks of relationships that exceed the dominant power relationship of the colonial. The tram is a poor carrier of the logic of the straightforward, for the tram criss-crosses all over the grain of one-way monologue and mono-direction to weave multiple layered interconnections within the urban condition. The tram transports dialogue.


Parallel lines cut across each other, return upon themselves, and deliver us to points similar to and different from where we start over again, and again. Settle in to a tram ride as it makes time to bypass the hasty speed of short-term trips in favour of an adventure through questions of mobility and connection. The journey ahead moves through cultural, technological and aesthetic juxtapositions. Paths laid by the bookÕs contributors lead us through the two cities to encounter differing cultural values, skills, knowledges and orientations to the contemporary world. A familiar face fleetingly appears in the window of a tram of strangers moving in an alternative direction. Opportunities for movement spring from encountering such arrangements of difference. Rather than erasing differences, moving back and forth, working with difference, has us move forward in ways that make new differences.

This book opens out from a loosely framed question: what happens when we utilise the way of the tram to imagine two cities and relations between them? Four sections lie ahead. DEPARTING visits the impulses and ideas from which a tramjatra has gained initial momentum, and so offers preliminary thoughts to accompany your travel. TRACKING takes us amongst tram conductors, artists, social activists and designers in the tracks of tramjatra events held in 2001. Further connections to people and ideas are encountered in the NETWORKING section, where emerging writers and renowned scholars lead us through Melbourne and Kolkata considering the nature of public transport and issues of urban mobility and politics, community and culture, public art, education and learning, development and globalisation, poetics and tramways, and the role of imagination and memory in civic culture. The lines of thought found in the more scholarly chapters of this section are poised between the clatter of multiple voices evident in the chapters at either end. The section opens with a chapter that collects diverse commentaries by 'passengers' who speak of how they have been transported by their encounter with tramjatra, whether with dismay, difficulty or delight. The last chapter at the furthest end of the section veers toward possibilities, taking us through the speculative ideas of artists and designers that reveal some of the extraordinary potential value of tramways - a domain of urban culture little travelled. And just as all tramways systems have a place to gather, rest and share resources, the SHEDDING section is where you will find curious and useful evidence of tramways, tramjatra and this book's contents.

I got started by 'tracking' back and forth. Bimal cut 'tramjatra' in sticky vinyl letters of Bengali script. Friendships formed. We moved letters toward words and into phrases that we painted in lines behind the heads of passengers seated onboard their trams. Eight years later my step from the Esplanade tram is met by one of those phrases keenly recited back to me by a young man. 'His city is a collection of the routes he has travelled.' Bhalo. You make up your own mind. Your tram is here, your ticket is issued.

Mick Douglas

Posted by tramtactic