In 2012 John Urry, an authority on the subject of mobility, examined in a paper titled ‘Mobility and Proximity’, why at all people need to travel with the emergence of communication technology. Eight years later, in a post-Covid world, the question has assumed more significance than Urry would have imagined.
Why indeed were we so mobile – travelling and commuting, clocking up miles and being slaves to transport schedules? E-commerce brings both luxuries and necessities to our doorstep. Erstwhile jetsetters are realising that they wasted their time in airports while they could have been equally productive on Zoom.
There have been more virtual reunions of school and college friends than there ever were in the pre-lockdown phase. Since people across countries are working from home, even transcontinental family meet ups are happening more regularly. Religious ceremonies, including weddings, have taken place online. Even the venerable Tirupati Devasthanam is conducting its utsavams – which were always oversubscribed – online, as participants repeat mantras at home.
It does look like all that pre-Covid mobility was futile, using up fuel and time. And yet, six months after ‘Work From Home’ entered the common lexicon, those whose offices are still closed are becoming increasingly restless. So are students who are trapped at home doing online classes.
For office goers the workplace is an alternate life with colleagues, canteen and cooler talk, while virtual meetings are sanitised shadows of that world. For students, school life is absurdly incomplete without the action packed day of running in the corridors, hurling things around in class and being punished by angry teachers.
A key missing piece of what used to be a ‘normal day’ is the commute to daily destinations of the workplace or educational institution. Travel forges a connection between human beings inhabiting the same space-time coordinates. The people waiting under a bus shelter in the heat or squashed into a local train compartment, are fellow journeymen, with a shared destiny, at least temporarily.
When there is a train breakdown or a bus has a flat tyre, passengers who are complete strangers until then, become a squad, often speaking in one voice. It is that subtext of being together for some duration of life’s voyage, that makes previously unknown people open up to each other.
Mumbai’s local trains are legendary for the bonds that co-passengers build – sharing meals, playing card games and swapping life stories – so that they have spawned their own humorous stereotypes. In countless movies of all languages, the chance encounter in public transport is often a turning point in the hero or heroine’s life.
For schoolchildren, the bus ride is much more eventful than what transpires in the classroom. The after-school bus ride is its own narrative that unravels after the last bell rings. ‘Bus friends’ are a separate genre. The bus journey liberates one from the constraints of ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ and leaves children to discover friends based on shared interests.
These interests sometimes include the varied condiments and snacks sold by street hawkers who position themselves near waiting school buses. Likewise is the commute to university. Generations of Delhiites who travelled by the DTC buses called “U-specials” to Delhi University campus, would recall that inside these specials was an entire ecosystem that came alive everyday. The experiences had during these rides are as much a part of education and growing up.
Mobility is more than just movement from origin to destination. When we travel, the physical proximity of others and our interactions, silent and spoken, fulfil certain needs in us as social beings. Many events in many lives, fictional and real, would not have happened if people had skipped the travel and seen each other only on Zoom.
We crave mobility also because it represents a freedom that we take for granted until it is threatened. Women have historically fought for the freedom to be mobile, sometimes taking extreme steps like disguising themselves as men to travel on a ship which forbade women, like the 18th century French botanist, Jean Baret did.
The mathematician Ramanujan had to defy tradition to cross the seven seas to reach Cambridge to pursue his studies. The first wheelchair was invented in 1595 specifically for King Philip II of Spain, who did not want gout to limit his mobility.
Even for those who seem to be trapped in their daily commutes of long hours in crowded buses and trains, mobility sets them free to step out of the boundaries of the home and pursue their work, social or leisure opportunities. As Urry concluded, certain needs remain unfulfilled in virtual connections and hence corporeal travel is necessary to build social capital – the networks that keep a society’s wheels moving effectively.
But in a post-Covid world, do the milling crowds of the railway station, co-passengers and vendors in a bus stop add to the romance of travel or to the threat of infection? With a face mask and shield amidst fear and suspicion about who around us might be a carrier, can one still enjoy a ride in public transport? Until the pandemic is over and pre-coronavirus conditions return, travel will be more a constraint than the expression of freedom that it used to be not very long ago.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.