Every state has created narratives which help its citizen to identify with national culture.  These narratives are the foundation on which the state is built.  Domestically, they are a useful political tool. Globally, recognizing national narratives can help one to understand the roots of different cultures.

These narratives are generally constructed from two sources.  The first source draws from historical events.  These events are simplified and often altered to highlight a moral value.  For instance, Britain has created a narrative around the signing of the Magna Carta.  This event has become a symbol of Britain’s inherent love of egalitarian liberty.  In reality, the event was an attempt by Norman barons to supplant the monarchy with an oligarchy.  It was over 600 years before a true democracy was established in Britain.

The other source of national narratives draws on common symbols and experiences.  For many countries, the national flag is the embodiment of national pride.  Holidays, such as Independence Day, also are common rallying points for patriotism.  Objects in everyday life, such as food or transportation, are also utilized for their symbolic value.  After all, what is more American than apple pie?  Comparing both the narratives and the symbols on which they are based is vital for two countries forging a closer relationship, such as the United States and India.  Both use a mode of transportation to create a national narrative, but with strikingly different storylines.

Life is a Highway
Despite rising oil prices and environmental concerns car ownership is still deemed necessary in the United States.  The typical argument for the importance of car ownership focuses on the sheer size of the country.  Urban planning and climate are also common examples of why Americans need cars.  American policy remains focused on maintaining the automotive industry at the expense of mass transportation.  Arguably, this is evidenced in the distribution of relief money during the recent economic crisis.

One of the real reasons why cars are necessary is because American has used the symbol of a convertible racing down an open highway as its definition of freedom.  From the post-WWII era, cars have meant independence.  Individuality, mobility, and self-discovery are all attached to the concept of an American car.  Since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road cars have been associated with a rite of passage that is uniquely American.  Nearly every American can tell you his personal narrative of earning a driver’s license.

American’s transportation narrative can be directly contrasted with India’s.  It is currently popular to compare these two democracies and enumerate all the ways that they are influencing each other.  Business, military, and political ties are growing.  The Indian diaspora is making its mark on the US, while American media has found a home in India.  All of these exchanges have not yet altered the symbolic narrative based on the Indian train.

Chal Chaiyya (Let’s Go)
While the Ambassador and Maruti cars have made their mark on Indian transportation, it is only when talking about train journeys that most Indians will wax nostalgic.  Stories center on long train journeys where all the travelers in a compartment told stories and shared food long into the night. Famous movies, such as <i>Dil Se</i> focus on connections made on train platforms and in railway compartments.  Train travel in India is a communal experience that is available to all its citizens, thanks to its graduated fare rates.  Generally, those who can afford to travel in air conditioned compartments do so, but it is rare to find a college student who doesn’t have a story about the time his group of friends took the sleeper coach for holiday travel.

The narrative of India’s trains is about a communal experience.  The narrative of American’s cars is about an individual journey.  At this basic level one can see that there are fundamental differences between the orientations of these two cultures.  Recognizing and celebrating these differences will help to smooth the path of cultural exchange.  It is easy enough to eat chicken tikka masala or watch Hollywood movies.  It is harder to understand America’s emphasis on the individual or India’s emphasis on the community.  What may seem like nepotism to one is hiring trusted employees to the other.  What may seem like selfishness to one is independence to the other.  Recognizing and understanding national narratives can create more comprehensive international relationships.

By Erica Mukherjee

Photo attributed to: Aotearoa

Written by Erica Mukherjee