Of Train Journeys and Dialogic Spaces




By Stuti Desai-Moorchung

Dialogue requires creating a series of increasingly conscious environments in which a special kind of “cool inquiry” can take place. These environments, which we call “containers,” can develop as a group of people become aware of the requirements and discipline needed to create them. A container can be understood as the sum of the assumptions, shared intentions, and beliefs of a group. These create a collective “atmosphere” or climate. The core of the theory of dialogue builds on the premise that changes in people’s shared attention can alter the quality and level of inquiry that is possible.” 1

William Isaacs

When I look back through my life experiences, one of the first places I encountered such a “container” was a railway compartment. My first memories of travelling are going through these journeys in the train with my family for our summer holiday from the east of India to the south of India. These journeys would last approximately two days. Two whole days that we would spend eating, sleeping, reading, and talking to strangers who were sharing the six-bunk space with us, even as we traversed the hottest terrains, sharing our food and, sometimes, a lot more.

I remember how the children who shared the compartment with me became my inseparable friends and partners in crime. We would run from bogey to bogey, stand at the door despite dire warnings being issued by both sets of parents, spotting people from the window and waving at passers-by. We would share the games we had and invent new ones to while away the long afternoons when our respective parents would grab a nap. We would stay up to listen to stories, ghosts in trains being the top favourite, and continue whispering secrets after lights out.

This behaviour, however, was not restricted to the children and our parents too, found a certain level of camaraderie and friendship from conversations that started with the train schedule, moved to cricket and then politics. Meals became combined, tea-time snacks were shared, pickle recipes were exchanged, tips and tricks, ranging from the removal stains to managing household chores, were swapped. From bemoaning relatives to political regimes, no topic would remain uncovered. The journeys would almost always end with addresses and promises to keep in touch being exchanged.

What made these train journeys the “container” for such dialogic exchanges? Was it merely a product of actual meeting of the minds? What was so unique about them; was it the timing was it the forced sharing of space that a compartment would bring?

When I look back at these spaces through the lens of the Dialogic Method2, I am able to answer some of these questions: In essence, that train coupe the elements – both non-physical and physical, that are quintessential to creating a dialogic space, and allowed for the application of the principles of the Dialogic Method.

Non-Physical Space:

  • Non-binary space: As virtual strangers who were cohabiting this small space, the conversations were more open. There was no fear of judgement, no wrong or right stances taken on any side. These compartments opened up a channel for all perspectives to be shared. Yes, oftentimes people of opposing views shared a compartment, but somehow that seemed to add more zest to the discussions, an almost deeper connection was always fostered. For instance, I still remember a very long conversation between my father and another gentleman, about politics. My father and the other gentleman had very opposite views on how Indian politics was faring at that time, and whether a certain leader was competent or not. They actually discussed this in great detail, each putting forward their points of view, their ideas, with certainty but neither was in it for “winning” the argument. This was very different from the conversations my father would often have with people who had opposing views in other situations or settings, outside that compartment. Those conversations tended to be loud, argumentative, with each one trying to convince the other of how they are right and the other is wrong. What remains most surprising is that this other gentleman was someone we kept in touch with through our various changes in residence and locations, to the extent that he came with his family for my wedding!
  • Participatory Space: Confined for 48 hours within the space, one could choose to just not create that rapport. One can “disconnect” from the space by being silent, listening to music, reading, or sleeping, if one does not want to engage with the other travellers. During college when I would travel alone by train, I had at least six novels (I admit I was in college when Kindle was not around, ‘nuf said) and always chose a top berth. The grand plan was to stay in the top berth, read, eat, and sleep and never come down to talk to people. My idea of paradise on earth till date. No one to bother me, nobody to fuss and I do not have to talk to anyone.

Sometimes, however, on the rare occasion when I felt like it, I would leave those novels forgotten on the top berth, come down and have long conversations with other travellers. Again, those deep conversations would happen, the deep sharing would happen. It made me realise that the forced spending of 48 hours in one space with strangers did not by itself mean that I had to engage with others. It was always a choice that one made to engage with others. That choice actually gave me a certain inexplicable freedom. When I chose to engage, it made me freer, less constrained, less apprehensive, and most importantly more open as it was my choosing that led to the engagement, and not some forced social construct.

  • Value creation: From my various train journeys I learnt a lot, ranging from random book recommendations to places to visit. I learnt how to make the best chole kulche, to getting a deeper understanding of football. I met IAS officers, army men, musicians, teachers, and so many others. Amongst the many people I met one elderly gentleman stands out in my memories. I was travelling from Pune to Hyderabad via train. I was extremely upset, my loan for my masters was not coming through, I was sure I would lose out on going for my dream master’s program. I was broken-hearted and extremely angry. Sitting next to the window as the train plodded on, I was looking at the passing visage with unseeing teary eyes. The elderly gentleman sitting opposite and offered me a tissue for my unwept tears. He just silently offered it up. No questions asked, no answers given. For one hour we sat that way, quiet and deep in our thoughts. When I finally had the courage and the control, I said thank you. He said welcome and offered, “If you want to talk about it, I am willing to listen.” These words opened a floodgate, I spoke to him at length. He listened quietly and non-judgmentally. After telling him I felt a sense of relief, a sense of almost being soothed. I thanked him for listening to me. We then moved to the typical social niceties and general conversation. Towards the end of the journey the elderly man suddenly said thank you to me. I was startled, and I asked him why? I had done nothing to earn that thank you! He started sharing, he said he had a daughter close to my age about to enter her second year of college. Listening to me stress and worry about my future, and worry about disappointing my parents, made him realise how much pressure he had been putting on his own daughter. How, it might affect her too. He thanked me because my sharing of my woes helped him reflect on what was happening with his daughter. When we look for value creation as an element, we sometimes presume to look for something tangible, but that day on that journey we were both thankful for the other’s presence. Train journeys and those compartment walls have created bonds, broken down stereotypes, helped minds meet, and created so much intangible and unmeasured value, be it a recipe or a silent reflection space.

Physical Space:

When I see my train journeys from the lens of dialogue, I also realised one more thing. One cannot really call the train compartment a physically dialogue inducing space, can one? I mean it is hot, not air conditioned, sometimes the fan would need the not so gentle persuasion of a comb, stick or scale to work. There would be long stretches of silences punctuated by the rhythmic “dhug – dhug” of the train, followed by some intervals of extreme cacophony as the train screeched into a station and the passengers would alight, board, the vendors would sell their wares, some passengers would run to get a quick smoke, or fill their water bottles. In many ways the physical elements of a dialogic space as I understand them cannot be found anywhere within the compartment. Then what is making these spaces so dialogic?

Could it be that the compartments allow for all the six passengers to see each other at all times, due to the seating? Is it the forced proximity that creates the dialogic space? These are questions that still need to be explored to be understood. Which is why we need physical spaces to be designed in a certain manner till we can probably uncover the physical elements of the compartment that makes it a dialogic space and are able to replicate it.

With these questions still in mind, I am going on yet another train journey, where I hope to uncover these facets and go through a new dialogic space. Or maybe it is a container that is as William Isaacs puts it “a “holding environment” in which it is possible to welcome the aggressive energies as well as the more delicate qualities of human beings.”3


1 https://thesystemsthinker.com/dialogue-the-power-of-collective-thinking/

2 https://kshetra.space/the-principles-of-the-dialogic-method-an-introduction/

3 https://www.ideaconnection.com/interviews/00172-Thinking-Together-Part-1.html