City City Bang Bang, Columns

Questioning the Commute?

As we experience an easing of the restrictions that were put in place because of Covid and as offices return to a semblance of normalcy, a somewhat unexpected phenomenon is unfolding. Many employees are showing a marked reluctance to return to the physical workplace. The idea of attending office every single day is simply not making sense anymore. It isn’t as if they haven’t missed being at office; the social interactions that workspaces provide are valuable, the problem lies with the idea of doing this as a matter of rote every single day.

The work-from-home experience during pandemic has taught us that our physical presence is not necessary in most jobs. While there are some jobs of where one doesn’t have a choice to operate virtually, the ingrained fiction that we have all accepted so far, that being in office is somehow synonymous with working, has now been revealed to be a lie.

One of the primary reasons why the idea of going to office is being resisted is the unfortunate necessity of having to commute to work. In larger cities this is an exercise that can take many hours of the day. For some, it is not just about getting to office and back but involves taking meetings that take another few hours just to navigate the distance. Meetings are a legendary waste of time and no more so than those held outside office. We travel long distances through murderous traffic, find a way through the maze of security protocols that companies that have barricaded themselves with, wait for self-important people to stop pretending to be busy and show up for the meeting, chit-chat for a socially mandated period of time to show each other that we are not savages, then get down to the actual meeting only to return to office battling traffic and beginning the trudge back home.

The daily commute has become the defining mark of urban life, the most visible cost that the city extracts from its residents. We live truncated lives, substituting time with the family with the hours on the road. There is little that is inherently pleasant about travelling to work, day in and day out. Public transport is crowded and hot, and driving is a stressful nightmare, a deadening routine. Large chunks of daily time, precious percentages of one’s life gone, swallowed by the deadening routine of going there and then coming back only to prepare to go there yet again.

The local train, the bus, the two-wheeler with the briefcase of the backpack attached precariously, the car- each has its own grammar, its own cadence. Driving to work and back is perhaps the greatest source of stress in urban life, with traffic, pollution and the noise all combining to showcase the city at its worst.

That is not to say that commuting does not have its rewards. The cardplayers on Mumbai local trains, the antakshari singers, the small community of familiar faces that nod reassuringly at each other every single day- these do provide a measure of warmth and comfort in an alien disconnected city.

The regular commuter has a sense of entitlement over the journey that the casual traveller cannot have. This is particularly true of the so-called up/down passengers from farther off towns. As a child, one remembers dreading the influx of ‘regulars’ into one’s reserved compartment as they nonchalantly asked to be ‘adjusted’. No one could challenge the right that they, people who sometimes travelled to a metropolis 3-4 hours one way every day, had to the comfort of a seat or at the very least standing room in their arduous trek.

But to most people, commuting robs travel of the juiciest part of its meaning. What is otherwise is an uplifting, enriching experience becomes either something to dread or a time when it is easiest cope by reducing oneself to a zombie mindset. The hours lose meaning, and time becomes a drone of eternity.

The commute is not dead, by any means. But it has been found out. That said,  for most people, this awareness of the futility of the commute will change nothing. They simply do not have enough leverage in the job market to do anything but quietly go back to their earlier routine. But for a few, the commute is now an option. Its costs have become clear and the rewards of a job are not enough to compensate for these.

The experience of working from home has its own problems, but it restores to our lives time, that scarce commodity that we so need. It helps blur the wholly artificially constructed schism between our work and the rest of our lives. When we speak so unselfconsciously of the idea of work-life balance, we seem to imply that the two are somehow competing ideas that need a negotiated settlement. That somehow work stands outside life and has its own overriding compulsions. This is an idea that business and corporates have helped perpetuate, for implicit in this divide is a hierarchy that privileges work over life.  We are made to feel guilty when we occasionally accord priority to the other parts of our life over the demands of work.

The commute sits at the heart of this breach and is what helps make the two appear distinct. The time taken to reach office is the corridor of transition where we exchange one persona for another. Work feels heroic for one has to labour to reach it. The journey with the toll it takes is part of the myth of work. Unless it takes as much out of us as it does, how is it worth anything? We may not wear armour and get drafted into wars any longer but we do don our daily office uniform and go into the wilds of the street, to eventually return spent only to do this all over again.