Thursday, May 17, 2007

Upside-down world

In Europe, throughout the 15th to the 19th centuries, people were fascinated by all kinds of variations on the theme of mondus inversus, an upside-down world in which things would happen in quite a different way to familiar events in our real world. Animals would get humans to work for them. Buffoons would reign, while kings would be their clowns. And, in the antipodean vision of exotic lands on the other side of the globe, people would walk on their hands, with their legs in the air.

In an earlier post whose title was Epinal images [click here to display this post], I spoke of colorful old French engravings from the city of Epinal. The upside-down world theme was a popular subject for these images, as illustrated here:

Yesterday, a Reuters dispatch from India described a wacky offbeat event of a mondus inversus kind. In the state of Bihar, an electric train carrying a hundred passengers ground to a halt because somebody had inadvertently pushed the alarm button. Unfortunately, in its halted position, the train's pantograph (the hinged frame, with a strong spring, that collects power from the overhead line) was touching a neutral section of cable, which did not carry electricity. When a train is moving, its momentum carries it across these neutral sections. But, in its stopped position, the train would have to move a few meters forward along the rails in order to receive the required current. Consequently, the conductor simply asked the hundred passengers if they would be so kind as to get out and push the train forward over these crucial few meters! They got the job done successfully in half an hour, and the train was able to get back to using electric rather than human power.

That story reminds me that, when I was a kid, I used to watch in wonder as pairs of railway workers used their arms to move a big lever up and down, driving a lightweight trolley along the rails and enabling them to attain remote sites where work was being carried out on the lines. I had an exciting vision of my pack of Wolf Cubs setting out in a convoy of such vehicles for a distant camp in the middle of the woods. In my upside-down world, kids would take over the state railways network and use the lines for boy-powered trolley excursions. As I grew older, I even imagined seating our girlfriends on the edges of the trolley, where they would be able to admire our muscular forearms propelling them into Great Adventures.

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