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The Mumbai Local Microcosm

The Mumbai Local Microcosm

July 26, 2011

A trip on a Mumbai local train is like experiencing the whole of Maximum City all at once.

I'm standing on the busy Mumbai Local around noon, politely refusing repeated offers of a seat, and I'm trying to avoid this filthy body of water as it courses around me. It sits up one end of the carriage for a while, forming a shallow pool between the doors, then suddenly we hit a corner and the water's shooting over my feet again. If I stand with my heels flat and my toes slightly raised, the water doesn't reach over the threshold of my chappal soles each time it streams past.

I look at the shoes of the guy next to me – immaculately polished black leather, to match his expensive-looking pants and shirt – and I'm simply glad to be wearing shoes that didn't cost me a fortune. He's talking on a mobile phone, like a number of other guys in this carriage. Notice that I said 'a' mobile phone, for it is merely one of several. He has the one pressed against his right ear, then two more – which look to this Nokia user like Android phones – bundled in his left hand. The bag hoisted over his shoulder looks heavy. His glance darts between their screens, as if expecting an alert at any moment, while he talks constantly into the one against his ear.

Lots of people are talking constantly in this carriage. One group of men, clearly strangers, are debating in Hindi over whether we are going to Victoria Terminus (VT) or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) – which are of course different names for one place, the busiest railway station in the world. Another person talking constantly is this young hipster with his arm around his girl. (Yes, there are women in this carriage, but only a few.) This guy just will not stop talking into his girl's ear. He's jabbering on and on and ON and on without pause, an ear-to-ear grin fixed throughout. He was already talking when I got on at Vikhroli, and he's still going by the time we reach VT/CST. The girl doesn't seem to mind a bit. I'm guessing she's enjoying the attention.

My hearing switches focus to the call of the latest moth-eaten wandering vendor to dart up and down the carriage. (The water doesn't seem to bother him.) Each vendor has their own particular – and often peculiar – method of calling out their offering, and this guy keeps saying what sounds to me a lot like “black magics”, over and over again. When he goes past me, I realise that he is in fact yelling “mathematics”, unless he considers his stack of mathematical formulae books to be an extension of the dark arts. Having swept up and down the steadily less packed walkway a couple of times, he darts out the doors as they're hauled open at the next station, presumably to sell his “black magics” to the next carriage.

That's strange. I always thought Mumbai Local had no doors but today, in the thick, sweaty rain, there they are. I'm shocked. Every time I'd seen it on TV or been driven alongside the tracks in a car, the doorways would be crammed with men hanging out the side while the doors remained conspicuously absent. Now that I'm finally catching it for the first time, the doors are jammed open by the rushing masses at each station – pushing, elbowing, shouting – and then, after just a few seconds, they're jammed closed once again.

I get talking to a young guy who clambers on. Mayur is 18 years old but looks older, and he's heading to class at Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. Like many young Indians looking for a leg up in the world, he has dreams of the Indian Administrative Service. I ask him if he's ever had any trouble on these trains, which seem so thick with contrasting fortunes that they might explode into violence at any moment. He says he's never had any trouble, then after a pause and a smile: “Well. Just small small trouble.”

At that, an older gentleman starts shouting and a young guy by the window and a crowd gathers. Apparently the young fellow barged into an old lady and then, upon being asked by the senior to show him his ticket, failed to produce one. As the older guy scolds and mocks in equal measure, the gathering crowd surrounding the young man laugh at this impromptu sideshow. There's no threat of violence, just a good dose of embarrassment for this young chap.

Out the window, the landscape is unappealing. There's no great scenery of note, just city grey broken by the odd leafy tree or mirrored building. In the open spaces directly alongside the train tracks, more buildings – much smaller and weaker than the grand office complexes rising in other areas – grow and shrink day by day, as do the families and stray dogs that inhabit them. I see one guy staring intently into grey, trash-ridden canal water, and I wonder what he could have been looking at. Perhaps a lost treasure that only he can see a purpose for? Or perhaps his own murky reflection?

Photo credit: Prasad Kholkute 

8 Comments

  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    28.07.11 11:16 PM
    Thanks for the link. Hope your readers enjoy the post
  • Mumbai Local
    By
    Mumbai Local
    28.07.11 06:58 PM
    Pls chk out your post shared at http://www.mumbai-localtrains.com
  • Sunil Deepak
    By
    Sunil Deepak
    28.07.11 02:11 PM
    Good read
  • Cutting Kahlua
    By
    Cutting Kahlua
    27.07.11 10:53 PM
    agrees with Maya about the women's 'dabba' lol
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    26.07.11 02:06 PM
    @Mumbai Local - Happy that you enjoyed the piece. Please go ahead and share the article with a link back here. You can send me the url through the contact page of this site.
  • maya
    By
    maya
    26.07.11 12:16 PM
    The women's compartment (I won't call it the ladies' compartment because the behaviour in there is just not ladylike!) is usually much more vicious than the gents. I've seen an old woman get trampled, and also a bitch fight that drew blood when one woman took another's seat and she started gouging her in the arm and neck! Savage!
  • Mumbai Local
    By
    Mumbai Local
    26.07.11 09:02 AM
    Very well written! Travelling in Mumbai local trains is a one-of-its-kind experience!

    Do let me know if you wish to share this article on the Mumbai Local Trains blog (with appropriate link and credits).
  • umesh derebail
    By
    umesh derebail
    26.07.11 07:56 AM
    Travelling in Mumbai suburban train brings out various hues of the metro life, one can witness fights galore, trampling and frustration bursting at seams. What i have discovered un ironed shirt looks neater than ironed ones after the journey.

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