The Mumbai Chronicles - 1: 'Local Love'
One of the most distinctive features of Mumbai are its local trains. Carrying God knows how many commuters daily, it is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to travel in Mumbai. Convenience, however, is not one of their virtues.
Having traveled by the ‘Local’ (as it is simply known locally) twice daily, to and from work, for the past week, I’ve got a deep perspective on what a sardine, in a can of sardines, feels like. Except there are more sardines packed in this can than it was meant for. My recipe for the Mumbai local is to take two cans of sardines and stuff them into a single can. Then roll it on its sides, and you’ve a mini Mumbai local. Sometimes, you might not get to go inside one, even though you might be traveling by it. I wonder if there’s any refund that you can claim by virtue of you not actually traveling ‘inside’ it. How much would they charge you if you only occupied a shoe space?
Mumbai is one long thin stretch of a city. Which makes it ideally suited for a train transport system. There are very few routes, because from any given place, there are mostly only two directions of travel: north or south. So the Borivali-Churchgate local is enough to transport everyone on the West side of Mumbai. Similarly, there are a handful of other routes that adequately cover the rest of Mumbai.
The trains run extremely frequently, and you rarely have to wait more than five minutes to catch one. But while the concept of time is rigidly adhered to, the concept of space ceases to exist in this part of the universe. Space can be bent, squeezed, created or vanished, defying all the laws of mechanics.
The drama begins as the train starts pulling into the station. There is a mad struggle between those that need to get down, and those that are getting in. Even the most advanced trains in the world haven’t been able to design an automatic boarding and getting down system, the likes of what the Mumbai local has achieved, albeit with a little help from the passengers. The best way to get in, I had been told, and which I now practice, is to lodge myself in the middle of the crowd getting in. Then all I need to do is surrender to the will of the mob, not resisting any push and treating every shove as guidance, and I wind up inside the train automatically. If, however, you’ve been lax, or complacent, or underestimated the challenge that lay in front of you, and are now left on the periphery of that boarding horde, then you have to make a difficult call. Do you grab onto a handle/a pole/someone’s hair (or tie!), and thrust one leg into the crowd to try to ‘hang’ around, enjoying the wind rustle your hair? Or do you back out in cowardice, trying to delude yourself that the next local won’t be as full, and that waiting a few minutes won’t kill you? I haven’t seen anyone choosing the latter option yet.
The guys hanging outside often enjoy traveling that way. Some, however, desperately wish to see the insides of the train. To that end, they heave and push the mass of humans, trying to create space where none obviously exists. The scene reminded me of when I tried to shut my suitcase after I had filled it beyond capacity. I pushed and pushed, hoping that things inside would squeeze just a little closer. Apparently, this works with humans too. Amusingly, none of the ‘pushees’ mind the ‘pusher’s’ pushes in the least bit. There is no annoyance, or complaint or even an acknowledgement of the vigorous pushing going on. You know there’s no malicious intent in the guy behind who is trying to squeeze the wind out of your lungs. You could be doing the same tomorrow. So you just try to transmit the push to the next guy, absorbing as little of its force as possible.
Assuming you’re somehow traveling with the train (inside or otherwise), the next step is no less tricky. If it’s not your stop next, you’ve the task of dodging the two human ‘trains’ of people getting down and those getting in. Since they always have a head-on collision, it is imperative for your survival that you not be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now that you’re in, and are able to manage staying in, its time to meet the people inside. You don’t talk to them, or even look at their faces. Instead you give them a bear hug; the kind reserved only for the closest of friends or long lost relatives. You’ll unavoidably be held in position by a tight embrace by everyone around you. Your entire body is in physical contact with someone or the other. The boundaries of your body have disappeared and you are at one with the crowd. The hand in front of your face could be yours, or maybe not. You try to move your hand, and if the one in front of you doesn't move, then yours is probably somewhere else.
So, you’ve managed to survive all that, and are nearing the stop you need to get down at. Now, however, is no time to relax. It is the trickiest part without doubt. The first time I had to get down, I was surprised to see people jumping out before the train even stopped. As I waited for the train to stop, I realized why they did that. An angry mob yelling and letting out blood curdling screams was jostling to get in. The screams are a way to intimidate and test your resolve to get down. You wonder if you should try getting down in their midst or back off and let them in, over-traveling a station or two. But then you realize that you have to get down somewhere, and it’ll be the same scenario everywhere.
But now with experience, I know that the way to get down is the same as the way to get in. Join the crowd getting down and let go of everything. You’ll find yourself on the station without any effort.
Many more interesting phenomenon on the Mumbai local are yet to be experienced by me, I’m sure. There’s anecdotal evidence that there are seats inside, and people get to sit and travel, that sometimes you can stand apart and have a conversation with your fellow passengers instead of the usual bear-hug. But I think these are just urban myths, and I won’t believe them till I see them with my own eyes.
Reading all this, you’ll wonder why on Earth would anyone (including me) travel by the Mumbai Local. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think right now I wouldn’t travel by any other way, even if given the option. This is the only place in the world where you can travel like this, and for a temporary resident of Mumbai, the opportunity is too exotic to miss out on!