By Pradyut Hande:
The hyperkinetic metropolis of Mumbai is rightly given the epithet of ‘The City that Seldom Sleeps’. Like an obsolete piece of machinery, tarnished on the surface and corroding at the edges, the city ‘chugs’ on relentlessly. No ‘spanner in its wheels’ can render it inactive for long. The hubbub of everyday life ensures that there isn’t a solitary dreary moment in the average Mumbaikar’s life. One can almost feel the throbbing pulse of omnipresent bustle in the city’s smog charged atmosphere. Nothing epitomizes the ‘Mumbai way of life’ better than its quintessential local trains — the city’s lifeline.
It was thus, with a mixture of great anticipation and trepidation, that I first commuted using the famed Mumbai local. After waiting an eternity in a serpentine queue, I finally purchased a flimsy ticket and walked purposefully to the precise platform. The fisherwomen chattered away animatedly, blissfully oblivious of the fact that their assorted fish baskets, emitting a most ghastly stench, were obstructing the entry to the platform. A rapidly swelling crowd congregated all along the platform, awaiting the train. Surely there wasn’t enough room for them all! I thought to myself, in wonderment. But lo and behold! As soon as the train chugged into the station, even before it could come to a halt, I was swept into the raging sea of humanity that drove me into a cramped bogey — moving with the flow, quite literally! I barely had time to collect my thoughts when a second ‘wave’ (of people!) charged into the bogey. I found myself without a seat, standing (read crouching!) near a window, gasping for air. Within minutes the bogey was amok with sweaty bodies jostling for space. Expletives in several languages rang out from various corners, as the train exited the station briskly.
I gazed out of the grimy window to be met with the frightful sight of people precariously standing on the footboard, most nonchalantly. I looked around intently attempting to soak in the myriad sights and smells. An obese Gujarati merchant yakked away incessantly on his BlackBerry, as if his life depended on it. A smartly dressed Sardar carefully inspected his shirt for any stains and glowered at anyone who dared to tread on his fancy shoes. An elderly South Indian couple huddled together in a corner, whispering in an indecipherable language. A bevy of folksy, loquacious Marathi women talked about seemingly everything — rising food prices, balding husbands, potential matches for Ranbir Kapoor and Rahul Gandhi were all discussed with equal fervor! “Aajke joghonno raaash!”, remarked an over healthy Bengali lady to her disinterested husband, on the terrible rush that Tuesday morning. Hawkers came peddling a multitude of products from torches, knives and questionable throat lozenges to scented candles and ‘magic money purses’ (a fancy name for your wallet!). I watched in awe as an enterprising few, making judicious use of time, tried catching a nap whilst standing in the congested aisles. A toddler bawled uncontrollably somewhere in the background. The dank, fetid air made breathing an unenviable challenge. A kindred soul beside me advised me to move towards the exit a couple of stations before my intended stop. Heeding his advice, I made my way, inch by agonizing inch towards the ‘gate’, colloquial for exit. One had to contend with the multiple threats posed by pickpockets and flailing limbs hitting you where it hurts most whilst bearing with the unremitting ‘breathing down the neck’!
Strategically positioned near the exit, the now customary sea of humanity shoved me out of the train and onto the dusty platform. I walked away mostly unscathed, melting into the surging populace of commuters. Thus, ended my maiden excursion on a Mumbai local train — one etched in my memory forever!