Updated: Oct 8, 2019
"Beta, travelling in Mumbai is suffering. You either accept it or stop travelling.". These words from my dad in late 2010 felt like life slapping me into semi adulthood. You either accept the situation and make the most out of it or stop complaining and let things happen or quit altogether. Travelling in Mumbai local (branded as Mumbai's lifeline by many a news anchor) was a rarity for me growing up. Living in Navi Mumbai meant my school, my friends, my dad's office, the mall, the answer to "What is life?" was all between Panvel-Vashi. Only my cousins, who lived in Mumbai and areas surrounding it (Kalyan), forced me to get out of paradise and head towards the railway station/ bus stand. We weren't well off to afford a car growing up but it came before I finished eight grade. So my only experience of travelling in locals was with family, away from the horrors of peak hour.
My school which I attended till my 12th grade was across the road. I couldn't get late even if I tried. Imagine my excitement when I got admission in a college in Bandra and looked towards travelling everyday in the hallowed Mumbai local. Millions of people did it everyday, I could do it too. No sweat! Sweat. Lot's of sweat. Life asks you the question first and teaches you the lesson after you fail. Mumbai local neither teaches you nor does it pose any questions. It just rains down upon you like a shower of shit without a lever to turn it off. All day, everyday. My sheltered upbringing had denied me the opportunity to see Mumbai locals for what they really are. The conditions patently squalid, these caravans are the most important piece of infrastructure in India's largest city. One breakdown, and millions of people part of thousands of businesses suffer together rendering the city temporarily paralyzed.
Some of these trains are in operation for more than a decade, forcing these archaic wagons to carry the hopes and dreams of people living in the economic capital of the world's second most populous nation. The fact that around 2000-3000 commuters die because of local trains every year should be reason enough for them to be taken upon like a national emergency. But as I grew emotionally and mentally over the years, I chose to try out option one and tried to make the best out of the situation. I chose to see Mumbai local as an organism. A living entity with its own personality, quirks, preferences and philosophy. A friend, a teacher and most importantly, an inescapable part of my life that has shaped me as a person more than I give it credit for.
Mumbai locals have their own vibe. Divided into compartments - general, ladies, first class, second class, handicapped, luggage and of course one for the driver, every part of this organism has its own story. The only compartment I've never traveled in is the driver's! Due to my student status for most of the past eight years, I traveled in first class. Subsidized passes and all! I've got into the handicapped compartment once due to that being the only opening available for me to get into a train I just couldn't miss. A true Mumbaikar will never leave the opportunity to utter these words they swear are in the Bhagwad Gita "Second class and First class are the same. In fact during peak hours first class is worse!". These people are usually the ones who don't own a first class pass but I don't want to go there. First class is better than Second Class not because it is less crowded, but because it smells better. There, I said it. Judge me. I will ignore it sitting on cushioned seats.
Coming to the last and my favourite compartment, the Ladies Compartment! I've learnt more about women and female nature by observing this compartment than dealing with actual women in my life. That explains my dating success but let's save it for another post. One would expect this compartment to be full of politeness and camaraderie but like most things in life, it is anything but. A cut throat space made worse by the fact that the number of working/ studying/ travelling women has increased in our country but is not reflected by the size of this mythical metal box. To add to everyone's woes, for some reason, women in general don't move an inch to allow a fellow traveler to sit or stand more comfortably. Most general compartments full of men have the feel of a moratorium destroyed by a B-52 bomber but the ladies compartment is like a non stop podcast. Young women will usually be on their phones listening to songs trying to avoid the creep staring at them from the adjacent general compartment. But ask any girl you know if she prefers the ladies or the general compartment and you will have an interesting answer.
The personality of Mumbai local stems from the fact that most people spend more time in it than with their family. No wonder there are men who sing bhajans for hours using the metal boards surrounding them as percussion base to make the journey bearable. Uncles playing cards using briefcases is a common sight. Long before the advent of mobile phones and news apps, the newspaper was a staple for the travelling Mumbaikar. Cramped spaces could go to hell because bespectacled uncle wants to read about Politics and will do so even if it means brushing his hand on my genitals while turning the pages. Beggars are as common as hawkers who will sell anything ranging from wallets, torches, jewelry, toys, coloring books, stationery to snacks. Sometimes shirtless boys will sweep the floor and demand money for their effort. Other times there will be a band of siblings performing admirable yet unsolicited gymnastic feats and then proceed to collect their fees. Transgenders consider locals a huge part of their lives as our society's pathetic treatment toward their kind forces them to survive from alms collected from scared/ amused travelers. I oblige them once in a while in exchange for their blessing.
Every traveler has more or less each others back, literally! Yes there are fights and arguments, but in true Mumbai fashion they are nothing more than trash talk. Of course things do escalate once in a while with people on loading their frustrations with their fists. Pick pockets love Mumbai locals for obvious reasons. Talk about a captive audience! I've lost watches and know friends losing phones and wallets. Oh the mayhem when one is caught! It's peak MMA (Marathi Manoos Anger) for everyone to witness. I've seen adolescent thieves roughed up till they coughed blood and being put into custody. Another form of thief is the ticket-less traveler. Oh what fun it is to watch someone explain to the TC that they forgot their pass at home, didn't realize this was first class or threw away their ticket JUST FIVE SECONDS AGO Maa kasam Sir! It was less funny when it was me travelling with a pass that expired over the weekend.
But what made me fall in love with locals is the brotherhood. Once I passed out in the train due to an overdose of alcohol I had before I boarded. What I didn't know was that it was a Belapur local and was meant to go to the car shed after the final destination. Blissfully unaware, I was sleeping in an empty train when an uncle departing the boogie woke me up and told me to get out lest I wanted to wake up in the middle of nowhere post 10 pm. There have been times when I was sick and people around me offered their seats after realizing I was struggling to even stand still. There are unspoken rules of kindness. Old people have the right to sit before anyone else. No matter how bad the situation, men make way for the elderly to travel with a little more dignity and some sense of comfort. It is this part of Mumbai local that I've come to acknowledge and love.
Travelling in trains has taught me more about time management, planning and contingency preparation than any lecture during MBA. The past eight years have taught me patience and empathy. No matter how bad things get, there will always be an opportunity. Always another train. Another wagon to take you home and drop you closer home than you were a couple of hours ago. This post is not meant to whitewash the inhuman conditions of Mumbai locals but to draw all the good things it entails. Yes, things can improve and yes, the metro is coming since forever. But till then, it's all we got. And getting in isn't easy and travelling even more difficult. Noisy, smelly, oftentimes late, less than perfect, a pain, a necessity, but the next one is coming soon. And you must be ready. For a commute that's nothing short of a journey.