Travelling by train always seems to be an exciting adventure. Not so exciting for people who travel by this favoured mode of transport to places far and near everyday without missing a beat. But for infrequent travelers, trains never seem to lose their paan – stained, rusted, chug-chugging charm.
The first flirt with the Mumbai local train is always an affair to remember. Each person has a story to tell, the matter being more or less similar. In a city where many lives are wound around the railway timetable, I was confident I would find a corner seat of my own. So here I am, with my own story to tell about my first rendezvous with the railways.
On a bright sunny morning, I approach the ticket counter full of hope and dreams but am immediately dejected by the long queue snaking its way into oblivion. People jostle, yell and elbow or knee each other [whichever suits the situation] to move faster [as if that was going to be of any help]. I indulge myself in retrospection while standing at the railway ticket counter in what seems to be the slowest moving queue ever. When I finally manage to get to the finish line I involuntarily throw a rather patronizing smile at the poor soul standing last in the queue [who seems to be atleast a mile away] for being triumphant in my efforts to get to the favourable end of the queue before him. What follows is a not-so-friendly banter with the person across the ticket counter for not rendering the exact change for my fare of from Dadar to Churchgate. After audible grunts and not – so – audible swearing I am finally given my ticket and I skip in the general direction of platform number 2 on the western side of the station to catch the 8.46 am slow local.
Possessing a ticket leads to an entry into the area proudly reserved for ‘bonafide’ passengers only. But when I actually enter the platform and see the number of people who do not look as if they ever possessed a ticket in their life, I begin to question whether the ticket was worth the wait of over 25 minutes. But then there’s a flash of memory of the time my sister was unlucky enough to get caught for not having a ticket and ended coughing up two hundred rupees – and I continue heading towards the second class ladies compartment, swearing at all the nonchalant ticketless souls.
This gives me exactly four minutes to figure out where to position myself strategically in order to minimize the incidence of stampede and hop aboard without much ado. Three minutes later I am ready to board the train – feet firmly planted into the ground to enable the lunge into the compartment, handbag tightly clutched in one hand, laptop hung on the other shoulder and earphones tucked away in the bag to avoid entanglement of any sort. The train arrives with fanfare as the cursing, jostling, yelling begins again. People standing at the door are mercilessly thrown out. It is a situation of ‘Who Dares Wins’ as each one tries to get in. The train coming from Borivali, already over pregnant with people, yet again gracefully pushes its capacity of housing some more. Fifteen seconds later, I am thankfully in the train – without a lost sandal or a broken jaw.
Thus begins a seemingly long and really sweaty journey to south Mumbai. The train is so crowded that it gets difficult at times to figure out which limb belongs to which body. Everyone is extremely edgy and a slight mistake on your part may cost you a minute or two of your life where you face the brunt from a random woman in the train. So I stand as quiet as a mouse and allow the uncomfortable human proximity to torture me. I apologize to the fellow passengers for getting a laptop which occupies one human space in the train and thus annoy many. I pride myself with having a fairly decent sense of detachment from a given situation and wander off in my mind – thinking about open fields and sweet smelling lilies. However, this proves to be an extremely daunting task as it is almost impossible to ignore the varied smell of armpits, hair oils and feet.
A saleswoman wriggles [and at times forces] her way through the throng of women carrying a box full of colourful hair and wrist accessories. She gives many women the much needed chance to unleash their frustration as they launch into a rather loud discussion about how she is bothering everyone in the train. A potential customer in me is lost as I do not wish to go against the mob and invite the scorn of many by engaging in even browsing through the wares.
Attention is diverted from the saleswoman to a heated argument coming from our end of the compartment. A lady mistakenly [or purposely…..I would never know] stamps the fingers of a fellow passenger squatting on the floor of the compartment near the entrance. What follows is a volley of ill words thrown in opposite directions, remembering each others’ sisters, mothers and, from what I understand, even anatomical parts. It is certainly amusing to witness such an event, especially when you are only an innocent spectator and not a direct participant.
Bombay Central arrives with its own share of worries. Any traveler of Mumbai locals would vouch that it is a mini warzone itself. It is funny how it seems that double the number of people always enter the train than the number exiting. As the train pulls out of the station, two women are heard screaming about not being able to alight due to the squatters. A mini squabble ensues, but is soon lost to me as I try to concentrate on the musical genius of the Eagles crying out for attention through my earphones. In the midst of all this, I continuously try to dodge the drops of stinking water falling from the basket that the fisherwoman next to me holds over her head.
As Churchgate approaches, I ready myself for the much awaited freedom. A search for a hairbrush in my bag reveals that my ticket is missing. A frantic hunt for the ticket finally results in it being found in my pocket. Silly me! Combing the hair before alighting is as about effective as asking a death metal fan to listen to Mozart – absolutely ineffective! I carry out a quick check to ensure that my belongings still belong to me. I am glad that this ordeal is almost over.
Twenty minutes later I emerge from the train – nauseated, carrying sweat and germs which do not necessarily belong to me, aching all over..but still whole…and not looking forward to the return journey at all.