There is no single, unique trait about the local trains in Mumbai, that make them sound spectacular off the bat, like how Japan has trains that travel in two directions. No. In fact, any close examination of the Mumbai local trains will leave you stunned at the lack of safety standards, and the people’s absolute disregard for human life. However, you can only say so if you are a spectator.
After all, there must have been some reason for why we were so moved by the picture of a man bowing to a local train before boarding it. Despite the various scenes of people dangling out of local trains like an overstuffed suitcase, there is a reason they are constantly referred to as the lifeline of Mumbai. There are a myriad of qualities and factors about the local trains that fascinate and beguile the inhabitants of the city.
For one, on any given day, a single train service carries upto 7.5 million people – a figure higher than the entire population of some countries. In addition to the trains being the primary arm for the dabbawalas of Mumbai (their efficiency has actually earned them a Harvard business review, dedicated to themselves), it is also the most reliable mode of transport in the city. Floods, power outages, stampedes, and even terror attacks don’t hinder the schedule. It took all of 3 hours for the trains to get up and running after the 2006 train blasts. At first the trains were sparse, but within 16 hours, all regular services were running as usual. It took less than 24 hours for the city to bounce back. Personally, this speaks volumes of the grit and tenacity of the people of Mumbai. We are a city of migrants.
It’s easier to feel lonely in a crowd, easier than when you’re in solitude. But not in these trains. In each coach you will meet an amalgamation of people. Some daily wage workers, some teachers, lawyers, and college students. All of them speak different tongues over the phone. Some listen to bhajan tunes and some go over each bead of their rosary while glancing out the window. Some get on to sell their wares for measly sums of twenty maybe thirty rupees, while some open up laptops and send sophisticated emails. But in that moment, in that coach, as soon as you step in, those gaps and differences are left behind on the platform, fading away into nothing, as you are now just one set of people. One solitary community connected and brought to that moment in time, together by the comfort this giant provides.
Subconsciously, that’s how I’ve envisioned the entire western railway. Because that’s the only way to think about it, really. A beast, seething and independent with its own set of rules. It never rests. It is quiet for about 90 minutes a day, but the rest of the time, it’s buzzing and always making you aware of its existence. The constant announcement of the incoming trains and the ensuing static that, after a while, begins to sound akin to white noise, the near deafening screech as a train slows to a halt before you are mundane sensations I took for granted prior to the pandemic. But I crave them now.
I’ve been travelling by the local trains for a total of 5 years now. And even though I am now fluent in certain unspoken rules of the railways, I am still considered somewhat of an amateur in the game. Multiple gestures, subtle nods and little jabs or nudges is the means of communication here. It makes sense, seeing the variety of people that depend on the locals, either directly or indirectly for their livelihood. Some experiences are repeated each day. There is of course the cult of the window seat. Getting one of those after 9 am is an impossible feat, and should you happen to get one, the entire time you will be asked which station you will be getting off at.
There are definitely some unwritten rules you have to heed. Like the seat meant for three people is actually meant to accommodate at least four people. It’s not obtrusive or intruding if someone just grunts and taps on your shoulder and expects you to scoot immediately. Here’s something that might intrigue you. In addition to little stations that were created for inexplicable reasons (like Ram Mandir), there’s also ghost stations. The trains heading toward Churchgate, halt between Borivali and Kandivali for no explainable reason. And passengers do get off at these stops. Regular passengers call this spot in between the tracks, Thambivali. Others just stare in shock as passengers hop the three feet between the train’s floorboard and the tracks with effortless prowess.
Another strange anomaly is the difference between first class and the second class. Frequent users of the trains are aware that apart from the staggering price range, there’s no difference in any of the classes. There’s no room for comfort in either. The only thing that sets the first class apart is that conductors regularly check the compartments for people that are travelling without passes or tickets. Something that always fascinated me was that the local trains seem to be the one place where men act more civilised than women in Mumbai. Stepping into the gents compartment, or as it is commonly known, the general compartment is actually less dramatic than getting into the ladies coach.
There’s a general understanding between all parties that you do not board a Virar train at Andheri and then get off at Borivali. That is an absolute abomination, and you won’t be able to get near the exit should you make this ill fated decision. Any wavering from these rules is met with vivid and colourful responses. Sometimes, a kind person may explain, “No no beta, hold the bag on the left side. Always on the left side”. Other times, you may get a glare of disapproval, “Bombay main naya aya hain kya?” But there are also some tell-tale signs of newcomers. Like when people ask: “Matunga platform iss side ki uss side ayegi?” And that always brings a smile to your face, while you make sure they get off in one piece.
But it’s not all ruthlessness on the trains. You do encounter some Good Samaritans. Gentle taps on the shoulder when college kids doze off in the morning at the last halt of the journey, twenty year old getting up to give their seat to someone older. Again, I feel that describes Mumbai at its best. Give it your all, and the city will find ways to mend you.
Initially, you’re surrounded by strangers, who you couldn’t care less about. But gradually over time, you begin to see the same faces everyday. You’re part of a community now. In that moment, any sense of vulnerability fades away giving you a respite, no matter how brief. There is evidence of your connection to these people in the subtle eye roll you give to someone, when the lady in the opposite seat complains about how you’re taking up all the leg space. Or how someone helps you negotiate the price of cheap, but pretty jewelry (it’s the only kind you can afford to wear on the train anyway).
A lot of youngsters feel passionately about the locals as they are now a part of it. But the pandemic has robbed us of that interaction. It feels almost as though a part of you is missing.
Yajan Joshi, a novice musician and budding car enthusiast says:
“I miss the local trains. Obvious reasons are, it’s cheap, fast for long distances, food and water at the station. Other than that it is so symbolic and innate to Mumbai . Mumbai is the body and the local is its skeleton with the stations running up and down like its vertebrae. I miss going to college in it, miss sitting together with friends sleeping in it in the morning on the way to the college, miss visiting friends and meeting up. I miss it because it is instrumental and a prerequisite to experiencing Mumbai by travelling around in it around Mumbai with the people and mumbaikars who make the city what it is. I want to travel more
freely in it again. And god if it isn’t the best sleep inducer, any time of the day, it is a different kind of thrill and struggle to find yourself a seat and when done so it is a different kind of comfort going back home plugging in earphones and/or dozing off. Not so nice going all the way back home standing. And for the average Mumbaikar, it is absolutely crucial for the making of their living.”
Leon Gonsalves an avid reader and a lover of art and music says:
” Well, I’m always the one vying for the window seat, with my earplugs perpetually playing beats dissonant with the tempo of the train tracks thumping under. And after a while, you begin to see that dissonance mirrored in the people around you too. People that live lives at disparate and often contrasting cadence. People clash often, just as often as they find small windows of synchronicity. A sort of Jungian togetherness, if you will. All coincidences and chance encounters. I’ve never really been one to strike up conversations with strangers, but there still is a sort of solidarity in the inevitable experience most travellers face. Those looks of frustration that go all around when a fight breaks out, that shuffling just before the train stops and the people rush out, that moment when someone offers you a hook to hang your bag on when there’s no more place around, the seasoned travellers explaining the unspoken procedures to some student travelling for the first time. Some of us never say a word the entire way and some speak altogether too much, and yet we all travel together, each to their own. Like an island in a group of islands, just as much sharing the same water around us as separated by it.”
You’re not alone if the sight of the open doors with people spilling out of them, and obvious lack of safety incites a sense of dread in you. But beneath all those flaws, the experience can be quite fulfilling. It encapsulates the spirit of the people of Mumbai. With all of its raw, uncensored emotions. The people as they are. In their daily Iives and routines sans all the glossiness people associate Mumbai with. The hustle, the rage, the frustration, all the ordeals of ordinary existence in the city of plenty. It’s all there, in the open, without any filters. And it’s beautiful. It’s not hidden behind huge skyscrapers. And in fancy cars. You don’t have to peek into people’s lives or overhear conversations to know what they’re going through. It’s bare and exposed. And the people aren’t ashamed of it. In fact they speak of their troubles with pride. Like scars earned at war. And it’s earth shattering and uplifting at the same time.Travelling in peak hour on the local train is actually a rite of passage. Only then can you claim to be a Mumbaikar at the core.
You may see it as chaotic, unorganized and hectic. But for me it was a redemptive baptism that broke the monotonous. And I can’t wait to get back to that thrill.
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I’m Shanaya Sequeira. I’m a student from Mumbai, who has a fascination for the arts. I would like nothing more than to escape into a Kafkaesque world crafted by Soseki. I enjoy writing about poetry, sometimes philosophy and everything in between. And I can’t resist cozy cafes.