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Train of Thought on the Mumbai Local

Overcrowded and claustrophobic, the Mumbai commuter stalks life and limb when he boards a coach of the Mumbai local.

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The quintessential Mumbai local is not for the faint-hearted, but it is the cheapest and fastest means of transport in the linear city of Mumbai. The Mumbai suburban railway comprises a network of trains referred to as local trains, which serve almost 7.5 million commuters daily. The network is an extension of the railway system built by the British in India and is the oldest in Asia.

Overcrowded and claustrophobic, the Mumbai commuter stalks life and limb when he boards a coach of the Mumbai local. Yet he must take a particular train to work every single working day. He scrambles, jostles, cusses and fusses as he strives to find a seat. In spite of trains running at intervals of three minutes, the crush and rush at peak hours is simply unimaginable and must be seen and experienced. Put it on your bucket list, if you as yet have not experienced the bitter-sweet ride on a local.

Very often your day is doomed if you miss your “regular” — a fast or slow to your destination. Again, you might experience when you don’t have to move to exit or enter the train; you are simply pushed in and out. The first train starts at approximately 4.00 am and the last train to anywhere runs at 1.30 am.

I commuted to and from work on the Mumbai local almost 25 years ago. I slipped into the ladies’ coach in the early hours of the morning then frantically looked around for a window seat or parked myself on the nearest available seat. I also had to change trains, but commuting in the early hours in the morning I escaped the crush and rush. I have fond memories of shopping trips with mom to Marine Lines and Crawford Market, commuting by the local.

My college-going son prefers the local to any other mode of transport. As for me, at 50 I enjoy the occasional ride and like most women take pleasure in “local train” retail therapy.

The trains today are undoubtedly sleeker and prettier in mauve and white, against the previous yellow and maroon of the past, but Mumbai is bursting at the seams. Commuters tumble out and stumble in as the train halts at each station. Seats are occupied in the blink of an eye and on a bad day you may find yourself standing for the entire journey.

Entering and exiting the ladies’ compartment is no better, but the compartment is a people and place watcher’s delight. Women exit the lady’s coach while another group impatiently prepares to enter. Tucking in their saree palao, gathering their children close to them, tightening their holds on their bags and generally preparing mentally and physically to board or disembark, the ladies are ready.

The train halts for two minutes at each station. In that time, ladies as everybody else, must exit and enter the coach. You might trip over a hot-headed fisherwoman who has no qualms about parking herself at the entrance of the compartment, but you don’t want to mess with her. The lucky ones get the coveted window seat. Those of more generous proportions while asserting their right to a seat will try to squeeze in, attracting some killer looks and caustic remarks. Three can comfortably occupy the long wooden seat, the fourth must sit a tad uncomfortably, but then “beggars can’t be choosers.” A common query-cum-request is, “Where are you getting off? Please keep the seat for me.”

Harried housewives, giddy collegians, nerds, mothers with young children, a few senior citizens, the single lady, a new bride all must catch the local to their respective destinations. While some are the stern-faced the “mind your own business” type, others will deign to exchange a smile with you. You can safely tell your life story to the lady sitting next to you, with never a chance of bumping into each other again. The collegians are talking and giggling, while the nerd prefers the textbook. The office-goer tidies herself up and the harried housewife takes a nap. The senior citizen opens a prayer book, the new bride takes a call on her cell phone.

Recently the railway authorities experiment with closed-door coaches in the first class ladies section, to mixed reactions. The skeptics felt that the concept would not work, given the Mumbaikars’ penchant for standing at the exit or hanging from the door.

You grow up with childhood friends, school friends and college friends then forge office friendships. If you are a Mumbaikar you will have made another class of “train friends.” They celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, promotions and life in general.

When hungry on a Mumbai local, don’t worry! Vendors selling bhel, chiki, samosas, and an entire array of snacks constantly breeze in and out. Stock your refrigerator with vegetables and fruits available on the train. Many a working wife or mother may get down to cleaning the vegetables there and then. Stationery, handkerchiefs, toys, fashion jewelry, and a host of cosmetics, including lipsticks, nail paint, eye makeup are yours for the asking.

Atlhough packed, the general compartment is usually quieter. Gentlemen generally scan the newspaper, catch up on lost sleep, get together for a game of cards, discuss films, politics or cricket or simply stare out of the window, watching the world go by. The odd vendor may try his luck.

The Dabbawalah (lunchbox carrier) collects hot homemade food packed in dabbas or boxes from residences of working people and through some amazing networking and coding delivers the lunch boxes to office goers. The Mumbai local is his means of transport.

The city lifeline is a great leveller. Religion, caste, creed, social status have no place, as you are jammed together like a pack of sardines, with a common goal of reaching your destination. It is not unusual to see dare devils travelling on roof tops, footboards or on connecting bumpers in between bogies all for the lack of space.

Commuting by the locals honors the “survival of the fittest,” as the newcomer will learn. His argumentative skills are honed every now and then and in no time he is transformed into a true Mumbaikar.

Undoubtedly the heartbeat of the city would be stilled without the quintessential Mumbai local.

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Travel | Life | Bigger India | May2015

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