Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Train"ing for Travel....

Years and years of travelling in Mumbai's public transport gives you a certain attitude. It is not cultivated as such. But you get it by default. Maybe its a feeling of "battling" to literally get a foot hold, a feeling of mobilizing for, what in polite terms, can be deemed an "assault".

5-10 pm , at any of the train terminii in Mumbai, is not a good time to catch a train. There is about 5000 people milling around on various platforms; some almost at the edge of one, peering at an arriving train ; some trying to act nonchalant, supremely confident of their last minute leap into a semi running train to give them their choice seat, and then , some folks like me, with children, saree end tucked in at the waist, purse firmly hung and held by one hand, while the other clutches that of the children, who think a big fuss is being made anyway. The train comes to a stop, There are platforms on both sides at the terminii sometimes, and you are then part of like, 500 people trying to enter through a 6 feet wide door, about 15 inches above the platform floor, all in one minute, followed by college going students, tired working women, a few senior citizens, teenagers, and , say, children wailing for a window seat, and giving certain posh looking ladies, already at the window, dirty looks.

You kind of squeeze into the sitting area, where each long seat holds 3, as per rules; or actually 4 , as per the Prinicples of "Zarasarkoonghyaa". (Loosely translatable as "Move-a-bit-will-you"). You glance at the lady near the window, who seems to be busy gesticulating to a friend outside, then the older woman next to her, who has just pulled out a water bottle wrapped in plastic, and the young student , closest to you, points to the window, shrugs her shoulders, and moves, maybe a couple of inches, giving you a place to rest your L4-L5 vertebrae in a precarious manner. Adjusting is the name of the game, as a small child squeezes in through a bunch of ladies to stand near the window, nose against the railings, with his approving mother standing in the aisle. The train starts with an introductory jerk, the child gets his mouth precariously close to the bars, secretly probably wondering if he should test the reach of his tongue, when the lady at the window seat, no one of his , shakes her head, and wags a finger saying no-no; there are smiles all around.

We are, in, what is termed a "ladies" compartment. The mechanics of undesirable contact sports, while trying to travel through a jam packed general compartment, has served to convince women in Mumbai, that, if you have to push,shove,pinch,elbow and shout, you have better success in the women's compartment with less collateral damage. So after a tumultously brave and complicated entry, some ladies settle down to napping, some read, some gossip, some bring out their knitting, and some laboriously work on their crocheting and embroidery projects, for which they carry a special bag everyday. Designs are admired, applauded, rank strangers freely give all kinds of advice which is accepted with a smile; Some women who travel from areas having wonderful local vegetable markets, buy their stuff on the way home, and it is not unusual to see ladies shelling peas , and doing the beans , on a big newspaper spread across 3 laps. By the time their 1 hour commute ends, they've done 30% of the evening'skitchenwork in the train itself.

One of the outstanding (though some may disagree), features of these crowded compartments is the various vendors who come to sell things. Handkerchiefs, clips, pins (picture on the right), decorative jewelery, children's ABC coloring books, bangles,earrings (picture on the right), ribbons, placemats, kitchen items, are just a few things. Then there are the ladies who come with garlands of fresh jasmines for your hair( on the left), fresh oranges, chikkoos, custard apples and guavas in season. These are invariably cheaper than the market rates. Of course , vendors of homemade potato chips, crisps, and banana snacks also do their rounds.

At fixed times of the day, one may be subject to smells of fish, as the ladies who congregate at the docks to buy the fresh catch, are often lugging it home, to their area markets, and everyone gets a whiff of the fishy smell as they move
around with their big circular baskets . Ladies taking huge stocks of veggies and fish in the trains are a militant lot. They expect crowds to part as they make their way in and out. Occasionally there will be a very well turned out lady, with the latest outfit, amazingly made up , with all her hair immaculately in place, wearing improbable heels, posing (out of habit), and standing in the aisle. The fish ladies , very practical and no-nonsense types in their nine-yard sarees, take a dim view of all this.

One such vision, blocking the door, and becoming a problem for exiting fish ladies, was addressed colloquially, in what can only be translated as "Oye, Cleopatra, Move it !"..... , causing those who heard it to crack up.

Imagine hundreds of women standing all around you, some leaning on you involuntarily, some trying to keep safe, the tomatoes (bought wonderfully cheap), they are carrying, and a constant stream of women, coming in and going towards the door. Each station is a 15 second stop.
Thankfully, the doors of these trains are always open. As you go closer to your destination, you get up at least 3 stations before yours. Someone is always eyeing your seat. Most of the ladies make it their business to know who is traveling up to where, and they plan their seat acquisition with a finesse that would defeat any political party in India. You clutch your purse and child close, and literally squeeze your way, slowly towards the door, taking care not to stand in the centre. Waves of ladies get on and get off at stations. You don't want to get off ,involuntarily, at the wrong one. The cohesive crowd sways as one, as the train picks up speed and accelerates towards the next station. Occasionally another train passes by in the opposite direction at touching distance. You inch towards the door, or if you are way back somewhere, you inch towards the crowd in the centre of the entrance aisle. The crowd surges forward. Shuffling, children muffled in yards and yards of sarees crowding about them. The train stops. And you literally move and get thrown out. Evicted is a strong word, and has unpleasant connotations, but this action is really , physically, an eviction.

Once again you are in fresh air, with ladies around you attending to their disheveled sarees and upset kids. Some regulars wave to their train friends. Occasionally, someone will get off who isn't feeling well. Stories abound of pregnant migrant ladies from the outskirts of the city, traveling to Mumbai's free public hospitals at the last minute. The husband is in the general compartment, after having seated his wife in the ladies. Suddenly the labour pains start. First the woman is frightened. Then she tells someone in the
compartment who notices her discomfort, and her pain. Someone starts asking
around if there is a doctor /nurse person there. A few ladies pull the alarm chain that will stop the train. Some get on the phone to alert the authorities. Scarves and cloth pieces,scissors in purses, etc are inventoried. The lady embroidering the tablecloth, sacrifices it as a spread on the floor.Frequently, the ladies will create space for the poor woman on the floor, give her privacy by standing around her , while someone attends to her till the station comes. All the water bottles are out, there is someone comforting the woman, asking her where her husband is sitting. There is a small window into the adjoining men's compartment, and someone passes a message. The hunt for the father is on. Somehow he gets the message. The station arrives, and the lady is bundled out along with her assistants from the compartment. The railway police women constables may now be there to assist. Many times,the delivery is very quick, as the train women organize themselves and their duties, trying to protect the woman's modesty, giving her reassurance, offering their help as needed, some looking for her husband to inform him. A child is coming into this world. Nothing else is important. The ambulance arrives, the family is now augmented by one and together again, and they go off to the nearest hospital where more traditional care will be forthcoming.

Occasionally, train friends, will have celebrations. Birthdays are celebrated. Songs are sung. Homemade sweeta are thoroughly enjoyed. During the festival season, certain color sarees are worn on specific days, and so you often see a sea of yellow, pink, green, blue emerging from the ladies compartment, depending on the day, with whiffs of jasmine , and a bit of fake jewellery .(You don't want to wear the real stuff. It is dangerous.Too visible a display often attracts nimble fingers of unknown people.). A ride in a train is a place for pouring your heart out to your friend ; its a place to crib about your mother-in-law, your boss, the government, the increasing prices, and schools. Its a place for being comforted by friends, after a particularly bad day at the office, or simply when you don't feel too good. Stress relieving at its best.

Its crowded. its noisy. Someone always steps on your toes. Someone is always talking too loud and fighting with someone. Everything always doesn't smell like lavender. And no DEO on earth can negate the smell of oiled hair, strange perfumes, onions, garlic, and squished tomatoes, and of course, the sweat and tears so many people.

But so is life.

Regardless of where you go in the world, you never forget your train roots.

This was brought home to me, many years ago, in spades, when I had occasion to travel the Tube in London.

I forget which station it was on the Tube, but we were taking it to the outskirts of London, after a day spent with our 5 year old son , in the city. It was around 5.30 pm. There wasn't a crowd on the station by Mumbai standards, I could see no anxiety in any faces, and no one stopped conversations on seeing the train appear around the corner. Here I was, saree tucked, in, holding my purse as well as some shopping bags in such a way, that I had one hand free, even when the other was clutching my son's, mobilizing , as such, for ,"assault ....:-)" .

The train arrived, doors slid open, NO ONE rushed. I did my bit of rushing in with my paraphernalia, and stood inside, as there wasn't a seat I could see which was empty. By and by I got a place to sit.
No one was eyeing any seats in an obvious manner, no one was getting hyper. Everyone was minding their own business, which is , I suppose possible if you are not forced to breathe into someones hair or ear, or hat.
It was comparatively quiet.

Whenever stations came, people got off and on without any excitement.
I had learnt. When time came for us to get off, I controlled myself from elbowing my way to the door and getting self evicted. My son and I sedately , and properly stepped out. The doors closed and the train moved away.

And that moment, my son raised an alarm and pointed to the train and let out that he forgot his book in the train. he'd been looking at the pictures when I suddenly bundled him up to disembark.
Had this been Mumbai, I would have yelled through the window, pointed to where I was sitting, and asked a lady to throw it out onto the platform. Someone would have listened, a book would get passed from lap to lap, and someone would manage to throw it out ,maybe, just as the train passed the platform end. There would be hundreds of people, tea and snack vendors, boot polish chaps, cleaners, time-pass passengers, etc watching this, participating, and someone , somehow would get that book back to us.........

I know. Forget it. Nothing really of any of earthshattering importance.

But sometimes, it feels like progress cannot be all west centric. If progress was a fabric, it would feel infintely richer, with a few individualistic ,oriental sequins built in.....


  1. these trains are the heartbeat of mumbai...

    for us small towners who would come to mumbai we would skip a lot of trains hoping the crowds would reduce... but train after train the crowd always swells just at the train comes... eventually you have to push and shove yourself in... but having said that evn though there is such a crowd it is amazingly organised compared ...

  2. The local train journey needs a training for going inside and coming outside. In Calcutta you must be a part of the crowd wave to pull you up automatically utlise the sudden jerk and reach the desired spot. You may come out at your desired stop provided you are in the middle of the outgoing rush, tailenders have little chance, may look forward for disembarking at the next stop. The enjoyable things during journeys are the comments of the specialists on common issus. it appears that the speaker is the right person to replace Chappel and then only India team can improve.

  3. OMG ! The description of your trip in london was really funny ... i have seen the local train crowd once when i visited Mumbai and i am quite thankful to god that i didn't have to do it daily !

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. You know, I agree with your last paragraph...we're all separate entities...anonymous... in most places abroad...not parts of one whole. I guess one has to have experienced it very deeply to understand and express the difference this well. Kudos!

  6. Even after ten long years that flew by fast in the US, I still have the 'getting onto the train' mentality (after all, a mumbai girl!). It exasperates/ embarasses hubby dear to no end:)

    Plenty of quotable quotes, great:)

  7. //...probably wondering if he should test the reach of his tongue, when the lady at the window seat, no one of his , shakes her head, and wags a finger saying no-no...//

    What a perfect description! I could almost see that random "mavshi" shaking her head with a smile :) Brought a lot of memories, much as I've neither been a local train commuter, nor from Mumbai.

    Came here from Ageless Bonding. Was intrigued by your user name. You have an amazing set of chronicles - nakki yein parat. gappa marta nahi alya tari goshti vachayla tar yeinach!:)

  8. Real life certainly goes on as you hurtle along on the train.

    I experienced a bit of what you describe by riding a bus in Rome. People were literally hanging out the door. I had to stand, trying to protect a bag of grapes I bought. No one could fall down as the bus lurched to a stop because we were packed as tight as sardines.

    This was not a woman's car, and a man was pressing way to close to my ample rear. I had to jamb my elbow in his stomach to discourage his nearness.

  9. hitch writer You know, there are 2 types of out-of-towners. Some who watch the trains from a distance and shudder. Some who initially shudder, but are curious enough to try. Once you get in, you find out that everyone is a friend, and helpful....and it isnt so bad after all. Just the crowds.....:-) But the ladies compartment is a different experience altogether !

    Pradip Biswas The experience of Calcutta seems to be true here in Mumbai too. And yes, I do agree about the incisive comments and discussions on various topics that take place amongst strangers in the train. Politics , Cricket seem to be most popular....

    Radhika I think u are missing something if you yet havent travelled in a local train in Mumbai. Try it. It isnt so bad :-)

    A. I. Thank you . I guess you have to get to a certain age, in a certain milieu of society to be able to think about this. Too many of us think progress is all about being upwardly compatible.....

    Naperville Mom Thank you. The real fun is what I didnt write about. Trying to catch a Frankfurt Airport train from Karlsruhe, with 6 bags of luggage, and two children. I think I have a rush-train-catching DNA or something......ah well .

    Gauri Welcome to the blog. Methinks you are a Pune girl . Just a gut feeling. And you know, the Mumbai locals are not so bad. You meet a lot of nice friendly folks there.

    Speaking of friendly folks, tu zar gmail war aslees tar nakki gappa pan marta yetil.....mala watata tu majhya muleechya wayachya jawal paas asheel....:-)

    Darlene All I can say, is "Attaboy, Darlene" to your spirited attack on the fellow behind you in the Rome bus. Incidentally, we dont have ladies buses as such, but every bus has a bunch of seats reserved for ladies. It is the getting-to-these-seats that is like a war zone...... But Mumbai is much better than elsewhere in India in this regard. The people are more sensible .

  10. Oh no...KARLSRUHE? This is too much 'karma' too soon. I LOVE that place..did u take the kids to the zoo there?? Sigh!

    Yes, upwardly mobile is 'in'. These days we're reduced to visiting cards...who remembers names and faces anymore?

  11. A.I. Yes. Karlsruhe. Way back in 91-92. Spent a year at the Univ. Stayed in Buchig, near Blankenloch...And yes, my children did go to the zoo (opposite the Bahnof often....)...I still have friends there!

  12. these are actually memories of all my train rides compressed together in one post. Except for the one where the lady gave birth. I never saw that happen. But totally experienced each and every bit of what you have said here, Be it trying to rest half of you bum on the fourth seat, or getting irritated by the macchi ka pani, and the "And no DEO on earth can negate the smell of oiled hair" really cracked me up.
    I think if a person can survive a mumbai train ride, he can thrive anywhere in this world.

  13. What a wonderfully descriptive post! It brings backs everything, the colors, the body contact everything. It especially brings back the smells. The metallic smell on my fingers after a few minutes of clutching at the pole in the door, the fishy ladies, the smell of new notebooks as teachers sat next to me correcting homework, the chlorophyll smell of fresh gavar bhaji being broken into bits for the evening meal by office workers who had to put on thier superhousewife cape the minute they got home, the wood smoke from the jhoppadpattis on the train tracks, and yeah armpit odor! Memories of smell bring me back to a place and time, as did your post.

    I miss the phrase "adjust kara" so much in my very orderly life now!

  14. What a wonderful post Ugich. No I have never experienced anything like this. London tubes yes but they are all very boring in comparison. The train system must work very efficiently to transport that many people.I imagine with the time spent on trains that people would develop a little community amongst themselves. One day I hope to get a taste of it. Last night I watched a documentary about Greg Chapples experiences in India when he was coach. It gave me a taste of Mumbai. It seems everything about India is colourful and you weave this into every story you write. It sounds fascinating and never boring. Hope you are well we are having heat waves here.

  15. Enchanted Thank you. So many old memories. I still havent said anything about the mens compartments. In my more agile days (25 years ago) , I once came running down Vile Parle Stn stairs with my son , "kadewar", and more or less jumped into the closest compartment , which was a mens . I had two folks at the door bend and haul me in as the train decided to move. All crowded and everything, but magically, space got created, and I was urged to move inwards....Thats mumbai for you...(The same son went to college at VT thinks there is a certain "grace" about those travelling in Central second class....sometimes i agree .

    Another Kiran in NYC Thank you. And I didnt write about the singing children with a perfect beat, the little girls who wont do maths at school, but can do perfect accounts when returning change to women who buy tiklees from them....and the encounters with the hijdas who insist on sitting at the door. I did a blog on that once encounters-of-touchable-kind........

    Lilly Thank you. Yes, its never boring in these trains. If you ever get a chance to travel standing in the mens compartment (not recommended), you will hear great incisive comments and discussions, on the government, stock market, inside stories on politics, and most of all , cricket, and specific instances therein of who played how, who was actually wrongly given "out", sachin tendulkar, saurabh ganguly, and so on.

    About Greg Chappell, he never really lived in Mumbai, but came here only for the matches/meetings etc. He and his wife actually stayed in Bangalore, which had a better weather, and nice gardens and stuff. Nobody really likes him, i think they like his brother Ian much more. But the most popular folks are Steve Waugh, Brett Lee, Mcgrath(despite his bad sledging), and ever since the IPL, its been Shane Warne; the last because he doesnt act big all the time, and has been a great motivator for his team, and is very loyal to the city where he is stationed. (Thats fairly close to the place where your grandpa came for the horses)!

  16. Ladies compartment... lol we guys dream some day we will get in....

    problem is the after effects.... getting in is one part.. but then geting smashed by the females would be quite an experience !!! lol

  17. Wonderful post.

    I live next to a very big train station that is clearly saturated. It's not always a pretty site. And what's worse is that the people are mostly aggressive and complaining all the time (yep, that's the French attitude). A few days ago a train was stopped due to a person standing on the tracks, passengers went down on the tracks, then all trains were cancelled and people started insulting the staff and breaking up the station.

    I am always amazed by the Indian positive attitude to life's hardships.

  18. Thank you for the kind comments on my journal. I want so to heal quickly. What you write about is so amazing. You are so good.
    I write so simply. Yes, no snow in my area like Judy. Take Care and Fond wishes are being sent your way. To think that someone so far away was thinking of me.

  19. hey suranga..... mind blowing post and perfectly summarised and whats more you left nothing..... it has been put together so beautifully... even a non-mumbaikar will be able to see the whole scene in front of their eyes.

    As a regular commuter of these trains I totally agree with you.... There is a total world in this place.... sometimes I feel so safe and lost both at the same time in the crowds of the ladies compartments..... Though I truly wish the crowds would reduce.... it wont be the same if things were any different.

  20. Dear Madam,

    Great! I could not have put down this good a post about Mumbai local trains even after so many years of experience. I guess one reuqires a certain bent of mind to observe the daily happenings in a very minute manner.

    I think 'jaraa sarkoon ghyaa' should also otherwise translate as 'please adjust and give me some space to seat'. Of course all depends upon the tone and manner of the person speaking those words.

  21. Hi Suranga, This sounds like an amazing adventure to me! I am sure you know a lot of your fellow travelers and it is fun to see people and find out what is going on with them. We have no trains like this here and I have never experienced anything like what you write about but find your post so interesting and loved seeing the pictures of the trains. Thank you so much for your concern and kind comments during our ice storm. I am so glad to be back in the blogging world and visiting my friends here. The only ice I want to see for a long time is in my refrigerator!

  22. What a wondeful post !

    I have taken tentative train rides. My first one, when i didnt know things as much, was with a suitcase. At 8.30 AM.

    I learnt my lesson. The hard way !


  23. Helene H Would you believe it, we had a similar event a few days ago, where passengers got down on the tracks and stopped trains for 4 hours and police came with canes and stuff. Yes, one tries to have a positive attitude to the hardships, but sometimes things go a bit far. They authorities cancelled trains without notice, and the peoploe were upset. The things are same the world over. Thats globalization....

    One woman's journey Thank you.

    Ranu You know, I did remember you when I was writing about the Machchiwalis....:-)

    Ganesh The language translation of "Zara sarkoonghyaa" is as you say. My translation incorporated the attitude also....:-)

    Judy Thank you. Sometimes I think one of the reasons Indians are doing so well in the world today, is their ability to adjust to new lives in newer societies, trained by all these experiences in their lives....

    Kavi Did you ever travel from Kalyan to Vikhroli by the 9:30 am CST local, with a child , a homemade broom(lovingly lugged from Pune), and a Chatni stone *(also lovingly lugged) ? I did, and lived to blog....jai central railway !:-)

  24. hey, you are tagged. I don't know if you have done this already, but would love to read more about you.

  25. I so enjoy your writing, gappa. So colorful, so detailed.
    I'll be coming through Calcutta, it appears, in January. I've never been anywhere in the world other than Mexico and the Caribbean, so India will, I think, blow my mind.

  26. Pearl But how exciting that you will be here in January 2010 ! Do try and put Mumbai on your itinery. So many of your blogger friends are here. Maybe we can have one of our blogger lunches too.... let us know how your plans proceed....

  27. ah, the pictures of vendors we posted are quite similar..things are still the same..even now..still we rush and poke..fight and abuse and life goes on :)

    loved your london experience :)

  28. As I was reading your post, I was chuckling to myself, because I have been there, forgotten a book and looked back and shrugged my shoulders because the doors closing before the train moves off is soo-final. I know there is no chance that if I got off at bandra, I could hope that some soul who got off at Mahim who has seen me take the same train every other day would carry it with her to return it to me when they see me next..that I think is what makes me love Mumbai's train travel. :)