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.....