A romantic song, ‘Thoda sa pyaar hua hai thoda sa hai baki’ from a Hindi flick reverberates in the background. A group of young ladies singing this song pep you up. Somewhere in a corner, middle-aged ladies are sharing jokes and giggling to no end. A lady next to this group is cribbing about her boss and a husband who is of no use. She shares, ‘He sits like a couched potato till I return back home from work so that I do all the household chores.’ Getting up in the morning at 4 am, cooking for the family, taking care of all the household chores, reaching to the office sharp at 9 am and sleeping at 12 am every day is her daily routine. She can’t catch up on her sleep. But, in spite of this struggle she looks energetic and empathetic towards everyone. This is the Western Railway’s ladies compartment in Mumbai.
Railway is the lifeline of Mumbai. It has three separate routes; Western, Central and the Harbour line.
For 16 years, I traveled by Western Railway that runs from Churchgate to Virar. I didn’t even realize how those years passed by. When I started, I didn’t have a clue of how it is going to change me as a person, because, I hadn’t boarded a train in Mumbai even once. Nor had I traveled beyond South Mumbai. I didn’t know life had a panorama of experiences in store for me.
There are 12 coaches out of which 3 are reserved for ladies. If the train has 10 coaches, 2 are reserved for women. Each compartment is buzzing with stories that ladies share with their ‘train friends’. People in Mumbai are full of life and love to make friends everywhere they go. So, we, Mumbaites have this concept of having ‘train friends’ so that we can enjoy the journey.
If you board the train from Virar, you reach Churchgate in one and half hour. There are many stations in between and till you reach your station, it’s fun and frolic all the way. The train gets brimful at Virar and people who get into the train late or after Virar, never manage to get a seat immediately. Once they get into the train they have to ‘claim a seat’ so that the people who get down give their seat to you. Women squabble for these seats and keep them reserved for their friends.
The seats are made for three people to sit but, a fourth person can adjust if the other three shift a bit. If they don’t, it leads to fights, which are pretty violent. All your life, you struggle for a bit of space (land) for yourself to live a comfortable life. In Mumbai, space is expensive; it comes at the cost of someone’s life too.
While you are surrounded with these high-spirited women, you keep yourself busy by reading a book. Suddenly as you get comfortable in your seat, two women start fighting and they end up grabbing each other’s clothes and hair. They practically don’t know what they are up to in a fury to the utter shock of Non-Mumbaites. But, it’s a common scene in the railways. Though at the same time when someone collapses due to suffocation in the deluge of people crammed in little space, women get together to take care of the fellow traveller.
Boarding a train too has a technique, you clasp the handle at the end of the door, hold it and jog with the moving train a bit, and jump into the train (I wouldn’t suggest this to a new traveller). Also, the trains are jam packed in the evening time, so women and men hang outside the door, their feet firm on the foothold and one hand held tight on the rod which is placed in the middle of the door, dividing the entrance into two parts. This continues till they get a tiny place to cram inside.
No one likes to miss the train that they board daily and regularly. If they are a bit late they dodge the crowd on the platform and run to chase the train, as a minutes’ delay can spoil their schedule. As they come close to the door one saviour will hold their hand to pull them inside the compartment. This often reminds me of the movie ‘Dil wale dulhania le jaenge’ where at the end Kajol is running to catch the train and Shah Rukh Khan holds her hand to pull her in.
Obviously this has no tinge of romance; many people have lost their lives doing this as their leg may slip in between the train and the wheels. Mayhem on the wheels of a train isn’t romantic. People have lost their lives while falling off the train hanging at the door, due to lack of space. While people are hanging at the entrance those inside are desperately trying to get everyone in and instructing, ‘Arey latko mat, andar aao’ (Don’t hang there, step inside quickly).
I know this passage started with a lot of fun and frolic; sharing some great memories about the railway journeys in Mumbai. It isn’t a bad place, you just got to understand that everyone is pressurized with challenges of running a family, having a career and combating the rising inflation. For any middle-class person who is already burdened with so much in life, at least the journey to office should be a comfortable one. But, even as they battle this crowd to reach the office, life isn’t easy there too.
For a Mumbaite, ‘Mumbai rocks’, even if he goes to heaven, he would come back saying the same. I wonder what is it about Mumbai that they can’t get over? A point to ponder, isn’t it? From a slum dweller to a film star, no one would want to leave Mumbai at all.
I perceive this as the spirit of the people here. Once when I was at the Mahim station waiting for the train to arrive, I heard a massive explosion and there was smoke everywhere. A stone hit my leg and I turned around to see what had happened. It was a ruthless bomb explosion. A bomb had been planted in the train by some fanatics who wanted to disrupt the lifeline of Mumbai. I ran outside the station, and crossed the road in panic, I wasn’t scared but, yes I panicked. I stood there and tried to cross the road again to help people out of the mess. I was told by a bunch of Good Samaritans that they would take care of everything and they dropped me to the main road.
By that time, news of the blast had spread, men from all communities came together to help everyone get a lift to reach home. I lived at Virar and the only way to reach there is by train, which was disrupted. So some people asked me if I had anyone living nearby. I decided to go to Andheri that is close to Mahim where my sister lives. These Good Samaritans stopped cars on the road and people readily gave lifts to everyone who was stranded.
This was not the first time when the fanatics had struck the spirit and peace in Mumbai. But, this time they caught the nerve of Mumbai, the lifeline i.e. the railway. People lost their lives before they could reach their destinations. But, the next day Mumbaites were back in the trains to travel the daily journey.
Mumbaites are tolerant or probably, they don’t have the choice. They love Mumbai and they won’t leave it for anything.