We Mumbaikars (I may be in Tamland married in Malluland but I sure am a Mumbaikar and will remain so, all my life) spend a lot of time discussing the 3:26 Virar Fast, the 5:44 Borivili Double Fast, the 10:26 Kurla Harbour local, 11:09 Dombivili Fast, because, to a large extent, our life depends on these local suburban trains. Don't ever mention the word peak hour. On the suburban trains, every hour is peak hour, including ek challis ki last local from Churchgate. The activity at the Churchgate and Victoria (Chatrapati Shivaji) Terminus stations, with a fully packed train arriving or leaving every two minutes, amazes me. The sea of humanity outside Dadar station every evening could be frightening. But it shows what the trains mean to us.
The experience of traveling in a Mumbai local can range from exhilarating, frustrating and occasionally frightening. There are times, with each train carrying more than five thousand passengers rather than the intended fifteen hundred when I wondered how I got into the crowded coaches and how I managed to get out. But then you miss out a lot of Mumbai life if you do not travel by the suburban trains.
I learnt a lot about life in the city from the trains. During peak hours, there was hardly any difference between the first class and the second class coaches. Even with millions travelling, almost everyone possessed a ticket or a pass. Unmindful of discomfort, the passengers chatted, gossiped, played cards and sang bhajans. I learnt a lot from their chatter. I got the latest twist in the Ambani power struggle and received tips on how to make rasam and appam from the South Indian lady passengers. The most heated discussions invariably took place during the elections or a cricket match when the fortunes of the parties or the teams were debated. And if you are a regular viewer of the K-serials and if you’ve missed the previous evening’s telecast, there’s no better place to catch up than the local trains.
Part of the education of commuting was rushing in first and trying to grab the window seat. The seat can accommodate three passengers comfortably but a fourth one invariably nudges and tries to squeeze in. Well, all you can do is glare at her and mutter something and hope she would away. But typically, you would get into the same situation the next day. saying - zaara adjust kar lo!
Commuting at leisure can lead to rumination. I used to wonder at the romance of station names like Cotton Green, King's Circle, Sandhurst Road, Santa Cruz and the harshness of desi station names like Chinchpokli or Ghatkopar. I remember hearing fashionable Christian girls pronouncing Kandivili as "Candyville" rhyming with Pleasantville, a New York suburb. Speaking of girls, it was the general belief that girls on the Western Railway were prettier and more fashionably dressed than the ones commuting by the Central. Don't ask me why! But then watching the Ladies Specials on both the Railways made one forget about glamour; the women pushed and barged in with a ferocity which would put male commuters to shame. Did anyone say weaker sex? For the timid, getting into and off a Mumbai train is close to a life altering experience. Engulfed in a sea of humanity, the hapless commuter just flows with the tide. Getting off crowded trains will redefine the meaning of personal space for you. The rides are so crowded that people even take the train in the opposite direction to one of the ends of the lines -- just so they can try and get a seat when the train turns around!
So what are the rules of commuting? The unwritten ones are :
1. No baggage Rule : There's just no space and in rush hours, either you get in sans the luggage or stay out!
2. Getting Off Rule : Stand near the door, atleast one stop away from your destination in empty compartments and in case your station is among the next three upcoming ones, do not even venture near a seat. It is common for passengers near to tap each other’s shoulders asking for their destination. These people aren’t (usually) serial stalkers; they’re looking to position themselves for the 10-second window during which they can exit.
3. Seat Reservation Rule : If you want to sit, stand in between the 3-seaters and ask the seated passengers 'Kaha uttarna hai' (Where do you want to alight?) If their destination is before yours, you point to yourself, then to him/her. A head bob from the seated party seals the deal, and your bum will soon be riding in style.
4. Helping-Hand Rule : You must, with the aid of your fellow passengers, scoop a passenger running towards the doorway.Everyone works together to get you on the train before it departs.
5. Sharing Rule : Newspapers are public goods in the Mumbai trains. If you don’t like people reading over your shoulder, then catch up on the latest Satyam development at your breakfast table. If you are reading newspaper in the train, you need to share it with atleast 3 of your co-passengers.
In Mumbai, local trains are the heart and soul of the city. It breathes life into Mumbai at the break of dawn and cradles the city to sleep, if only for a few hours. It truely is the lifeline. No other city, I know of, has such a plethora of people inter-mingling at one place and sharing moments of their lives together, even if it only is for a few hours.