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- The true experience of Mumbai lies in its local trains.
The true experience of Mumbai lies in its local trains.
In December of last year, I read an article about a novel virus that had affected some parts of China. Little did I know at the time that six months to that day, I’d be sitting at home, wondering when would I step out into a normal world again. Being born and brought up in Mumbai, I was accustomed to chaos at a young age. However, the beauty of this city is that there is a hidden rhythm in this chaos. Running late for work, listening to ‘no’ by the indignant rickshaw-wallas, chasing that local train, relying on a Vadapav and a Cutting Chai to help with our stress, and walking into a happy middle-class family that awaits us at night: this is but a Mumbaikar’s paradise.
If you can sum it up into one, though, it’s our local trains. Rightly called Mumbai’s lifeline, these trains are the very spine of the busy city. This is also why just canceling the local train network is all that it took to bring the lockdown in Mumbai into effect. And while sitting and working from home these days, it is that overcrowded, restless commute that we miss the most.
Where a difference in twenty minutes from the source makes a difference of an hour at the destination
A typical day starts in the morning when you hurriedly rush out of the home to the nearest railway station. You’re almost always late, but the day you are running behind on time the worst; that’s the day your railway pass has expired. Now, renewing it or taking a new ticket takes at least a few minutes of hustle in the queue. And right when you reach the counter, a first-class commuter comes in between to renew his monthly pass! Apparently, they can interrupt the queue whenever they want! It is when the train has almost left the station that you somehow manage to board, or rather squeeze into the commotion inside.
One might think that you could have boarded the next train which shall take off from the station in like twenty minutes. But, they have no idea that a difference in twenty minutes from the source will make a difference of fairly an hour by the time you reach the destination! Let’s keep that a mystery for now, and proceed with the journey. Heads-up! It is almost unimaginable to get a seat while traveling in a local train in Mumbai during peak hours. But, if you’re part of a ‘local train friend circle’, you might stand a chance.
That one-and-only experience of being stranded at some random station during monsoon…
There are two kinds of local trains that ply in Mumbai. We fondly call them the ‘fast train’ and the ‘slow train’. The distinction as you imagined, is theoretically based on the time that will take you to reach your destination. Slow trains halt at all the stations in the route. But, in reality, you might end up wondering if fast trains are actually fast. Someone explained it accurately when they said, “Slow trains halt at all stations, while fast trains halt in between the stations!”
A simple rule that applies to our local trains is that, when you’re on time, your train is running late. But the day you’re late, your train is running at the right time. It gets uglier if you’re in Mumbai anytime between June and September. Monsoon is beautiful everywhere else in the world, but not in Mumbai; at least not in the context of the trains. On an average rainy day, you can expect a couple of trains to get canceled, and almost all of them to run ‘indefinitely’ late. Trust me, this experience of being stranded on an estranged railway platform, sipping on a cutting chai, and munching a Vadapav, is exclusive to Mumbai.
No better example for ‘unity in diversity’
Although you might find our trains noisy, you’ll also notice that there’s no better example of the phrase ‘unity in diversity’ than on these trains. People from different parts of the country with distinctive backgrounds and cultures, earning figures between hundreds to lakhs; all sit and stand amongst each other with a sense of brotherhood. More often, in a packed train, you’ll find that if you’ve been standing for more than half an hour, someone who’s been sitting will offer you their seat.
A friend of mine once forgot his wallet on the train. The person who was sitting beside him noticed this after he had alighted. This guy traveled all the way to my friend’s place, which was four stations away from his own place, just to return the wallet. When my friend thanked him, he said, “I might reach home late today, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay, for you’ll sleep in peace tonight.”
My Mumbai will heal…
Maybe it’s this hustle, this chase, this extra effort that teaches us the value of every single penny. We know how hard it is to earn money, and so we can’t afford to see someone lose theirs. People selling different kinds of daily use commodities, accessories, and food items are a very common sight in the trains. I once heard someone say that these people earn more than what an average person working from 9 to 5 in an office earns. I don’t know if this is true. But I do believe that it’s no piece of cake to run a successful business by changing trains and tramping around every compartment by shouting the name of these commodities.
About lakhs of Mumbaikars take the local train daily to commute to their school/college or workplace. The packed train, the cacophonous journey, and the warmth of the friendships have now become a part of our existence. It’s ironic how we used to curse the overcrowded trains every day while traveling in them, but now that we’re homebound, we long to be in that crowd once again.
It is true that my city is badly hurt, wounded, right now. But like in every other hurdle Mumbai has encountered, each Mumbaikar has faith that the home that shares in all their struggles and little joys, their own loving Mumbai, will heal.
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