You could say I was very fortunate that I learnt it prematurely, during the early onset of my learning years, that nothing is black and white. I have this strange love-hate relationship with almost every major influencing aspect of my life. One of these things is travelling by the Mumbai local trains.
The local trains are almost synonymous with this city, they have been the muse of many great poets, artists, and philosophers while still meaning as much to the common man; which is a rare feat to achieve. How many common people actually care about the Taj Mahal? Shut it down for a day and a couple thousand tourists will probably be annoyed that they have to return the next day. Shut down the locals for one day and a million people will be stranded, while? the commerce of the city could come to a standstill.
There’s not much I can say about the locals that hasn’t been expressed already. The phrase, ‘It’s the lifeline of Mumbai’ has been reiterated to the point of it being an over-generalised cliché. If you google a bit, I’m sure you’ll get all the statistics. But the statistics aren’t important. Numbers don’t do justice to feelings or to experiences.
When I started college, the only way to travel quickly and economically was through the local trains. I had been in the locals before, occasionally, but never was it a part of my routine. Suddenly, missing the 8:04 am train became one of my ongoing miseries. Catching the local trains is no easy feat- there is a ton of mental gymnastics and physical exertion involved to achieve this goal. I turned professional after around two weeks or so.
I tackle and tussle my way through the crowd, people barricading my way as if it’s their divine duty to stop me. A quick glance at the huge signboard above informs me that it’s 8:05. I utter a couple of cusses which makes the aged woman next to me scoff; but she doesn’t know my troubles. I wait at the station for the next train, and as it arrives, a thousand more people appear around me out of nowhere ready to enter it as well. Perfect. After a few seconds of what has been described by historians as the worst battle ever after Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, I somehow manage to sneak in and take my position at the side.
While there’s no room to even as much as breathe without disturbing my peace with the place, I try to shuffle in my own little imaginary square to get in that sweet comfort spot. You see, I try my best to not be a nuisance to my fellow travellers, who -surprise!- don’t seem to share the same sentiment. People stacked together, like bees in a beehive buzzing towards their exit, bursting at the seams. The challenge is thinking whether you want to position your bag in front of you or behind, depending on where you feel more vulnerable. The humidity isn’t much of a friend, either. I think back to the morning where I bathed myself with fragrance and wore the most dapper clothes in a fleeting hope that I might impress my fellow humans. Why do I even try?
The man next to me was probably making the deals of his life on his phone, or so it seemed. Maybe the microphone on his handset was broken or maybe he wanted to let the entire coach know about how much he loved Sharmaji’s biryani the last time and how Sharmaji should buy all of his ‘maal’. What is this maal?! It’ll always be a mystery. The customary dispute broke out sooner than usual with two guys quarrelling over their private place in this public mode of transport. The language they used was quite colourful; I didn’t even know some of those words could be used derogatively. It’s always a learning experience.
A guy stomped my foot, a eunuch tried to harass me into paying them, a child was berating over the loss of his toy, and I had been elbowed 4 times by a gentleman who just had to read his morning paper while being packed like a can of sardines. I went through all this while maintaining a nonchalant expression, for I am too cool to be bothered by anything. The second battle was fought when it was time for me to alight at my stop. It’s a wonder I come out alive every single time.
Traveling is a struggle.
But then I think about it.
As I make my way through the station, there are a thousand souls moving with me. Everybody has a place to be, a person to meet, an event to attend. We all enter the coach together after letting the ones inside to descend; everybody making it a point to help the elderly, or those with kids. Inside, everybody has an unspoken code of conduct to be followed, and watching all these different personalities with different mind-sets keeping up the code is almost magical. Inside this coach are a million different dreams, taking the same vessel to carry on their path. It is humbling to see how people make the most of their idle time in this rather dull container by making the best use of it. Mumbai is never not working. These locals have become the way of life for most of these men, rather than a tool of transport.
It’s funny how I look for a seat when the train is crowded, but when it’s empty I like to stand at the gate and admire the scenery outside. I like to feel the breeze dishevelling my hair and observe the stationary city while I zoom by. Travelling on these rails is when I introspect, it’s when I think. I usually have my earphones on and tend to ignore my surroundings, but occasionally, I’ll put my music on the shelf and just take in the atmosphere. There’s a reason travelling in the Mumbai locals is one of the top things on everyone’s travel lists. It’s a damn neat experience.
Nothing is inherently black and white.
I hate the locals. I love the locals.
Things have accents, they’re not perfect or single faceted. Good things have flaws. Flawed things may be good. The idea that duality of experience exists, is not a myth. In some ways, this makes you appreciate those things more. You take in the negatives, take in the positives, and you embrace the thing for what it is- imperfect and poignant but momentous nevertheless.