The Mumbai Suburban Railway. Mumbai’s arteries, veins, and capillaries rolled into one functional hunk of steel. Even after living in this bulging metropolis for so long, I am continually amazed by the efficiency of its semi-antiquated local rail network. This is not a network built to help, say, a quaint German hamlet go about its daily business. This is a network that carries upwards of 10 million bodies – approximately 60% of Mumbai’s population – up and down its slender archipelagic body on a daily basis. Her compartments (yes, Mumbai’s train system is feminine in my eyes) do not try to please the occasional tourist’s camera lens; they are designed to take space efficiency to the next level. Similarly, the majority of her stations are not aesthetically pleasing in any conventional sense; rather, they are giant containers through which daily passengers… well, pass. But then again, what do you expect from a train whose body parts are called dabbas, or “boxes,” in Hindi?
The inner workings
Mumbai’s train network is not complicated. Unlike intricate color-coded alphanumeric systems found in cities like New York and London, Mumbai’s trains have only three lines: the Western, Central, and Harbour. All three lines travel north-south at different longitudinal coordinates; if you’d like to traverse an east-west cross-section of Mumbai instead, you’ll need to head to Dadar, the only place all three lines meet, to switch lines. Trains consisting of either 9 or 12 carts sprint down the system’s 303-km length, halting at each station for a mere 10-15 seconds.
The actual trains are almost as simple as the network. Compartments are solely designed to maximize operational efficiency during rush hour, at which point any traditional sense of comfort or personal space is left far behind. At these times, seats are rare and as highly prized as small-footed Chinese virgins. Most are forced to stand awkwardly in the aisles, brushing shoulders, elbows, knees, and bums with fellow passengers. A handful of “lucky” commuters precariously hang out the open entranceways and breathe the entirety of Mumbai, trading safety for a modicum of personal space. These guys also get to experience the train’s most effective form of ventilation first-hand, since compartments are (currently) not air-conditioned and fans don’t always produce the desired effect of mass cooling. As such, doors are only slid shut when harsh monsoon rains threaten to give passengers pneumonia, and sometimes not even then.
The cultural adaptations
Mumbai’s train network, cognizant both of her unusual obligations and of the local culture, has adapted herself over time to better serve commuters. Over a decade ago, many female passengers began complaining of being, er, man-handled during busy hours. Authorities have since bestowed two compartments in each train to the fairer sex. Law enforcement is virtually not required: if a male over the age of ~13 enters these forbidden chambers, he will be greeted by countless pairs of disapproving matronly eyes, and will immediately flee in shame.
The same authorities, understanding India’s extreme class consciousness, decided to take a few tips from hardcover book publishing houses. Namely, they created a “first class compartment” (available both in ladies’ and men’s flavors) to better suit office-goers who were embarrassed of arriving at their destination sweaty (glowing?) and crumply. These compartments are almost indistinguishable from their paperback neighbors, save a green coat of paint and inexpensive upholstery. Self-selecting customers pay a 5x premium for a less crowded interior, lightly cushioned seats, and in the words of some, a “better crowd.”
The rules of the game
Before entering a local train, there are a couple things one should know. Of course, the Indian Railways authorities have a few basic regulations (mostly regarding ticket-less travel), but I am referring to a whole other universe of rules. These “other” rules have been silently developed en masse after years of daily traveling. In keeping with the spirit of the railways, these rules are designed to maximize efficiency while showing a basic concern for humanity. Here is the best I can articulate this unspoken code of conduct:
- Thou shalt not carry excess luggage. Do it during rush hour and feel the collective revulsion.
- Thou shalt stand near the doorway when thy stop doth arrive. 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.
- Thou shalt not block the doorway if thy stop is not yet arriveth. Converse of the above tenet.
- Thou shalt forgeth a silent agreement if thine gluteus maximus doth seeketh comfort. This is known to some as the “seat sharing arrangement.” If you want to sit, cozy up to a seated passenger and ask, “Kaha?” (“Where?”). 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.
- Thou shalt jointly scoopeth a passenger running towards thy doorway. Sadly, there is limited chance for a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque Sliding Doors moment in Mumbai. Everyone works together to get you on the train before it departs, and there ain’t no sliding doors anyhow.
- If thou dost readeth a newspaper, thou shalt shareth with at least three others. 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.
- Thou shalt give up your seat for a pregnant woman. Self-explanatory, and anyway a global phenomenon
The ultimate convenience store
The most memorable aspect of my first train journey – besides deciphering the hieroglyphic-esque signage (“C 01 S 12” obviously translates to “a 12-compartment Churchgate-bound train will be arriving in one minute, and will halt at all stations”) – was undoubtedly the vendors. To my knowledge, the concept of vendors on trains is non-existent in the West, except maybe during Girl Scout cookie season. On Mumbai’s trains, one can purchase an assortment of basic goods from barefoot traveling salespeople, who are aged anywhere between 8 and 88.
These salespersons, hardened by a life between smooth cement and cold steel, effortlessly slip through impenetrable crowds, virtually invisible if not for their colorful goods. This breed of vendor deals in simple denominations: 5 rupees for a garam garam samosa, 10 rupees for a hair clip, 20 rupees for a large table cloth, 30 rupees for last month’s Stardust magazine. They have specialized goods for different audiences: bindis and kitchen utensils for the ladies, pocket protectors and handkerchiefs for the men. And they display their products in the most innovative fashions: they use clothes hangers and rope to create a butterfly clip monster; scrap metal to make a “meta” key chain; and large paper clips to hold together floral tablecloths.
Underpinning this entire vendor culture is a basic sense of trust. I have had entire boxes of earrings thrust on my lap while the saleslady traversed the remainder of the compartment. This was not done because I gave off a particularly trustworthy vibe. This was done because I had expressed slight interest in the earrings, and because the saleslady knew she could work the crowd while a dozen ladies would prevent me from stealing. It’s a salesperson’s ultimate fantasy: multiplying oneself into two with “no tension.”
In most cities, stuffing bodies into veritable sardine tins would cause extreme discomfort, irritation, and general unhappiness. While these emotions are undeniably part and parcel of Mumbai’s train experience, the overwhelming sab chalta hai (“everything goes”) attitude has, in my mind, triumphed. Passengers have created innovative strategies to pass otherwise dead time and to deal with the extreme crowds.
In particular, Mumbai has developed an entire sub-culture of train friends, or groups of perfect strangers who all take the 7:39 fast train from Ghatkopar to CST (formerly VT). These groups try to sit or stand near each other, catch up on each other’s daily activities, and share their latest rajma masala recipes. These groups may spontaneously transform into choirs, belting out traditional Marathi songs and Bollywood item numbers. They may pore over a single copy of Bombay Times and passionately debate Shahid and Priyanka’s rumoured affair. In short, they begin to function as friends in “real life” do.
And that’s the secret of Mumbai’s local trains. They are crowded, sure, and they are far from comfortable. But they are teeming with real life and real entrepreneurs and real people making the best of their situation. In some strange way, the trains weave together the fabric of Mumbai’s inexplicable culture.