If you are as lucky as I am to be born in the wonderful city of Mumbai, you will have heard of, seen, or even experienced the rather intense initiation into the world of the local trains. They are the stereotyped young adults of the world of commute: mostly dedicated, plenty determined, almost never on time, and always stressed. You see one every two minutes, wonder if this one will behave better than the last one you tried to deal with, and take the leap of faith, anyway. You go through extreme endurance and survival skills, only to escape with relief, knowing that you can rely on them, just the same.
However, the one thing that makes a journey on the Mumbai local a spectacle to behold, are the people in it, who’ve been using this lifeblood of the city, for years together. In the 6 years of experience that I have had to commute by the local trains, I’ve been fortunate to spot some of the best and worst kinds of people who make Aamchi Mumbai, the City of Dreams that it is.
These are the most easily identifiable in a train comp tment, because you’ll hear them before you see them! Ranging anywhere from age 6 to 60, these women can surprise you when it comes to the oldest of Bollywood classics to the more annoying (and repetitive) hits that the ‘’kids’’ sing these days. The Spice Girls ain’t got nothing on our aunties!
These are the best kinds of people on the locals! Not only will they snap open their tiffins and start eating; they will manage to create a makeshift table using all of their purses/bags, and support each other’s boxes with their laps and knees, sharing their meal with anyone and everyone who is willing to join them. The kind of agility one requires to spread out a meal of roti, sabzi, rice and all kinds of dessert on a dupatta spread across 6 odd people in a swinging and a shaky compartment - no matter how crowded the space - is amazing!
These may be the ones you can relate to the most. Starter pack includes: a smartphone and earphones/headphones (throw in Beats by Dre, if you spot the rich kid, who may not know who the maker is but will shove it in your face that he has more money than you do). With heads buried in their screens, they hang out of the trains to synchronize the rush of the wind to the chorus of their favourite tracks.
Or as I like to call them, Mumbai’s mobile flea markets. It’s hard to find the versatility of goods for sale in a moving vehicle, as one does in a local train. Nail cutters, coloured glass-encrusted neck pieces, head massagers, heaps of flowers, packets of lemons, bunches of ginger, baskets of fish, mouth fresheners, tissue packets, an assortment of scrunchies and phone cases - you name it, they’ve got it. The boy who sells you a scarf for 100 rupees today, will invariably be seen on a train in the next two days, selling seasonal mini oranges. No kidding!
You see them texting comfortably on their largely empty seats, without the fear of impaling themselves on the particularly sharpened edge of an umbrella, or the anxiety of hanging onto the doors of the compartment, praying for a safe arrival at the next station. Some of them even snobbishly turn up their noses at the crowded second class compartments and ‘tsk’ at the women fighting to get inside. (It’s still a local train and not a private jet, you know! You are just a sophisticated peasant, but a peasant like us, nevertheless!)
There’s always that one family that will enter the compartment with no less panache than those of the conquerors’ invading the lands of their enemies. But, instead of the classy ‘FOR THE NORTH!’, it’s normally shrieks of “ARRE AAGE CHALO BACCHA HAI IDHAR! DIKHTA NAHI HAI KYA?!”, as they dig their fists and elbows into the soft spots of your tummy. Their mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts all demand the right to space, and freedom to bruise, only because of the sheer number of members in their family. God forbid if you accidentally cause even a slight scratch on any of their screeching pterodactyls disguised as infants. You will be reminded of your religion, audacity, lineage and caste within 3 seconds of your contact with their progeny.
I have been one of these and have definitely envied some of these. It’s the sheer brilliance of the human body that you get to witness a person sleep so soundly in a crowded compartment of a local while they are standing straight in the midst of the clamour, the uproar, and the madness that ensues around them. It’s nothing short of a superpower, if your brain allows itself to shut down and set your body to a standing comatose state, while the rest of us struggle to keep our limbs from being dislocated and our toes squished, in what can only be described as the stampede in Jumanji (with more foul-mouthed women and less rhinos).
As a Mumbaikar, you are (or have been) guilty of this. When you need to desperately make it to some place and the herd of people on the trains slow you down, you can’t help but make the choice between waiting it out and grinding your teeth, or going forth and punching people, yelling an apology and making it look like an accident. The catchphrases include “AE! PUDHE CHALA!”, “AE! ANDAR JAANE DO”, “AE! UTRO NAA!” or just plain and simple “AAEE!” as loud as you can manage.
I can’t help but giggle at these interrogators who come crashing into the local just as it stops, and locking gaze with the first person in their immediate vicinity spit “AAP KAHAAN?!”. I was dozing off on a journey once and I was viciously shaken awake to have a rather fierce looking aunty yell that to me. I did everything in my power to put my hands up and shriek “ANDHERI! ANDHERI! Aap ko jo lena hai le lo! Lekin mujhe maaro matt, please!” These women are relentless, brief, and they have an efficient system by which they manage to secure seats for all their BFFs as well. Goodness help you if you ‘promise’ them a seat and you (either intentionally or accidentally) let someone else take it. *hands you ear plugs*
Basically, your baju wale ghar ki aunty who wants to know what you are up to in your life, but in the local train. Of course, sometimes you can’t help but accidentally take a peep into your neighbour’s phone as you both wait out your stations. But these people actively seek entertainment/amusement in their lives relying on the screen of your smartphone. Once, a woman standing behind me whispered a jubilant “YES!” as I successfully passed a rather tricky level of the (then) popular Temple Run, and was subjected to my questioning stare for 3 whole seconds before we both burst out laughing.
Nothing makes them happy, and everything is an issue. They also ensure they recruit as many people as possible into their perpetual state of crabbitiness. “Trains are so late, the government should do something about more trains”. “The trains are so filthy, they should be taking more care of it”. “Kids these days have no shame, look at what they wear”. “Hawkers should be banned from compartments”. “She was kissing ass for a promotion; you won’t see me dress up like that for a job” - OMG just stop!
The absolute worst kind of people you can meet in a train; these are the ones who have built themselves a humble abode around the one-person-seat they are supposed to be occupying. They sit, legs comfortably stretched, and place their baggage on seats next to them, blatantly ignoring passengers who ask them to place their belongings anywhere but on the seats.
The word ‘sit’ is non-existent to this kind. While people around them scamper for ‘one-buttcheek-worth-of-space’ seats in the compartment, this resolute lot place themselves by the doors with the kind of dedication a moth would show to a flame. Their station may be a good half hour away and they’re clearly in the way of commuters who wish to get out of and climb into the train; but that won’t stop them from compressing and contorting their bodies to let the crowd pass around them. For seats may come, and window seats may go; but, the guardians will haunt the doors forever.
Out of all the types of individuals who’ve made an appearance on this list, nothing makes me happier than a brave lad or lassie attempting to board a local. As they gingerly step onto the floorboard and nervously look around to get their bearings, I can almost hear harps around them, commemorating the occasion with glee. The journey may traumatise them, excite them, or make no difference to them, whatsoever. But it will be an experience they wouldn’t want to easily forget.
After all that’s said and done, doesn’t matter if you’re a whiner, a phone peeper, a sleeper, or a miffed aunty: when you see someone race to get aboard a train that’s already slowly leaving the platform, you do what nearly every single Mumbaikar will strive to do, like true superheroes that the city breeds.
Be the Raj to their Simran, of course.