Back home in Boston, I never take the train. But in traffic-congested Mumbai, the trains are the quickest way to get around the city. Yet, whenever I inform resident Bombayites that I, an American born Indian, ride the train every morning and evening, I am met by equal parts shock and disbelief.
“You take the train! I was born here and I never dare take the train!” They exclaim.
I have been riding the trains for a little over two months and I would like to say I’m a pro who has mastered the art of train travel. But that would be far from the truth since riding the trains in Mumbai requires quite a bit of adjustment and, as an outsider, there’s a lot to learn.
Initially, I imagined scenes reminiscent of Bollywood films. Long, leisurely train rides which inspired camaraderie and storytelling in the passengers. Instead, travelers in the ladies’ compartment sit in virtual silence. Noses are pressed into books; the easily identifiable white headphones of Apple are firmly placed in ears while mouths are busy munching away at bags of chips, biscuits and mixed nuts. In contrast to the ladies’ compartment, there is an audible, indisputable roar of animated chatter, laughter, and even a few card games in the men’s compartment.
After acclimating myself to the train environment I realized there were a few unspoken codes of conduct. First and foremost, any and all of your concepts of personal space should be discarded. Throw them out of the window, or rather, throw them out of the open train doors, as Indians are not afraid to get all close and personal.
Secondly, seats are limited. It does not matter for how long or how close I stand to the incoming train because it is guaranteed that somehow about ten or so women will come out of nowhere, effortlessly push me aside and proceed to run towards the open seats. These women are quick, forceful and not afraid to push you out of the way in order to get a seat. And then, once they have comfortably adjusted themselves on the softened leather seats of Mumbai’s ancient, dilapidated behemoths of a train they will turn their face towards you and smile warmly. At this point, you have two options. You can acquiesce to your fate, admit defeat and spend the rest of your journey standing. Or, you can aggressively stay on the prowl for a seat. This requires, not only the ability to discern when a passenger is soon to disembark but also the lightening fast reflexes to snatch that seat up before any equally tired and travel weary passenger beats you to it.
Overcrowded and teeming with passengers, the decrepit trains of Mumbai, despite their shoddy appearances, are truly the backbone of the city as they carry more than 6/7 million commuters a day. The trains, are, surprisingly, incredibly functional and despite all of the crazy idiosyncrasies of Mumbai’s train systems they are prime for people watching and sightseeing.
Clothing drying on train tracks and heaping mounds of garbage that highlight the dark underbelly of capitalism are just a few of the sights that can be encountered on a train ride in Mumbai. It is also while riding in the train that I can observe the residential buildings and colorful shantytowns of Mumbai. On the trains I am able to observe the inhabitants go through their daily motions: brushing their teeth, stretching stiff limbs, diminutive women washing clothes with unimagined force and half-naked children laughing and playing with abandon. As these scenes of urban domesticity flit by in the slow, local trains of Mumbai I am able to briefly glimpse and occasionally make eye-contact with people I would not have been lucky enough to see if I had taken a taxi or, even, if I had decided to stay in the US for the summer. And as a result, though riding the trains sometimes, okay, frequently, frustrates me, it is also one of my favorite parts of my day.