A ‘Madrasi’ in the shoes of a ‘Mumbaikar’ spells out the process of adaptation

Everyone celebrates one’s own city, for the associations one has with its streets, the school one studied in, the friends and relatives who supported at various times, and for the mere comfort one gets in knowing one’s way around a place.

I am a ‘Madrasi,’ as India north of the Vindhyas likes to call us — it is Chennai now, but Chennaiite does not sound the same — and I viewed my recent shift to Mumbai with some trepidation. I had lived for a short time in this city, in the 1970s, in Bandra. It was less crowded then. Now, I have moved into Seawoods, beyond Nerul in Navi Mumbai, a quieter place no doubt, far from the bustle that is Mumbai.

I wanted to get a feel of what it is to be a Mumbaikar, and believe me, there is no place else to find the pulse of Mumbai than in its suburban trains, all the way up to Thane and beyond, and Panvel on the other side. I bought myself a Pass from Nerul to Andheri, my place of work, and have been travelling this lovely rail system, which in some ways symbolises the life of this city. A railway that is more than 150 years old, carrying more than seven million passengers every day. That is 2.5 billion passengers a year.

It has changed me somewhat. I now talk of taking the 8.01 direct to Andheri, and the 7.09 back. Minutes seem to have assumed significance. If on some days I arrive at the station a little early, I have no patience any more to wait for the 8.01, but jump into the CST train that comes along, the next one after another 5 minutes, and change at Wadala. Yes, it means climbing the stairs to change platforms, but I do not want to waste any time! Keep going, do not stop — is the mantra. Thousands of others also do the same, in their restless quest to survive.

No one I meet seems to wait, everyone knows his destination, rushing to meet some deadline. They seem to have a certain energy which is infectious.

Once I enter a compartment, like some football formation everyone takes up position. The row on the side near the entry is safe — the rushing mob will leave you alone, and you will not be pressed into pulp when Kurla comes along, and there is a whoosh as the crowd is almost vacuumed out. More get in, of course. If I am not lucky to get the side position, it is advisable to push one’s way inside, and not be foolish enough to stand in the passage facing the entrance. Knapsacks and bags are duly passed on, and kept on the rack above by willing and helping hands.

One can even read the newspaper, but there has to be a knack to it. Fold it horizontally, and read the paragraphs in parts. I see some sleeping with an equine grace, in a standing position.

There are then the groups, daily commuters who know each other, working in the same office perhaps, who form a circle and keep up a constant banter. Risque comments, innuendoes. Time Pass. It does make the journey easier, even for those around them.

To pass time, there are also the advertisements on the sides — goading you to better your English, exhorting you to make that decision on that flat in Panvel (only Rs. 20+ lakh ), and the accompanying picture does look enticing — with trees, and space, and blue skies. Stay-on is advertised, to make you perform better. Another one promises that you can earn Rs. 25,000 with just two to three hours of work a day. Maybe you can. I can well believe it in this city. Where time is money, and one has to run just to even stay in the same place.

And the ubiquitous eating joints — from those in the metro, licensed by the rail authorities, where soft drink brands jostle for space. Prices are low, and quality to match. They do roaring business, where you can grab a quick snack, a glass of lemon from those huge glass containers. Outside, in those narrow passages leading from the station, you can have your vada-pav, or a nice sandwich, or buy an attractive watch for just Rs. 50, shoes for Rs. 150. I bought handkerchiefs for Rs. 10 each — and found them great value for money. Data cards, mobile accessories… everything seems to be in.

The members of the fairer sex have it relatively easy. Separate compartments for them, and by the look of it not so crowded, and they do not suffer the same fate as the men, packed like sardines and smelling the coconut oil in each other’s hair. It is good that the equality argument is not carried to its conclusion here, and we still display old-world chivalry.

Above all, the energy jumps out at you in these trains. Life is tough, but fight it out and move your butt — is what the metro seems to tell me. Today is today, and make it count, it tells me, a la De Caprio of Titanic fame. For all the squalor and claustrophobic jamming of bodies, for all the running and the restlessness of the wait even for a few minutes for the next train to thunder in, the Mumbai Suburban seems to demonstrate hope — and hope is what makes the world go round anyway. No one in those compartments believes, I think, that they are going to remain where they find themselves today. They are looking at the future, rushing to greet it, and embrace a brighter tomorrow.

This is the spirit of the city, then. It is Maximum City, and this is its Maximum Railway network. I can only stare, wonder, salute the never-say-die spirit of the Mumbaikar, and try and merge into its momentum!


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