Shared auto, “local” as they call the train, bus, walk. Work.
I took this train seven years ago when I was in Mumbai and was pick-pocketed in the first 10 minutes. Today, it is my favorite part of the city. I am originally from Mangalore, Karnataka which Lonely Planet calls “a place to stop to grab a cup of tea but not stay for long.” Mangalore – a sleepy coastal town is the opposite of Mumbai. Mumbai is a beast, and even after living in cities like Boston and Chicago for college, this Indian city excites and scares me.
A blind lady boards everyday on my 8:07 AM train and sings so beautifully. I always give her money and she blesses me by stroking my cheek, while touching my closed eyes. The other day a hijra came in and everyone immediately reached into their purse to give her money. As I gave her a ten rupee note, she kissed my head. She seemed friendly and was wearing the sexiest saree blouse I had seen yet in Mumbai. I wanted to talk to her, but my stop arrived and my train pass only lets me go so far. Maybe next time–the fine is worth it for great stories and a new friend.
These are some of my rules for travel:
- Keep change–ten rupee notes for train snacks. Ladies with baskets of fruit, pakoda, and samosas walk in, refreshing passengers with a snack. When our work day ends, they are in their workplace, making sales.
- I have learned never to take the Virar Fast train as the ladies compartment is full of Spartan women, who will not hesitate to hurt you and then tell you where to get the turmeric balm for your wounds.
- Never ever look outside the train while going into Mahim in the morning. Men are relieving themselves, as I learned all too late as I watched actual feces exit a man’s orifice. This moment comes to me when I least expect it–when I am day dreaming or just about to fall asleep. Mostly, I wish the friend I was sitting with did not comment by saying “looks like a shawarma,” as she ate her morning roti for breakfast.
Women and men come into the general class compartment I am in and sell nifty things -100 safety pins for Rs. 50 ($0.75), earrings for Rs. 30 ($0.45), but my favorite is the man who sells “knowledge books.” He does so by yelling “Who was the most evil king of all?” “Who did Gandhi love the most?” and “Find out where the white elephants are!” I have never bought it because I have Google, and for some reason I want the people around me to think I already know who the most evil king was. But next time I will spend Rs. 20 ($0.30) to get some much-needed knowledge.
As I get off the bus after the train, I walk past many sugarcane shops and drink my daily glass of juice. Initially, the man used the dried remains of the cane to make juice for me, but now he sees me and reaches for a fresh cane. He knows me now.
I meet new people all the time who give me all sorts of advice about where to buy the best fish or how to cover your body by angling to lessen the chances of getting groped. One lady, who resembled Katherine Hepburn, told me after finding out I eat a crushed ice cone (gola) for dinner that I should get married so that I can learn responsibility. I smile and don’t tell her I have a partner in Chicago, and we take turns cooking for each other. I appreciate the talks so much, but I never ask them for their information because the 15-minute conversation is magical and I don’t want to find out any more about them that will spoil the magic. Romanticizing helps me get through the day.
Women stand everywhere. I get in on the first stop, so I always get a seat. Most women straddle me and I try not to make eye contact as I don’t know how to appropriately respond to this intimacy. Women also aggressively poke you and ask, “Which station are you getting down at?” “Bandra” I say. They then gesture that they are “booking” my seat. So when I get up at my stop that woman will sit in my seat.
Rush hour hits from 6 PM to 8:30 PM. At some connecting stations where more than one line meets, people jump into the metal compartments and it sounds like a thousand wildebeests are stampeding into the ravine as Mufasa died in The Lion King.
In one of those crowded trains, at 7:45 PM on November 2, two thirty-year-old women next to me talk about a movie stars birthday “अरे, आज तो शाहरुख खान 50 साल का बुड्ढा हो गया| “Hey, Today Shah Rukh Khan is a 50 year old man”. The other replies, “ वह कैसे बुड्ढा होगा? बुड्ढे तोह हम हो रहे हैं, ट्रैन में एडजस्ट करकर के|”, “How will he be an old man? We are the ones becoming old by living our lives by adjusting on this train.” I quickly type this conversation to Max, an AIF friend of mine so I can remember it. Eavesdropping is part of my daily routine now.
There is an odd sense of order in the chaos that is Mumbai. People stand in literal, long lines as they wait for the bus or auto. Women in my ladies compartment, never steal another ladies “booked” seat. Salespeople come and go on time.
A lady came into my 9:08 AM train today selling organic hair products. “Amla, Shikakai! Red red henna!” She assures people that if the henna color fades before three months, she will return their money. Women pull out Rs. 50 notes and buy the hair dye from her. She looks at me and says, “You look like someone who needs amla for your hair to shine.” I look away clawing my dull hair, embarrassed, and see another man peeing on the train tracks. I realize that nothing, really, is private in India.
Black & White images by Sukhada Chaudhary.