These days, my life is dictated heavily by what day of the week it is. Sunday I have to bathe my dog, Monday I am going to eat rotis and sabzi from home, Tuesdays I am going to make a pot of boiled rice and veggies, Wednesday could be soup day, Thursday is (mostly) laundry day, I give up on Fridays and make eggs, maggi/masala oats and some knorr soup, Saturday I am on my way back to Ambernath, etc.
It was a Monday morning. I had to reach work at 11, and not 11:10 as my boss had said. Reaching Malad at 11 from Ambernath meant taking the 09:07 fast train that comes all the way from Karjat. 09:07 is a notorious train: known for broken bangles, terrible fights, suffocation, breasts getting squashed in the rush, tiffin boxes boring into the sides, and a lot of praying to come out of this alive. Another reason why this train is notorious is because there are no fast or slow CST trains after this one for at least 30 minutes from Ambernath.
In order to avoid this notorious train, I decided to board another notorious train: 08:45 from Ambernath. But the reasons for 08:45’s notoriety are different: first off, it is a train that starts from Ambernath – by virtue of which it should be better behaved, but is not. Secondly, there are many people who come ‘down’ from Ulhasnagar, and even Kalyan I have heard. And thirdly, the people in this train are known to be rude, uncompromising, and unhelpful. I should have hailed the saying “known devil is better than an unknown angel” because I have taken the 09:07 many times in my life, but not so much the 8:45.
So on a Monday morning, I left home wearing my strong Reebok running shoes, my casual pants with the nada, and my sturdy bag holding my laptop, books, and the precious food my mother had packed while she herself rushed to catch the 09:02 slow train (a tedious train). The reason why I was being so particular about reaching on time is because I am always associated with being late. It is not without reason since I am always late and I (think I) am in the process of changing that. I don’t remember if my father dropped me or if I took the 10 rupees share rickshaw to the station. Anyway, by the time I reached the station, the train was already at the platform and I started a slow trot to reach the compartment. I did not go the middle compartment because it was already 08:43 and I did not want to see the train go in front of my eyes after all the effort my whole family had put in to get me there on time. Also, for some reason, I thought since it was an early train, and a train that starts from Ambernath, of taking a second class ticket. This was my first mistake.
I entered the compartment to find it packed. The inside (where the seats are) was packed – all the fourth seats were occupied and there were women standing in between the seats as well. Fourth seats are an invention of necessity: when it gets too crowded, as a way of adjusting, four people sit on the three-seater. Outside too, women were lining all the walls of the train and two of the four sides of the train were blocked – one on each side. Blocking is done to prevent people from getting in from the side from which people get out. I walked in, a little wobbly from the weight of the bag, morning stupor, and anxiety. Of course then, I stepped on someone’s foot but it was mostly a brush so it was let go with just a little click of the tongue – indicating discomfort. I looked around, trying to find a safe place for myself. I could see none and I settled for the one by the door. But then, considering that I was feeling wobbly and clumsy, and also that I had a heavy bag with me, I did a rethink. Once again I looked around and found that there were only 3 women standing by the blocked side where four could fit. I immediately started moving towards the fourth standing place and stepped on the same person’s foot once again. This time, I had to apologise, which I did. I then settled on the fourth place and put my bag down by the wall separating the seats from the outside. Choosing the fourth standing place was my second mistake.
The train had still not started moving and one more person got in and went to the door – the same place I had abandoned moments ago. This person was friends with the person standing first in my line and she expressed her discomfort about there being a fourth person, leaving no space to adjust. I ignored her and thought how this is going to be an hour-long ordeal. Just when I thought this, another person got in and the train began to move.
I soon understood that the place I had chosen wasn’t the best – my bag was too big to fit where I had put it, there was not much back-support, and the woman standing next to me was a newbie. She did not know which side Ghatkopar was going to be so you can guess her level. I thought this woman has some angel behind her since she does not know what hell she has got into but at the same time has managed to find the safest place there was on the train to be able to get off at Ghatkopar (same station I wanted to get off at). Ulhasnagar came by and went – it was not much of a problem for my side since most women went to the opposite side from where I was standing. Some women squeezed by me to go inside without hassle. Vithhalwadi, too, came and went since it comes on the other side and this time too, the ones who got in went to the opposite side. But by now, the outside was completely packed – there was no space for a person to go past anybody without pushing, shoving, and feeling at least a little pain. But unfortunately, the journey had just begun.
Then, we reached Kalyan and a lot of women got in – including Tall Girl. Most of them got stuck just in front of the door. There was still some space inside but it was almost impossible to get in. Halfway through the other side of the outside of the compartment, people who wanted to get off at Thane were standing. This line ended right in front of me with Old Woman. But where it ended, the line of people wanting to get off at Bhandup/Ghatkopar also ended. What followed was quite dramatic and painful. Tall Girl had a big bag she had taken to the front and was determined to get inside. Now Tall Girl and our friend Old Woman met back to front. I was the audience to this unlikely and unfair battle. I looked behind me and saw that there was place enough only for 2-3 women to get in and thought the struggle was pointless, but Tall Girl didn’t think so. She pushed and pushed and pushed but Old Woman proved to be a worthy opponent – she was like one of those trees with deep-set roots that can’t be displaced easily. Tall Girl didn’t know this and continued to push and yell, but the Old Woman did not budge or utter a single word or sound in retaliation. I was pissed, I wanted Tall Girl to stop but she persisted and started shaking Old Woman, trying to get her off of her feet. At this point, I objected and so did a few others because Tall Girl was being inhuman but the protests didn’t reach Tall Girl, who finally managed to get past Old Woman but now the zip from her bag was stuck in Old Woman’s hair. She stopped only because Old Woman had finally made a sound. Now everyone was on Old Woman’s side and Tall Girl had to wrench her zip from Old Woman’s hair. Old Woman had to accept defeat and stand to the side. Somebody had the guts to say “Saglyanna kiti traas zala” (that was a lot of trouble for everybody) to Old Woman which I found outrageous but Old Woman had found her voice: Mala nahi zala traas? (wasn’t it for me as well?)
Because of Tall Girl’s abuse, another girl got in, but it was easier for her since Old Woman had been pushed into an uncomfortable position.
Before we (by now I had started feeling a strange sense of solidarity with the women around me) could recover from all this drama, we had reached Dombivili. Maybe it was because we were nearing Dombivili that I was feeling the sudden solidarity. We reached Dombivili and I felt the full blast of more people getting in – I held on to the bar with my right hand and shrunk myself to get closer to the woman next to me. I did this to make sure I don’t get thrown off of my feet by the impending pressure of more people getting in. At least 10 more women got in where there was space for none. Only 2-3 women were safely inside, the rest were hanging outside for dear life. The usual plaints of “arey andar jao” (get in) “humlog gir jayenge” (we’ll fall) “kitna jaga hai andar” (there’s enough space inside) began.
But I, a seasoned traveller, am so used to these pleas that I was indifferent to them. In fact, the general feeling inside the compartment every time we make it to Dombivili is that of scorn. It is so because there are fewer trains for the far-off places like Ambernath, Karjat, Badlapur, etc. And naturally, since the distance is more, most of these trains are fast. And the people of Dombivili love fast trains, in fact they are obsessed with them. But for the people of the far-off suburbs, the ones from Dombivili don’t have it so bad. One, because they have plenty of trains – slow, fast, semi-fast, of two different lines (Karjat and Kasara), as well as ladies specials. And two, because their journey gets over at least 20-25 minutes before the people of Ambernath/Badlapur and at least 60-90 minutes before the people of Karjat/Kasara/Khopoli. Because of this unfair distance and infrastructure realities, I think the scorn, the anger, and the disdain is fair. Moreover, I found myself thinking, if you fall, your death is not on me. When one civilian is thinking about another civilian in this manner, what has the world come to?
The disdain in the compartment grew with each stab of the tiffin in the neighbour’s bag, with each force felt on the chest because of overcrowding, and with each bout of suffocation as a result. I told my neighbour to do something about the pointy thing in her bag and she obliged, but it did not help much. The bag kept digging into my side and the pressure of the people around me kept suffocating me. I felt like I was going to break down because of the pain and in the same painful breath I vowed to never ever subject myself to this – why did I opt for a second class ticket when I could afford a first class ticket? At least I had a choice, I had an option. But then I looked around and wondered about the people who do not have a choice. Just a year ago, when I wasn’t making enough, I did not have a choice but to suffer through this journey on my way to work. And anyway, the first class compartment was different in only the criteria of smell, really. The women there smell better because they can afford deodorants and perfumes. And that gives one a sense of betterment even if it isn’t really any different from the second class experience. This is what living in Bombay has come to mean to me: the illusion of having a choice to a better life.
At this point, I saw a tree with red and green leaves. It looked beautiful with the rays of the sun falling on it. The sight made be breathe, reminded me that even at this wretched hour, there are beautiful things happening in the world. The pain became a little bearable. As if on cue, then, we reached Thane and the crowd got off. Tall Girl came back out and stood in front of me again. Both of us wanted to get off at Ghatkopar. I was once again pissed with Tall Girl and with the idea of her getting off before me. She was talking to a friend of hers who was asking her how she managed to get in despite the rush. She just said: I somehow got in – she did not dwell on Old Woman and her resoluteness, or the fact that she shook an old person and had rent her hair. I felt upset and angry; we were nearing Ghatkopar and I promptly stepped in front of Tall Girl and her friend. I managed to get off before Tall Girl to prove a point. To whom, I don’t really know.