I am sure some of you have experienced that weekend when all you want to do is sit back, relax and do a whole lot of things at your own leisurely pace without worrying about ‘work’ of any kind. Then you suddenly remember that you have run out of grocery and the leisurely weekend is suddenly about running errands before the next week begins.
Instead, what if you could be on your way home in a train on a Friday evening and a woman selling fresh vegetables out of her basket walks up to you? You buy the vegetables right there and then! You are not spending any more time on grocery than the one you are already spending in the commute and you are finishing one of your errands even before the weekend begins.
This scenario is exactly of the kind that you would experience on a local train in Mumbai in India.
It is probably rare that you would associate a community with a journey but local trains in Mumbai fit into that category – the life that exists inside the trains is a community in itself.
I worked for quite some time in Mumbai and commuted every single day from my residence in the suburbs to my work place in South Mumbai in a local train. I would spend about an hour on a one way journey in the train.
This is true of many other commuters in Mumbai. An average commuter lives in the suburbs, works in the city and spends an hour or two in the train to reach from their residence to the work place in the city.
When you leave for work at a fixed time and take the same train and pick the same train compartment every day, you tend to know the people around you and you start talking and sharing experiences. When this happens every day, I believe, it gives birth to a community. This is probably what has happened with the Mumbai trains too.
The following is a recreation of what I would see every day on my way to work and back- women clustered in groups talking animatedly amongst themselves, a group of college-going youngsters standing (the trains are usually very crowded)/sitting together and singing, hawkers moving back and forth selling every imaginable essential commodity required in a daily life in Mumbai- fresh vegetables and fruits, flowers, food stuff- chips and cakes, local street food, clothes-from shirts to jeans, from salwar-kameez (a traditional outfit) to scarves, accessories like jewelry, purses, hair accessories, safety pins, needle and thread set, books and stationery, toys, seasonal items like umbrellas, raincoats and sweater. You name it, they would have it and commuters buy it from them saving a lot of time required to go to the stores and perform the same chores. Additionally, they also get critical opinions of their friends in the trains who tell them whether something is worth buying or not.
The hawkers do not stay for long in a compartment. Once they finish making business in a compartment, they hop onto the next compartment or take some other train to find new customers.
The scenario from the Ladies’ Compartment that I am talking about is also replicated in the General Compartment where men huddled in groups chat, play cards and sing together. The ones who are more serious about music even carry harmoniums, dholaks and tabla (percussion instruments) and other musical instruments with them and sing all the way to work and back. [Local trains in Mumbai are compartmentalized as Ladies (for women), Handicapped (for the physically challenged) and General (for everyone) Compartments.]
There were many options I could choose from to reach my work place- take a bus, a taxi or a car. But who wanted to be stuck in the traffic or spend a monotonous journey within the four sides of a car when I could experience a wonderful community full of stories in a local train? Even though it probably meant traveling in a crowded train, I always looked forward to this commute from my residence to work place and felt good to see a lively community where people were talking to each other, sharing their joys and sorrows, taking advice and offering suggestions and experiencing a life on the go.
Post by Alpita Masurkar. Photos by Puneet Chandhok and Dipti Sonawala. Puneet and Dipti are journalists with prominent media organizations in Mumbai.
This post is from Transit Secrets: The Unknown Paths from Point A to Point B – a current series on CoLab Radio.