Reading about Kiran’s experiences with the renowned Mumbai local trains brought back memories. Lots of them. It also magically brought me the opportunity to relive those memories. Right on the day of reading the post I was deputed to attend a workshop in Goregoan. From where I live, Goregoan is what can safely be called the other end of the world. And the fastest mean to reach this other end of the world is obviously the local train.
In the last job I was a frequent train traveler. The frequency of the travel and the high stress the trains are known to cause, forced me to develop a Code of Conduct.These were things I just had to do no matter what. Sacrosanct stuff. Just for the sake of reliving the past, let me make a list of all that I used to consider sacrosanct.
Code of Conduct Section 1: Meeting train schedules.
Like the rest of the train-using population of Mumbai, I aimed at catching a particular train everyday. The 08.12 one to be precise. That train and no other. I did that because a- the train timing suited me and b- the train started at my station so the possibility of getting a seat was much higher. Finding a train that starts at your station and suits you, is a rare privilege and it is your moral duty to do everything is your power to make the most of this privilege. If that means skipping breakfast or leaving it half eaten or forgetting things you had to take along, so be it. If that means running through the house like a zombie, pulling out clothes and upsetting the neat piles, trying to comb your hair while you throw on your kurta, all because you woke up 15 minutes late, you do it. You do whatever it take but you don’t miss the train.
Code of Conduct Section 2: Maintaining the “train catching” ritual
There were rituals involved in the actual process of boarding the train. These ensured that I successfully caught the train and secured my favourite window seat (the first one on the left side of the coach) As per the ritual, I was to stand at a particular spot on the platform, right in front of the boy who sold newspapers. The spot had been selected after much observational research. The door of the ladies compartment would always aligned itself with the position of the newspaper boy. So standing strategically in front of the boy meant I could make a bee line for the door when the train halted.
That was about gaining easy access to the entrance of the train.The process of actually boarding the train made certain other demands on me. A sturdy pair of shoes was a must. (Kiran managed with high heel. I don’t know how!) as was the ability to keep all personal belongings as close to myself as physically possible. If I didn’t, I ran a serious risk of getting strangulated with my dupatta or losing my handbag in the mad rush. Since I considered both my life and my bag important, I hugged the handbag close to myself and wore the dupatta in a fashion that didn’t allow it to flutter or fly,each time I had to board or alight the train.
Code of Conduct 3: Resisting train friends
Now this is a peculiar one. No one else I have ever known follows this code. In all the years that I traveled by the train, I have never made any “train friends”. I recognized the women who usually took the same train as me. I even made the effort to occasionally smile at them. But I never did anything beyond that for a very simple reason- I hate answering personal questions. If I turned “train acquaintances” into “train friends” I would have to talk to them. Which meant I would have to trade personal histories and answer all kinds of personal questions. I could easily live without that. I hate offering bits of my personal life to strangers, so “train friends” were a strict no-no.
Code of Conduct 4: Reservations against reservation
Another peculiar one. Trains have this ingeniously developed system of “reserving” seats. Technically when you buy a ticket, you have the right to enter the compartment. It doesn’t automatically mean that you will have a place to sit when you enter the compartment. That means that it is possible for you to be faced with a situation in which you may have to go through the entire journey standing. Obviously not an appealing proposition. So one fine day some smart lady come up with the idea of “reserving” seats. She went around asking people where they were going to get off and as soon as she found a person who was going to hop off the trains a few stops later, she asked her to give her the seat. She did this as a one-off and when she discovered how easily and successfully this method worked, she made it a practice. “Reserving” a seat meant that when vacated the smart lady and the smart lady alone could occupy it. If anyone had the audacity to usurp the “reserved” seat, the smart lady would promptly yell “bola hai!!”, which essentially meant “reserve karne ko bola hai”.( Its hard for us to speak in full sentences in Mumbai- we are in such a hurry. It’s a perpetual state of being. We deal with this state by shortening our sentences. ) Soon the other ladies learnt from the example of the smart lady and in no time at all, everyone in the compartment was reserving seats.
Given that I believed there was something fundamentally wrong with this system, I stayed away from it. In all the years, I never reserved seats, not once. I went all the way standing if I needed to. I even tried to do my best to discourage others from making “reservations” but with limited success.
Code of Conduct 5: Mastering the art of sleeping
Cat naps are a great way to recharge. At the end of a long day, you want to do a bit of recharging so that you don’t reach home looking all washed out. You try catching a few winks on train and in order to do that you need to master the art of sleeping like the dead. Because only a dead person can sleep through the high pitched chatter that envelops the ladies compartment. The chickoo/santara/amrood wali(season dependent) yelling in a nasal voice “pancha ka do“, college girls giggling, some lady scolding her kids on the phone for not studying, a group of women singing old Hindi movie songs to keep themselves entertained and each of these people competing with each other and the rattle of the train. Traveling by train is, as you can imagine, a very noisy proposition. So obviously sleeping on a train that noisy required some very special abilities. The rule of sleeping on the train is that you can sleep all you like but you cant lean on the person sitting next to you. People in Mumbai are very protective about their space- there is so little of it that whatever comes your way, you fight tooth and nail to preserve it and keep encroachers out. When a sleeping person leans over you, she eats into your space. And because that’s a crime you have the right to rudely nudge her awake.
I have never liked rude people, or being nudged awake so I never sleep on the train. At least not for the six months or so. After that I a trick or two from the other women about sleeping while sitting in a perfectly straight position.
Code of Conduct 6: Facing the monsoon fury
Traveling by train in the monsoons is challenging. The compartments are not built strong enough to face the onslaught of the incessant downpour. Water sprays in from the open doors and windows refuse to shut. Plus inconsiderate people plonk themselves right next to you, wet raincoat, dripping umbrella and all. Each of these elements work in sync to ensure that you reach office, at least, partly wet. The easiest weapon to deal with such situations is the good old newspaper. During the monsoons, I used to use the sports section to judiciously wipe away the water on the seats, to block rain water dripping from window corners and for sundry such things. In view of the fact that monsoons last a little over a quarter of the year in Mumbai, my check list of ‘things to take along to work ‘had “newspaper” and “umbrella” right on top. These were essential accessories.
Random fact: the monsoon is also the only time you will find women fighting for the aisle seat.
Code of Conduct 6: Adjusting
This is more of a train rule rather than a code of conduct. I didn’t always enjoy adjusting but everything in the world is a give and take, so because sometimes people had to adjust to make space for me, I returned the favour whenever needed. Adjusting here meant turning a seat for three into a seat for four. It made the journey uncomfortable for all those sitting, but whats a little bit of “adjusting” for train friends?
The Code of Conduct is now redundant. I travel by a company bus. I get a place a window seat everyday. I spend my travel time inhaling vehicular fumes, cribbing about the perpetual traffic jams to my colleagues, reading or listening to the radio. I am not used fighting for anything any more. I expect it to be there for me- the bus is always there, a seat is always available. One trip to Goregoan proved to me just how used to this luxury I had become. I found the train travel quite exhausting but in my defense, I don’t have much experience in standing on tip toes for 30 minutes. My job profile doesn’t require it of me and whatever little previous experience I had gained in the same is now lost. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the comforts of the bus. But I miss the hustle-bustle and the high energy of the local trains. I miss seeing the “real” Mumbai. In the bus you only get to see office people, in the trains you get to see a cross section of the society. In a way the train is a great social equalizer- no matter how rich you are, what position you hold at office, you travel by the same train as everyone else- the maid going to work, the insurance agent, school kids, college kids, small time entrepreneurs. Trains are alive, active and energetic- a true representation of what the city stands for. And experiencing that first hand is what I really miss.