I was running late. I got out of my rickshaw outside Andheri station, and looked up at a board that read “C 08:25 F 12 01”. The Churchgate fast local train was arriving on Platform 2 in one minute. I had to be on that train. The next would be 7 minutes later. I didn't have that much time. I took the stairs three-at-a-time, apologetically bundling into people who “Ptch”-ed and glared at me as I rushed past. I could see the train arriving on the platform, people tumbling out with warlike cries of “Chalo!” and streaming up the stairs toward me with a chaotic fluidity. The first-class compartment was packed far beyond capacity. But on a Mumbai local train, there's always scope for more.
I caught hold of the few square inches of pole by the compartment door that didn't already have hands around them, put half a foot on the train. The train started moving with half my body in suspended animation, and I braced myself for the next seven minutes I would be spending in exactly this position. Two feet were already nudging the three toes I had planted on the train for space. My hand threatened to lose its grip off the pole. My entire anatomy was stretched far beyond it was designed to. I pulled myself in as best I could, to avoid electric poles whizzing by, missing me by centimetres at best. The slightest touch could throw me off the train. I wasn't the only one, though. Hundreds like me were either playing hide-and-seek with obstacles outside, or getting crushed from every angle inside. Tens of thousands do it everyday. It has to be done. Not everyone can afford the luxury of a private vehicle in Mumbai. But we all have to get to work on time.
Yet in the midst of the madness and acquired disregard for physical well-being, there is a strange and wonderful culture within the 12 carriages of Mumbai's local trains at rush-hour. An entirely different world, invisible to all but those who are fortunate, or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it, to be inside. While the more anti-social variety will squeeze themselves into a snug little corner and nod away to the whims of their earphones and willingly be pushed from side to side, there are others who have, over years of travelling together at the same time, in the same carriage, every single day, developed close friendships. They bellow greetings and have discussions over the heads of some 35 people in the few metres that separate them. Parallel chit-chatting from all directions is fairly normal, and people couldn't be bothered in the least if others overhear them having a go at their bosses, or even their wives.
The more hardened, street-smart variety of train-travellers plan their journey more meticulously, ensuring they have their seats everyday by catching the train from one station ahead (Marine Lines, for a Churchgate train) and settling in while it's headed in opposite direction to avoid the barrage of commuters. An informal reservation system is in place, with each knowing where the other sits, and many being polite enough to offer their “train-buddies” their regular seat back. The fun really starts once these groups are in place. Briefcases and knees transform into tables for card-games – rummy and mindi-cot (an Indian game, translating to “collect the 10s”) being the most popular. Many commuters engaged in friendly gambling on the trains (two litre bottles of Pepsi being the prize) until several years ago, when it was outlawed by the railway authorities.
Some groups attempt to get more in touch with their spiritual sides, singing loud bhajans early in the morning, ensuring that every single person in their carriage (and the adjacent one) is well and truly awake. In relatively more silent compartments, you can see the more than the odd person, clearly not built for early mornings, nodding off on neighbouring shoulders while standing and holding on to an overhead handle.
Perhaps the simplest, and most beautiful thing I've witnessed on a Mumbai local is one particular group of six old men in their late-60s. It was the birthday of one of them and in the midst of the crowd, the other five elderly men, who had probably been travelling together for decades, got together to sing “Happy Birthday” to their old friend, with many others around the compartment joining in. It's moment like these that epitomise what Mumbai's culture is all about. There's a friendliness and a feeling of home wherever you go, even if it's among 200 people packed into 40 square feet, moving at 50 kilometres an hour.