06 March, 2016

The Harbor Line 5/8 - Mumbai Trains

The second class train tickets on Mumbai trains are much like the front seats of a movie theatre. That’s where all the action is. That’s where all the people are. And if you wanted to enjoy the movie sitting in peace, or maybe even take a nap in the AC, you clearly made a mistake.

With the office at the coveted Fort near Mumbai CST and bathing-sleeping quarters at Kamothe near Mansarovar, I am condemned to spend 3 hours of train travel back-and-forth everyday via the Harbor llne. There is no dearth of humankind anywhere close to a train station in Mumbai. The train, including the ridiculously expensive 1st class compartments, is full by the time the train reaches its 3rd station, merely 6km away from its source, at Mansarovar. To avoid a long standing journey which would inevitably burden me with my own obesity (which I still blame on my US trip a year ago), I devised a diabolical plan to take a seat from the stupid Mumbaikars. After all, these Marathi Manoos can't be cunning like Maadus, known to thrive on the basis of their cunning. So I decided to take the train back to Panvel in the morning, and then go from Panvel to CST. Since no one goes to Panvel in the morning (I don't know why anyone would go to Panvel at any time during the day), an empty seat was guaranteed and I'd be the king of the 1st class with my window seat!

No great plan, no matter however Maadu it may be, is ever perfect. That's what we have learnt from the great Joseph Stalin. May his soul wreak havoc in hell. As I boarded the train, it didn't seem empty enough. While there were plenty of empty seats, my vision of dancing in an isolated 1st class train compartment in the morning everyday didn't seem viable anymore. As the train crossed Khandeshwar, the crowd seemed to add up with only a few empty seats. Somehow I wasn't the only clever guy in Mumbai. There were simply too many Maadus here, I concluded.

There was another hitch in my plan. The trains from Panvel don't necessarily go south to CST. They may even go north to Thane. And while I don't mind seeing the place where the Arabian Sea rushes into the Indianmainland, I really didn't want to add ANOTHER hour to my journey. So I was obliged to deploy the entire summation of the analytical, theoretical, archeological, and rhetorical skills I learnt at XLRI (#MBAswag). I carefully drew out the list of all the trains going from Mansarovar to Panvel, from Panvel to CST, from Panvel to Thane, and just in case I need it some day, from Mumbai to Bhutan.

I usually take the 1st class for my journey, but one day I decided to rub shoulders with the poor folk. Why? Well the 1st class didn't really feel like the 1st class. There was no AC, no guarantee of getting a seat, and time and again, I found myself starting into the ass of some guy standing right in front of me. I wanted to know how much worse it could get.

The first thing I noticed about the 2nd class was that not too many people took the back-and-forth coming around approach that I took. People in the 2nd class generally took the train in the direction where they wanted to go. Maybe the mindset being a 2nd class passenger doesn't allow you the luxury of even wishing for a seat. Or maybe the time of the passengers in the 2nd class was more valuable than the time of those in the 1st. Or maybe there weren't enough Maadus here.

One thing which scares the weak-hearted such as myself when a local arrives, is the sight of the men hanging by the doors of the train. One slip, and a life could be in peril. Many have and do perish riding in these overflowing trains. But those are elephant teeth honestly, there’s always space inside the train. As once said by my wise boss before he sent me to battle the excel sheets on my computer, “there are 3 things which never fill completely, Mumbai trains, broken hearts, and our coffers.” People just like to hang by the doors, and most are very good at it too. And this leaves the inwards of these trains relatively emptier than what they look like. If I was a LOTR fan (oh wait, I am!), I’d have believed it to be a long planned scheme of Mumbaikars trying to elude people into thinking that this compartment is full, so that the folks may look elsewhere in the train to get in.

Or maybe they just like the breeze the fast-train provides going through their hair. I don’t know. I’m new here.

Apart from that there was little difference I noticed. The windows seemed to be smaller but I decided that was my mind playing tricks on me trying to justify the 10x expense I'd gotten used to paying. The seats were also harder and less butt-friendly. Seldom, there would be 4 guys on a seat, though my size disallowed any 4th person on the seat I was on. The seats also "looked" dirtier than those in the 1st class, but were actually very old blotch marks. The crowd was practically the same. There was still some guy's ass in my face, and the train was as crowded. After all, there's only a limit to the crowd. After all, you can't expect to add anything to infinity and expect it to change. It's like Hilbert’s Grand Hotel. The number of people on the train doesn't change.

On one such long trips, I was especially sweating and trying to find the location of my hand. I thought of flexing my fingers to feel if they were still attached to the rest of me, but the thought of probably brushing someone inappropriately with them put me off it. As a semi-Hindu, I put my faith in the God of trains. We have Gods for everything and once we had Gods for horses who fathered Nakul and Sahdev. Perhaps they or their descendants were later made Gods of vehicles with a lesser branch given the responsibility for Mumbai local trains. They were treated as 2nd class Gods anyway.

Anyway, I put my hope in that God and hoped my hands would be intact when I would be pushed out of the train. We never go out or come in willingly. As with Mumbaikars and the city itself, the passengers in local trains simply, “go with the flow.” I’m usually not the one to complain about the crowd in trains, but on that fateful day I happened to blurt out to the guy who was looking at me (because that was the only space his twisted neck allowed him to look at), ‘It’s pretty crowded today.’

The half-face with 2 eyes, one nostril, a mouth, and an arm coming out of under the chin looked at me, as if looking at an alien and replied, ‘yes. It used to be better 20 years ago.’