The train lines in
Mumbai run north to south with some variations. The three lines
are the Western, Central and Harbour lines. It has been observed
that at present about 5,000 people cram into trains with the capacity
to carry only 1,700 passengers. The suburban railway began operation
in 1857 and is considered the oldest railway in Asia. Total ridership
is estimated at 6.1 million daily.
The dubbas or ladies’ compartments
are at the front, middle and end of each train. It’s easy
to find the dubbas at the train station because you see
a multitude of blood red, peacock blue, lime green and haldi yellow
on saris, jeans, tops, purses and shoes. The ladies’ compartments
were most likely created to save women from various forms of sexual,
visual and verbal harassment that one of mixed genders could bring.
Although Mumbai is quite safe (generally speaking), it’s always
safer for a lady to retie her sari, put on make-up or gossip with
the gals without the roving eyes of their male counterparts. The
ladies’ compartments are still usually not large enough to
accommodate the waiting crowd of ladies, so where you sit or stand
usually impacts your experience on the train.
Standing in the breeze of the doorway of the train
provides anonymity of the best kind. I once saw a young woman crying
there. She wasn't weeping, but there were big tears rolling down
her round cheeks. I wanted to say something, but it felt like she
needed to be alone and anonymous in that crowd. Perhaps someone
had broken her heart at Churchgate (south Mumbai) and she needed
the ride to gather her thoughts before going home to her family
in Andheri (a suburb of Mumbai).
When the trains are crowded, averting your eyes
is difficult because you can only look at the person squashed up
against you (or, more specifically, you can look at her hair, arms,
sari, cell phone, purse or whatever is directly in sight). Pieces
of flesh (butts, breasts, thighs, arms, knees, elbows) are haphazardly
forced upon one another, and the commotion of a lost dupatta
(scarf usually worn with traditional Indian dress), umbrella or
child usually takes over until the item is returned to its original
owner. Women and children squeeze up against the doors, in the aisles,
in the benches and anywhere else there is an iota of space available.
The Western, Harbour and Central lines all have
their regulars: beggars, saleswomen and men (either young adults
or handicapped), entertainers, street children and food vendors.
They are as timely as the trains. There is never any peace, especially
if you want it. All around you hear:
"Kela Dus Ka Char" (Four bananas for Rs.10)
"Cleeeps, fine cleeeeps" (Fine hair clips)
"Seeng-phali, Seeng-phali" (A local word for
Although there is a first-class compartment, the random mix of
women who ride the second-class compartments is as diverse as the
colors that the women wear. When else would Desi housewives, school
teachers, bais (maids), ayahs (nannies), vegetable
and fish sellers, investment bankers, college students, transvestites
and social workers ever find themselves together in such an intimate
I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of social classes on the Mumbai
local trains. With five rupees for a second-class ticket compared
to over 70 rupees for a first class one, the price of a first class
ticket from Bandra to King's Circle is virtually unaffordable for
the average Mumbaiite. Most second-class riders will say, "In
first class, you are being pushed in the same way by more expensive
elbows. Tch, tch, what a waste." I agree.
The most striking observation I made while riding the trains, however,
was of the power of progress. I arrived at Bandra Station in Mumbai
in July 2004, and beyond track seven, I saw a family living a tenuous
existence. Their shelter consisted of a tent made of plastic and
cloth, precariously supported by uneven wooden poles. By the time
I left in March 2006, the same family had turned the tent into a
square shed, with four walls and a roof. Perhaps they still don’t
have access to running water, health care or a toilet, and maybe
they are living on land that is not legally theirs. But in the struggle
for basic human rights—food, shelter and clothing—possessing one
of them is certainly a start.
During my two years in India, I was able to be a part of the place
I always called home. Navigating the public transport system taught
me so much about the different worlds that exist within India and
Mumbai. I will always carry the memories of the people and the place
Back on the train in Boston, I sleep and my thoughts drift off
to another time and place. There is very little interaction with
the other passengers on the train and very little noise. The train
conductor smiles at me and says “Good morning.” I recognize
some other passengers, but we don’t talk. Then I miss the
voices of the ladies compartments on the local trains of Mumbai,
for that is where I really learned about India.
Meenakshi Verma Agrawal works as a Public Health Analyst in Boston. She would like to dedicate this piece to her grandfather, P.R. Verma for always inspiring her to "seek thy self" through writing. You can read her blog at transformintobeauty.blogspot.com. To volunteer in India, please visit www.AVSARIndia.org.
Back to Top