Why is everybody schizophrenic in Mumbai’s Suburban Railway?

If I lived in Mumbai, would I be one of the 7.5 million passengers commuting daily in the Suburban Railway? Nothing is less certain. But taxis are a nightmare to arrange in Mumbai – and when finding one, there’s chances that your driver is an idiot. This is why I decided to commute by train when spending a few weeks working there in 2014.

Getting on a Mumbai train in seven steps.

waiting-for-the-train
At the peak hours, the platforms can become very crowded. Photo borrowed from the City Fix.

1. Next step after next step

Asking your way in India requires some basic understanding of intercultural communication: never ask closed questions. I did the experience in 2006, when I asked a local: “Is this the bus to Tumbuktu?”. He replied confidently “Yes ma’am!”.

Even when asking open questions (“Which is the way to Cotton Green station?”), don’t rely on locals for more than the immediate next step. Maybe that’s because everything is always genuinely hard to find or hard to explain.

So they will tell you confidently to turn right; but in the reality, after turning right, you will need to walk for half a mile, cross a motorway, walk up some stairs, cross a bridge, pass by an empty lot, and turn right again. Don’t be afraid re-asking your way several times, step after step.

2. Spot someone reliable, and don’t let her go

If living in Mumbai, I would probably learn a bit how to read and understand Hindi. But there for just a few days, I preferred to rely on people’s help to identify the right platform, the right train and the right stop.

This just requires to find someone reliable – who understands English, understands what I need, and understands this is important to me.

In 2006, things were more difficult. In 2014, about one in fifteen women waits for the train surfing on her smartphone, and she is likely to fulfil the criteria. I smile at her, ask her a question; she smiles back and I know she won’t let me down.

The other advantage to spot this ally, if you are a woman, is that she knows where the woman-only carriage will stop (I really have not understood how she knows, but she does), which seems a more pleasant way to travel than being a white skin woman alone in the middle of intrigued Indian men.

3. And suddenly, all is chaos and confusion

The train approaches. The number of people standing on the platform seems to quadruple in just a few seconds, and suddenly it is overcrowded.

Everybody jostle and elbow their way through the platform.

Some even position at the edge of the platform, dangerously close to the train that arrives at full speed; as soon as the train starts slowing down, they grab a door handle and run along the train until it stops – they want to be the first one boarding.

Nobody waits until the train has actually stopped. The train doors don’t close (if they even exist) so everyone use their own judgement as to when they feel ready to jump off the still moving train.

India Railways
A typical image of the train: there are no doors and people stand half outside the train (photo borrowed from the Daily Mail)

4. The war of currents

At this moment, there are two flows of people that deeply hate each other: those getting on and those getting off. Absolute enemies who seek opposite and irreconcilable goals.

You could decide to stay away from the battle and just wait for the next train. But then you would rather give up and find a taxi home; because the same scene repeats every couple of minutes when a new train calls.

5. No inter-current solidarity

Where the battle is the harshest, is actually inside the flows. Whether you are in the getting-on flow or the getting-off flow, not only is the other flow your enemy, but competitiveness within your own flow might very well leave you behind.

It is incredible how these friendly women who were smiling at you, five seconds ago, now mutate into hysterical and forceful wrestlers.

Anything goes. Low blows are permitted. They kick your feet, they pull your hair, they scratch your face, they pinch your ass. I am hardly romanticizing it.

And you say nothing, as all you want is to get on that bloody train with your whole body, your belongings and, if possible, even your shoes.

woman in Mumbai train
It is rare to find a quiet moment on the train. Usually the train was so crowded that I wouldn’t bother pulling the camera out of my bag.

6. Stabilisation

Hardly a few seconds after, the train starts speeding again, while three or four women are still jumping in. There are a few seconds of stupor, everybody breathe in and struggle realizing that they have made it. Then all settles.

7. Back to normal

Slowly, life gets back to normal. The two friends continue their lively conversation. The woman with the smartphone goes on chatting on Whatsapp. The one with the nuts starts nibbling again. And all those women are charming and smiling again, as if the absolute schizophrenic interlude had never happened.

In the battle, I have lost the friendly woman who was supposed to help me find my destination. But that’s fine, there are plenty of other ones around me, who won’t hesitate to give me a hand – until the next fight.

Epilogue:

I have slightly exaggerated the battle description, although technically I have avoided the craziest rush hours, and yet have never managed to get on or off the train without getting a bruise, breaking a nail or losing a bit of skin.

About two thousand people die annually on these trains because of overcrowding.

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