I braced for disaster. And Monday, July 23, 2018, was my chosen date.
On that day, after years of being pampered by Uber-Ola, work-from-home, and auto-rickshaw trips, I returned to Mumbai’s local trains for an assignment. The task was fairly well cut-out: Experience Mumbai as an average rush-hour citizen. And I was armed to the teeth: umbrella, laptop, and true grit.
I had nearly a decade behind me in this city of a restless over 20 million, soul-squeezing commutes, and snaking queues. I knew the train network pretty well by now with its two parallel western and central lines extending into Thane district in the north and the third harbour line reaching Raigad district in the east.
In India’s financial capital, the local train network is what mostly helps people make ends meet. After all, it carries a staggering 8 million or more–equivalent to the population of Switzerland–every day. So what if each train compartment is packed 2.6 times to its capacity on average. So what if the city’s fastest and cheapest mode of transport is also its deadliest—nine persons lose their lives a day on Mumbai tracks.
And I was by now a veteran of it all. Or so I thought.
My sanguinity was quickly trampled upon by the new monsoon-shoes collection in the coach. The realisation was instant: I was rusty.
So, here’s an account of the day I earned my Mumbai battle-scars all over again, even if briefly:
8:40 am: The idea was to board the 9:08 am slow local from Santa Cruz station. Lying on the 124 kilometre western line, which extends between Dahanu Road in the north to Churchgate in the south, this station is near Mumbai’s domestic airport and around 2km from where I live.
That would make it a 15-minute autorickshaw ride to the station. But clearly, it’d been a while since I handled rejection.
Absolutely nothing—flailing arms, high-pitched cries announcing my destination, distress signals—caught the ubiquitous “auto” drivers’ attention. If ever you want to feel invisible in crowded Mumbai, you can count on these guys.
After almost 15 minutes of utter despair, I managed to cross that first hurdle. The day had begun badly. But bring it on Mumbai, I thought and chinned up.
9:20 am: To make up for lost time, I had whipped out my phone to book tickets online. But as they say, technology can smell fear, and the transaction kept failing. At the station by then, if I’d to avoid the long queue at the ticket counter, I’d have to move away from the station. You read that right. Away.
For the ever efficient mobile ticketing app doesn’t allow one to book tickets from within a 100-metre radius of the station. For the creaky 165-year-old behemoth that it is, technological advancement has rarely been a consistent motto for Indian Railways. And when it tries things piece-meal, this is what happens.
So there, I joined the dreaded queue, with 11 persons before me. But then, I was done in under six minutes. Luck was beginning to smile on me I thought. Sigh!
9:20 am: I’d already missed the 9:08 am train, and wasn’t going to miss the 9:22 am Borivali-Churchgate one for anything. I raced up and down multiple flights of stairs and made it to platform no. 4 in less than a minute.
Once there, I took guard, muscles tense, to swarm in when the train arrived. For a brief moment, I admired myself. A truly brief moment. Since my fellow travellers didn’t think much about my moment. They were living their own, more important, moments: reading newspapers, munching on vada pav (Mumbai’s burger equivalent), or fidgeting with their phones.
The train, meanwhile, was delayed by 120 seconds. A 120 seconds that brought in more people meant for the next Borivali-Churchgate train. Suddenly, the world seemed to be caving in around me on the platform.
A 100 heads were by now turned left in the direction of the train’s arrival. The time display showed the train arriving at 9:24 am, but no one was budging. Till the train creaked in.
9:24 am: Details of what exactly happened next remain a little hazy.
A million feet trampling mine. A roar, violent tugs and pushes, cries of despair. Amidst all this, a running commentary through the speaker system, which nobody cared about now.
And all this, before the train had even stopped.
I only remember positioning myself closer to the compartment’s door. A few seconds later, as the train halted, I found myself pushed away completely. Those already on the train, who treat the spot near the door as their precious family inheritance, didn’t budge as usual. And even before I could attempt to regain control, the 9:22 am slow local was bidding farewell.
Never mind. Onward to the next battle.
9:25 am: This time, I was doubly determined. History won’t be allowed to repeat itself. Since the last train carried away many people meant for the next one, too, the crowd would now thin down I thought.
And I’m also a quick learner you see.
So this time, I managed to secure three-fourths of my body inside coach. The rest of my body promptly followed.
9:26 am-10:05 am: A few pokes in the rib cage and a minor accident caused by the pointy tip of an umbrella, is all it took to haul myself away from the doors. Once inside, things got calmer—perhaps even cheery.
A group animatedly discussed the latest Bollywood flick, some loners were lost deep in thought and music, a handful admirably managed to read. A few diligently worked to meet their sleep quota. One courageous woman even managed to apply kohl and lipstick in the melee.
Soon, vendors began emerging, seemingly from nowhere. Earrings, bangles, clips, ear-buds, spatula, mobile plastic covers, garlands—just how did they handle these in a coach where four persons perched on a seat meant for three and a hundred feet played rugby.
As usual, with each successive station after Dadar in central Mumbai, the crowed began thinning and I began breathing easier. Shortly, the python of a train crawled into the massive Churchgate station, halted in relief, and finally regurgitate all that it had swallowed along the way back from Borivali.
For me, though, it wasn’t over yet.
In order to reach my destination, a few kilometres away from the station, I had to get into another queue for a share-cab ride or walk to the nearest bus stop. And re-live the whole ordeal.
Some call this phenomenon the “spirit of Mumbai.” Others consider it the city’s inability to snap out of its stupor.
This piece is part of Quartz’s The Commute series in which we bring you the quintessential experience of commuting during peak hours in some of India’s biggest cities. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.