I’d been in Bombay for over week by the time I realized that I hadn’t actually been to Bombay. The true city – as well as its major tourist destinations – lies at the southern end of the seven islands. I hadn’t left the northern suburbs since my arrival and, for some reason, I didn’t feel the need to. I preferred to stay at home and teach my CS host how to bake a cheesecake than line up with all the sightseers, hawkers and beggars on Colaba Causeway. If I hadn’t received an invitation to dine at the infamous Leopold Café (the hang-out spot of the author of Shantaram
), I might never have made it there on my own.
The fastest way to get downtown was a trip on the local train. I hadn’t yet utilized that mode of transportation and I wasn’t quite sure how the system worked. But it’s never too hard to find help, especially from members of the opposite sex (once they recover from the shock of a foreign lady speaking to them). Two guys helped me buy a ticket and directed me to Platform 4/5, before running to catch their own train. My train was
leaving from Platform 5, but I still hadn’t fully processed that information when I saw a train departing from Platform 4. I leaped onto it, not wanting to be left behind, and it quickly picked up speed. It was at that point that I saw the train heading towards Churchgate pulling into the platform opposite me. I was on the wrong train. I looked down. We were moving fast, but not that
fast. Without a moment’s hesitation to actually think about what I was thinking about doing, I leaped off.
My body continued to move with the speed of the train, while my feet hit the unmoving ground with a jarring impact that sent me rolling across the filthy station floor. I rolled right back up onto my feet and caught the admonishment of an aunty yelling “Never jump!” as I ran across the platform to take another leap of faith onto the right train. I wish I could say that I jumped into
the train, but there was barely enough room for my toes, let alone the rest of my body, in the overcrowded carriage. We instantly sped away from the site of the scene. My shirt was
torn, my trousers dirty and my elbow bloody, but my pride was surprisingly uninjured. It all seemed like a dream. Had I really just jumped from a moving train? Who does that?
The Bombay that greeted me at the Churchgate station was a complete surprise. It dawned on me that I’d never even seen a picture of the city and had no idea what to expect. It was old England plopped down in the middle of the tropics and tons of people. Large stone buildings with monkey-shaped gargoyles presided over streets where horse-drawn carriages lined with neon lights rolled alongside hundreds of black and yellow cabs. It was a completely different Bombay than the one I knew. In this Bombay, I lost my anonymity. I was spotted as a foreigner from a distance and instantly surrounded by peddlers selling city tours, maps, and man-sized balloons. Children not too far away from being babies themselves toted wobbly-necked newborns on their hips, pulling the heartstrings of passersby as they begged for a few rupees or scraps of food. And everyone wanted a click with the white-skinned alien. They shoved toddlers into my arms and turned me this way and that until
I’d achieved the ideal pose for the family photo. The location might have been new, but I’d been there before and, suddenly, I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t preferred the hectic journey to its destination.
In my opinion, riding the local trains in Bombay is a “Must-Do” for any foreign visitor, preferably at rush hour for maximum effect. The railway cars
are so tightly packed that you can feel whether or not the woman behind you is wearing a bra; you can taste the vadapav
the woman next to you ate for lunch, and see the sweat trickling down the neck of the woman in front of you. In any other country, I might find the separate cars for men and women sexist, but I’m thankful that India practices the segregation of sexes – I don’t know if I could handle being so intimately crushed between so many men.
Many mishaps lie in wait for the inexperienced passenger of the overflowing railway system, but the learning curve is quick. It has to be, or you run the risk of being carried out in the press of people at the wrong station, or being unable to reach the exit
at the right station. Familiarizing yourself with the order of the stations, which side the platform is on at each one, and the destinations of the people around you are all musts if you want to ensure your ability to alight at the appropriate time. As your stop approaches, it’s essential to be standing within the group getting off at the same station, preferably nearest the door, so that you can hop off before the train has come to a complete stop. In this manner, you’ll avoid being pushed back into the train with the oncoming crowd.
It’s only at these moments of getting on and off the train that I’ve seen Indians lose their composure and become absolute crazy people. They shove, elbow, slap and half-strangle people by their scarves to secure their place. Then, once inside and packed tighter than sardines, they regain their humanity. If they see someone coming late, running to catch the train, they’ll reach out to pull him in, and squeeze a little closer together to make room. In Bombay, adjustments are always willing to be made, in trains as in life.
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