My column for Femina Magazine Dated July 24th.
The Metro has launched in Mumbai today. I see people lining up to take their first ride on this new ‘life line of Mumbai’. It might be shiny new kid on the block, but I know that the Mumbai Local train will always be the Metro ki Maa.
Ask any Mumbai romantic and they will tell you what a unique and wonderful experience it is to travel by the local trains. Ask any Mumbai realist and they will tell you what a harrowing and suicide-courting experience it is to travel by local trains.
I found myself a regular on the 8:40 a.m-that time of the day when the city of dreams wakes up to the nightmare that is it’s work commute. Trains pregnant with people and ambitions trudge past sheds parading as stations. The veins of Mumbai pumping blood into it’s very existence. It is only appropriate for a city where everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere and no one gets anywhere on time.
If you manage to get on to the train you have already crossed your first daunting hurdle. Logic does not take a back seat here because it literally finds no place. As the train stops, people in the train rush to get out and people on the platform rush to get in AT THE SAME TIME. The simple idea of stepping aside, letting people alight and THEN getting on is lost in that swarm. Archimedes just turned in his bathtub. As a member of that swarm, I have no excuse for my behaviour. I have no idea where logic goes in between mandatory yells of “pudhe chala” (move ahead) and deliberate tch-tch-ing because complaining louder is the problem to the solution.
If you are planning to find a seat on the train then much like an Oscar award for Himmesh Reshammiya- it’s just not happening. You will be lucky, if after scraping past a walls of handbags, ponytails and bracelets, to find a spot to stand. Sometimes the crowd will swell so much that you are just held propped up between the giant hand bag on your left and the bulbous arms of the woman next to you.
It was in that tangle of arms and legs that I first saw Sweety. She wore a pink salwar kameez with matching pink hoop earrings, topped with a pink rubber band that held her hair on top of her head in a frizzy knot. I learned her name because it echoed across the compartment almost everyday.
“Sweety, safety pin?”
Sweety would respond with the desired item and her uncanny knowledge of everyones’ personal life.
“Ye pee le, main do botal leke aainhoon. Mummy ki tabiyat kaisi hai?”
“Bada wala ki chota wala? Dono hai. Teri knees ka problem theek ho gaya abhi?
“Ye le, lipstick bhi fresh daal, aaj interview hain na?
Sweety carried two wishing wells disguised as handbags, one on each shoulder. You just had to ask for it and this handbag could produce a 17 piece orchestra of Vitenamese monkeys. Sweety was a psychologist when she held your hand after a broken heart. Sweety was a dermatologist as she confidently powder for you oily skin. Sweety was the pulsating vein of that compartment, a centre piece in a a small eco system inside a much larger one. I had discovered the Mumbai Local ki Ma.
For 40 minutes we forgot we were travelling at break neck speeds with windows and doors wide open, hanging precariously off bars and handles towards a 10 hour day of work- we were in the world of Sweety. I was awed by her ease, her ability to sort out fights about that sliver of seat where a 4th and often 5th person would want to sit and how she would happily place your heavy bag on the carrier because you were too jammed in the crowd to get to it.
Like all people have “work friends” and “school/college friends” as separate groups, it’s not uncommon for a Mumbai traveller to have “Train friends” as well. Sweety never belonged to any one group of friends on the train. She seemed to flit from group to group seamlessly while not moving an inch from the tiny spot that peak-hour train crowds permit. The times when she was not on the train it would be eerily quiet, as if no one knew each other.
Sweety would get off a stop before mine, many times I would look out the door to watch the back of her head till it became a dot and disappeared into the crowds. I wondered where she went to work, what her day was like and if she even knew the power she wielded for 40 minutes a day.
As I step into swanky new doors of the air conditioned compt. of the of the city’s brand new baby, I send a silent wish out to to the Mumbai Local Ki Maa, Sweety. May be we will meet in the metro someday.