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June 10, 2005
This is for the people God loves dearly. The ones who haven't been forced -- thanks to geographic proximity or their dad's Marutis -- to take on Mumbai's local trains. For those in the know, walking on to a railways station at rush hour is a lot like stepping into a nightmare. It could be something straight out of a bad comedy, or a ticket to the ride of your life.
I know. I've been doing it for years. You meet all kinds of people, for one, if you're lucky enough to be inside the compartment. I have rarely been blessed with that kind of luck. Try getting into a train at any of the suburban stops. It's something you can bring visiting relatives to look at, bags of popcorn in hand.
You wait for a train. It arrives, chock full of humanity, with men hanging out the doors, straddling the windows, balancing on their toes in crannies, holding the shirts and trousers of other men. You swallow, and decide to take the next one.
This happens eleven times.
Then, when you know you're so late that further delay could jeopardise your job, you take the plunge. Literally. You clutch your bag tightly -- if you're stupid enough to be carrying a bag to begin with -- and jump into the seething mass at the nearest door. The sign above it reads 'First Class', which is a bit of a private joke between the people who run the railways and those who travel by it.
You fail to find a toehold, so you jump again. And again. And, dear sweet Lord, again. Then, just when the train threatens to leave, you look around desperately. The windows are taken, so you head for the space between compartments. Yes, in between. There's a slim ladder attached, which you think ought to do. So, you reach out for it, step into space, and hang on for dear life. Only to realise that six other men have had the same idea. They climb above you, their feet probing the rungs above your arms. Some reach the roof of the train and promptly lie back to stare at the sky between the 2,400-volt electric cables.
The train moves. As it picks up speed, the compartment in front goes up. Your hands move with it. The compartment against your back goes down. For onlookers, it looks as if you're riding a horse. For you, God is suddenly an entity you need to invoke repeatedly.
Newspaper clippings come to mind. Of men who have reached out to steady themselves -- with the train moving at 100 miles an hour -- only to find the cables and promptly electrocute themselves, turning black in 29 seconds and delaying the train by 35 minutes. Other clippings follow: Of people slipping, people banging into poles alongside the tracks, or letting go and flying by in whirls of blue or orange clothing to land in blood red spurts on the tracks.
You decide this really isn't the time for newspaper clippings.
The train moves faster, and faster. You hang on, hoping the ladder can sustain the weight of seven full-grown men. The other six don't seem to care. When their stop arrives, they step off, nonchalantly, feet over your head, jumping to the platform to your right. 45 minutes later, as Dadar approaches, you decide it may be safe to try and get to the platform now, as the inside of the train ought to be a little emptier. Looking around for a cop who may decide to fine you -- 'Apne aap ko Govinda samajtha hain kya?' ('You're supposed to travel inside the train, idiot') -- you step off, rush for nearest door, manage to get four toes of either feet inside, and begin to shiver.
Four toes. Hallelujah. You discover muscles you didn't know existed, as each begins to scream in alphabetical order -- biceps, pectorals, triceps. Then, Churchgate. 55 minutes after you first hung on for dear life. You can barely stand. But you have arrived. And in once piece too. All around you, in front and behind, people disembark. Hundreds. All pouring out like termites from rotting wood.
A man once stepped out the door I just exited from. He looked at me, reached out his hand and said, "You are the bravest man I have ever seen." I smiled at him, shaking his hand half-heartedly, thinking all the while, "And you couldn't offer me a seatů?"
I'm safe at the office, for today. Tomorrow, however, is another train.Illustration: Uttam Ghosh