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Looking forward to another day is the best response to the cowardice of the terrorists
August 11, 2006
I found myself peering through the barred and rusted windows of the rail car. Santacruz, Bandra, Grant Road -- the names of the train stations were mystifying. I had been instructed to get off at Churchgate station and to head to Rajabhai Tower to present my credentials.
I had arrived in Mumbai (then called Bombay) from a small Northern Indian town to pursue undergraduate studies. Resting on my lap was a folder with my high school papers wrapped in three layers of plastic sheet and neatly strung with a rubber band.
Heeding the warning to watch out for pick-pocketers, I was nervously tapping my waist pocket. The soaking black umbrella was leaning on my knee as its metal tip had started a jiggling stream on the train floor.
Outside, dark clouds were handing off monsoon rains to wind gusts. This was my first ride on this commuter train called a 'local' in Mumbai-speak. The train was headed to a destination that was unfamiliar to me -- a state I had never experienced in my small town with its two distinct ends.
To occupy myself, I spent time reading advertisements on the walls of the rail car. I found two posters placed next to each other particularly amusing -- one poster announced the raging success of a new fertility drug, the other touted the texture of a new male contraceptive.
It did not take me long to become a creature of the local train. In those five years, bridging between adolescence and manhood, I managed to tame the local. The sense of immortality that feeds the limitless appetite for adventure in youth was vibrantly alive in me.
When traveling on the local, I found myself resting my right foot on the edge of the door while holding on to the metal bar as the rest of me ventilated outside the train, the hair neatly pushed by the wind, I waved cheerily at the squatters on the tracks.
As young emigrants to the city, my friends and I loitered with the sole motive to discover as we enjoyed our newfound freedom from adult supervision. I traveled on all the ducts of the railway system across the city. My trips took me to new places -- the haute Bandra and Vile Parle stations frequented by Bollywood film stars; the magnificent Victoria Terminus station with its colonial architecture; the staid Thane station with its vernacular presence; the uninspiring Matunga station with its Tamil incense; the fancy movie halls off of Bombay Central station; and the racy Grant Road station with its occasionally seductive harlots.
In the years when looking for an occupation, I went on the train to the other side of town to Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade seeking a job as a copywriter at advertising agencies. On the way back, after each disappointment, I stuffed myself with a fresh vada pau (sandwiched spicy potato cakes) at the train station and drank lemonade before boarding yet another train to somewhere.
No matter what mood I was in, the local train had this innate ability of cheering me up. Inadvertently, I had become a local on the local.
Early on, for the mere fun of it, my friends and I started traveling ticket-less. Our success rate of traveling without a ticket was high as the seldom check and fine of 10 rupees was worth the risk of saving four rupees on a roundtrip ticket each time. The thrill of looking out for the conductor and then dodging him was the highlight of our transgression.
When caught, I would attempt to grind my purer Northern Hindi with sprinkles of English, Marathi and Gujarati to portray a Mumbai local, but in vain.
For my first date, attired in neatly ironed clothes, I debated whether to take a taxi or to board the local, quickly deciding on the latter. The local was waiting for me when I left a political rally midway having been put-off by the communal rhetoric of a well-known right-wing politician.
The local train took us all in during rush hour as we headed downtown to a cricket stadium -- this time not to watch a game but to hear the remarks of a free market economist who systematically shredded the central government's xenophobic policies.
After getting my US visa from the consulate at Breach Candy, I took a taxi to the Churchgate station. That day, I separated myself from the masses and boarded a first class coach on a slow train. I swung off the door and watched the tall buildings start to eclipse the sea of Arabia.
Years later, back in the city on vacation, I urged my young bride to experience the local with me. With my arms around her in a lock, we joyfully took the brunt of the traveling masses during rush hour.
One can't appreciate Mumbai without riding in a local. At rush hour, live music soars from one end of the rail car interspersed by calls from a destitute who pushes his way past people -- the kinder ones flip coins in the uneven cavity of his dented metal cup while the rest make sure that he does not pick their wallet.
When on board an express train it is fun to watch the bystanders, in a mocking sort of way, as the train shoots past stations. At that high speed the view outside changes dramatically as neighborhoods morph from the extremes of Dharavi's slums to the buildings of the affluent off Marine Lines station.
But at any given time all can board the local. Its doors never close, literally. The local welcomes all -- Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jews and atheists alike. There is no pundit, politician, pagan or police blocking your right of passage. The local in Mumbai is its safe haven.
Not once in my five years did I see any crime being committed or watch anyone getting hurt on the local.
All that changed on July 11, 2006. Terrorists triggered a series of bombs during rush hour. The bombs were hidden in first class compartments. Body parts flew off on to the tracks, as blood dried on the wrangled metal that once was a rail car. 200 people returning home after work ended up in the morgue and several hundreds were taken to hospitals. Emergency crews scrambled to respond to the crisis. Police got busy looking for clues.
Politicians traded their raw human response to the temperate ways of statecraft. That evening, the local came to a stop and so did the city of Mumbai.
On the day of the bombings, I was returning from a trip. At Chicago's O'Hare airport, the limo driver, an immigrant from Karachi, broke the news to me about the serial bombings. I asked him if he had any details. He said he remembered the name of Matunga as one of the train stations affected -- the station close to my college. He mentioned first class cabins.
For the rest of the ride, we both regretted the death of innocent lives. I came back home and watched the details of the terrorist attacks on CNN and read about the bombings on the web.
Terrorists hoping to scare off the more than twelve million people of Mumbai were ignorant about the city and its ways. News from Mumbai shows that traffic was back on again on the local within a couple days. People in Mumbai have no time to mourn, to celebrate the lives of the dead or to hold grand ceremonies in remembrance. Moving on and looking forward to another day is perhaps the most befitting response to the cowardice of the terrorists.
When I am back in Mumbai next, I will take a taxi to Churchgate station. Before heading to one of the trains, I will drink lemonade at the refreshment stall. Then I will board a first class compartment of a local train to somewhere. I will stand close to the door and enjoy the wind on my face, as it will force my eyelids shut, further amplifying the sound of the train in my ears.
I will then step back and seat myself close to the barred and rusted windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the Arabian sea as the sun's sparkle will hop from one building to another. I will drop a few coins in the dented metal cup of the destitute if he approaches me. With amusement, I will read the advertisements on the walls of the rail car.
This time around, I will make sure to buy a ticket for the ride. The trip on the local train will be my way of getting back at the terrorists.
Girish Rishi is a Chicago-based writer. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org