The Bombay Local

I grew up in South Bombay (like many others my age, I can’t call it anything but Bombay) a world far removed from that of the local train. All we knew of the mysterious stations was that a sea of people seemed to pour in and out of underground platforms around Churchgate all day, every day, determinedly making their way to bus stops, taxi stands, or walking hurriedly to work even as we rushed to college – or played hooky and headed to Metro to catch a morning show.

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The Bombay skyline and Arabian Sea

My childhood home was a flat in a skyscraper. It was on the 23rd floor, and had an unobstructed view of the Arabian Sea. Large windows ran across the length of our living room. We’d leave them open all day and night, and felt like we were surrounded by the water. The only time the windows were shut was during the monsoon, when strong winds caused curtains to billow and shatter anything in its path. Even when winds weren’t as gusty and we could leave windows open, the cross ventilation when we’d open the main door was strong enough to blow guests away.

The sun broke through the horizon outside the windows of my living room every morning, and I’d catch it at least three times a week growing up. I remember reading a motivational quote many years ago, that said “Watch a sunrise at least once a year,” and was surprised by that. The sun was everywhere! How could it be so difficult for people to see it? Much later, when I had long moved out and chanced upon sunrise in Goa after years, I recalled the quote with a new sense of appreciation.

After a couple of decades, my parents left South Bombay and moved to Powai, and I moved along with them. The neighbourhood was new and spanking, and the recent surge in the number of residents made it fairly lively. Powai was filled with beautiful parks, landscaped gardens and cobblestoned streets. For all intents and purposes, we were in a mini-paradise.

Except for one thing. There was no sea, and every time I chanced to look out of the window and was confronted with an alien view, a wave of depression would sweep over me. In addition, my friends and I were divided by a vastness that could be best traversed by the local train. 

It was time for me to learn what it meant to commute.

They say we humans can get used to everything – luxury or hardship – which is why new purchases don’t give us the same amount of happiness as they do when we first obtain them. I convinced myself that given enough time, I too would get used to what I perceived as the hardships of local train travel.

It didn’t take long to figure out what timings worked best for me. If I avoided peak hour traffic, I could always find place to sit, even bag a window seat, where the wind would whip my face as the train sped through the city. It was, in many ways, far preferable to being boxed inside a car, stuck in traffic somewhere. It was also a form of escape. As soon as I stepped into a station, my mind would blank out and I’d find myself on a beach in Goa. An hour later I’d will myself back to Bombay, alight at Churchgate, step out in the sun and breath in the sea wind.

One day, as I was dreamily staring out of the window, my train came to a halt in the middle of the tracks for a few moments. Directly outside were hutments, and a girl with light brown curls was sitting outside and brushing her long hair. I caught her gaze and she smiled. I smiled back and as the train moved on, I realised with a sense of horror, why she had been at my eye level. She had been sitting on a heap of garbage, the smell of which spread quickly through our compartment, and just as quickly got blown out.

Didn’t the smell bother her? I wondered, before I realised she was used to it. Just like the many people who pour inside a train, even when it is filled to capacity and they are packed together like sardines. I took a long hard look at the commuters, some lost in thought, some busy in conversation with each other, all happy in the present, and felt ashamed for dwelling in self-pity because my parent’s home no longer had a sea view. 

I moved out soon after, but those few months of local train travel train travel left their mark. It put things in perspective. If the trains are running, no matter how heavy the rainfall, the cook will show up, your doctor will be in his clinic, and not a single employee would be marked absent on the rooster. And this is why why even after the bomb blasts, the train blasts, the flood of 2005, the Taj shootings, the endless calamities both natural and man-made, Bombayites can still find love in their hearts for their city, and a willingness to get back to work. They shut their minds to the present, fill them with dusty dreams, and get on the train.

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