‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan’
That is a couplet from the film C.I.D. produced by Guru Dutt and was sung by the legendary Mohammed Rafi and Geeta Dutt way back in 1956. I wonder how the writer, who penned down this, would react to the Bombay we see today after almost six decades.
Bombay, as we see it today, to the many millions who reside here for ages, or who have migrated over here to make a living, this city is no less chaotic than they have ever seen before. Its home to almost 25 million people and these trains carry around 8 million people to work daily. It’s known as the Financial Capital of India and so rightly it is. Time is Money here and every minute is as precious.
There are many faces to this city, Marine Drive Façade, the South Bombay Heritage Buildings, Juhu Beach to Bhel Puri, Colaba Causeway to street shopping there, Bollywood’s abode, slums of Dharavi and so many more.
However, the lifeline of this city remains in its local trains.
This city swears by it and breathes to it and is its biggest identity. For those residing next to these railway tracks, listening to the clatter daily has become their way of life. It feels like Mumbai’s heartbeat. No trip to this city is complete if you have not travelled in one of those. To those millions who travel in these daily for work, it’s never the less as daunting and is a huge challenge mentally as well as physically.
The first railways here was built in 1853 by the British which connected Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus with Thane over 34 km, and today it runs over 3000 services every day, making it one of the largest suburban rail networks in the world.
So you will find yourself navigating between human masses to try and get into an 8:34 am Fast Local to another 8:38 am one. And missing your regular train to work would turn catastrophic. I recollect taking the 8:48 local en route to work from Andheri to Churchgate, to walk to Citibank, Fort Branch where I worked some years back. Initially, the crowd may feel intimidating but once you are a regular, each one knows the other. I took those trains daily in and out for almost 6 years. Andheri Station at peak hours is swelled, sometimes not an inch to spare if those trains are late or if it’s a rainy day. All you must do is stand on that platform and you will automatically get pushed into one of those compartments where all are packed like sardines in a tin box.
I knew exactly where the woman sitting by the window would get off, so I would quietly board trying to find my way in to park next to her to grab the seat. And if you are absent for a few days, they would politely inquire about your well being too once they see you back after the gap. You will end up making train friends and they occasionally, in all that crowd, celebrate ‘Pot Luck’ and various other festivities. So if it’s ‘Dusshera’ they would all discuss which colour code to be followed for the saree next day and accordingly follow that.
You will find celebrations in there in whatever small way it is, like a childbirth, a wedding, kids scoring good marks, and other festivities. There are stories you will hear every day, some happy, some sad. If you are one of those unfortunate ones, you will see some gory fights too, which may be over the fourth seat that someone wants to sit in or that elbow push someone got.
There are many who travel almost 4 hours daily on those trains.
You should not be surprised if you see a woman cutting vegetables in those while travelling back home, and there are devotional songs sung by groups. That’s the way life is built in around them. Today, there are also air-conditioned trains, but for me in those days, I got a huge high and an adrenaline rush just by standing on the gate of those trains by the footboard feeling all the wind in my hair. The stations got developed over the past years. Now we also have escalators instead of stairs on those platforms, and the ticket counters are replaced with vending machines. There are many foot over bridges that enable the commuter to walk directly into the station instead of trying to squeeze in through those small gateways outside the stations.
I miss travelling on local trains today as my workplace is closer to home and I take the road now, but I always grab that opportunity on weekends. I don’t miss a chance if I am travelling to town to get into one. It’s as exhilarating as ever to sit in them today too and I automatically have one of those broad smiles on my face as old memories flow in. All those seasons, all those rush hours, running behind one which almost left, squeezing in that tiny space where you are hardly able to breath.