In a previous post, I had argued that air-conditioning transit is a wasteful and avoidable expenditure that adds little to the comfort of the commuter, and that city planners should instead seek to reduce crowding in transit by increasing the frequency of service. This, thankfully, is being attempted for the Mumbai commuter rail system through the MUTP project sponsored by the World Bank. We may also hope that alternate means of transport, such as BRT along arterial highways in Mumbai, will further reduce the demand for commuter rail. This has been and ought to remain the priority for transit planners in Mumbai. But once the trains have been decongested to a certain extent, what next?
To come up with meaningful ideas for improving the commuter experience in suburban trains, we first need to study what goes on in these trains. And we must identify those aspects of train life that need to be encouraged.
A full sociological study of life in Mumbai trains cannot, of course, be attempted here. Instead, I will draw from some writings on the subject, to highlight aspects that are of interest to me.
Suketu Mehta’s book The Maximum City is perhaps the most popular non-fiction written about Mumbai. Mehta’s description of Mumbai is often cliched or blatantly exoticized; and yet it is not too stale. The reader – even if he is an old Bombayite – learns something from the book he did not know before. The section on the “locals”, for instance, is full of recycled information about the crowds that the Mumbai trains carry. But then, he makes it up by writing some very interesting paragraphs about life on the commute. For instance:
“Girish once drew for me on a piece of paper a diagram of the dance, the choreography of the commuter trains. The Bombay Central (BC) contingent stands in the center of the compartment from Borivili to Churchgate. The people surrounding them move clockwise around the BC contingent like this: first are the Jogeshwari batch, then Bandra, then Dadar. If you are new to the Bombay trains, when you get on and are planning to get off at, let’s say, Dadar, you must ask, ‘Dadar? Dadar?’ And you will be directed to the precise spot you must stand to be able to disembark successfully at your station. The platforms are on different sides of the train. There are no doors, just two enormous openings on either side of the compartment. So when the station arrives, you must be in a position t spring off, well before the train has come to a complete stop, because if you wait till it’s stopped, you will be swept back inside by the people rushing in. In the mornings, by the time the train gets to Borivili, the first stop, it is always chockful. ‘To get a seat?’ I ask. Girish looks at me, wondering if I’m stupid. ‘No. To get in.’ This is because the train from Dadar has started filling up from Malad, two stops ahead, with people willing to loop back.”
“The commuters travel in groups. Girish travels with a group of some fifteen people that take the same train from stations farther down the line. When he gets on, they make space on their laps for him and have a potluck breakfast together; each of them brings some delicacy from home – the Gujaratis batatapauua, the Telugus upma, the bhaiyyas alu-poori – and they unwrap their contribution in the cramped space of the compartment. They pass their hour agreeably, thelling jokes, playing cards, or singing, sometimes with castanets on their fingers. Girish knows where the best singers are on each train. There is a group on the eight-fifteen that sings nationalistic and anti-Muslim songs very well. There are others who specialize in Bhajans, and in call-and-response chanting. Thus the journey is made bearable for those who get a seat, and diverting for those standing. When Girish worked for Kamal right at Mira Road, he continued taking the train to Bombay Central once a week, just for the pleasure of breakfast with his train group.”
“The trains are a hive of industry. Women sell underwear in the ladies’ compartment, huge abdomen-high panties that are passed around and inspected, the money passed back through many hands for those bought. Other women chop vegetables for the family dinner they are going to cook immediately on reaching home.”
“If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals… Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at that moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or New York or Jogeshwari… All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”
This, especially the last paragraph, is a somewhat romanticized. Rohit Gupta responds:
[b]eing a Bombay resident, I do not like the crude exoticisms offered by tourists like Mr. Mehta… These hands that pull you upon the train is a particularly interesting case in point. Normally when this happens, it is because you are being pulled by a work-buddy, since you work in the same offi ce/factory, get on at the same station, or whatever, and you do this everyday… When the evening rush hour trains leave from Chruchgate, what people standing near the doors (these are
open trains) do is that they create a human door, an impenetrable blockade so that they can at least breathe for the next hour of the journey…
This qualification is indeed necessary. If the trains are a place where one hangs out with his or her “train friends”, space is also fiercely contested here, and the subject of numerous fights and altercations. The rivalry between residents of Virar and Borivili is particularly fierce; women from Virar will block the entrance of the Virar fast train going to Churchgate via Borivili, because they believe that since Borivili residents have trains to Churchgate starting from Borivili, they shouldn’t be further crowding the Virar trains. Sadly, there are several reports of people being pushed off the trains.
A different sort of experience can be found in the novel The Boyfriend, by R. Raj Rao. Here, the protagonist, Yudi, is a forty-something gay man living in suburban Mumbai and making his daily trip to the city centre, and cruising for men in the crowded compartments:
When the train arrived, the two of them boarded on the very first compartment. Yudi knew this to be the gay compartment by convention. Activity, however, was restricted to the empty space between the entrances and the exits. The train had to be quite full for people to have a go at each other…By the time they reached Bombay Central, all the seats were taken and the people were beginning to press on each other in aisles. In the Virar trains that Yudi caught, this happened all the time, and he was thankful for it. Rubbing his body against someone’s was the best way to handle the tedium of the journey– it was much better than reading or singing bhajans or playing cards.
Girish and Yudi have many things in common. They both seek to entertain themselves for the duration of the commute, and sometimes the pleasure-seeking becomes an end to itself – they might make train trips just for the fun of it. But Girish sought his pleasure in a social space – with his group of friends eating breakfast or with the singing group that sings nationalist songs. In Yudi’s case, the densely packed space, even though publicly accessible, becomes almost a private space where one can enjoy sexual contact without eliciting the notice of fellow commuters (except the person being touched, obviously).
These spaces are not merely being perceived differently, they are also spatially segregated. The seats are always spaces where people sit in groups. – bhajan mandalis, “train friends” breakfasting, old men discussing politics, college students preparing for their exams. These are the “social spaces” – by which I mean these are spaces of social interaction. In contrast, the space between the two doors is where people like Yudi engage in sexual activity. In Mumbai, where homosexuality has no social sanction, and where most households live in a single room, privacy is a valued commodity, and any opportunity for sexual release – howsoever impersonal, hurried and inconvenient – is too good to let go. Of course, not all persons crowding the space between the doors choose to stand there for the sex – Rao makes it very clear that such activity is not possible until the car gets sufficiently full of other people entering this space. It must follow that not all the sexual contact is consensual, and certainly the police has no way of enforcing law in such cramped conditions.
And yet, even the space between the doors is a social space in its own way. Societal rules regarding intrusion into others’ personal space maybe suspended, but even this space has its own rules and customs – rules for people carrying bulky luggage so as to optimize space utilization, rules for getting in and getting out, and so on. While the interactions here are certainly more mechanical, they still remain social spaces of a sort.
When asked to make travel more comfortable, transit managers have repeatedly tried to ape Western techniques using technological fixes such as air-conditioning and wi-fi systems without any understanding of the needs of the people who use the trains. In the west, there has also been a lot of focus on “quiet commute cars” in trains which attempt to recreate the privacy of the personal car on a shared train compartment.
But the evidence shows that while the commuters on the trains of Mumbai are actively pleasure-seeking, their notions of pleasure are different. Girish wouldn’t get onto a bus just because it has an air-conditioner, but he would gladly travel to Bombay Central and back just to have breakfast with his train friends.
As our trains get less crowded, people like Yudi will have to find other sources of pleasure, and arguably, we are better off if commuters do not run the risk of being felt up every time they board a train. (And hopefully, with society becoming more liberal, fewer people will find it necessary to stay in the closet and find sexual release in anonymous spaces like crowded trains.)
But other social groups could be retained and encouraged. A table in between two rows of seats could make studying easier for college students and eating easier for the breakfast group. There could be special cars for the singing groups and the students, and possibly even open-to-all coaches reserved for political debates and antaksharis. Hawkers selling peanuts and chat would be important sources of “timepass” for bored passengers.
Even more importantly, the trains can play the crucial role of creating a unifying space. A city like Mumbai is essentially a divided city – one half occupies 94% of the area while the other half lives on the remaining 6%. These trains, the lifelines of Mumbai, however, can be truly common spaces where the phenomenon of Telugu, Bhaiyya, Gujrati and Marathi boys having breakfast together is no longer a distant dream but a happy reality.