A few months back, I discovered the train. Not so much its existence, but as a viable alternative to sitting in Mumbai traffic. My verdict: it’s AWESOME.
Rail travel in India gets a bad rap, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. Newspapers frequently have stories of women and girls on trains and the men who are arrested for “outraging” their “modesty”, which is pretty much code for groping and feeling you up. While I certainly do not mean to cast doubt upon that, and I’m more than happy to acknowledge the need for safe spaces for women in public, I have to say that my personal train experience has been overwhelmingly positive. If there’s a space in public that needs to be safe for everyone, including women and girls, it definitely should be the train. (Get on that, railway cops.)
I have a regular appointment twice a week in Bandra, and by the time I’m finished, it’s smack in the middle of rush hour. For several months, I called an uber. I then spent anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half in traffic. During festival season from October to December, it was absolutely sordid. While I was taking a rickshaw to my appointment, those wondrous 3-wheeled death boxes of awesomeness are prohibited from entering Mumbai proper where I live, so that was out. Too bad, because rickshaws can maneuver where cars cannot. I will admit that even though they may be shortening your ride, rickshaws could possibly shorten your life every time you ride them.
So, I started to investigate the train. “It’s easy,” said I, my friend, “it’s only about four or five stops. It’s probably sixty rupees?” Wow. That’s like, less than a dollar.
Still, I wasn’t 100% sure I could figure out the system all by my lonesome, so I enlisted my helper, V, to meet me one day and then ride the train with me home. V met me outside and we started the short walk over to Bandra Station. We passed paanwalas, street dogs, various commuters, and goats. Down the winding alleyway we went until we were confronted with the imposing and beautiful façade of Bandra Station.
From there, we went to the ticket booth. V asked about the ticket price, and I bought two, one-way, first class tickets for the station closest to home. Each ticket cost me fifty rupees. That’s seventy-six cents; about a fifth of the cost of my uber.
We joined the throng of commuters rushing off to their trains, and climbed the stairway up to cross the tracks to our platform. Along the way, we passed children coming home from school, beggars out for their daily bread, office workers, deliverymen, and people hawking the latest in earphones, plug adapters, stationery, and cheap plastic toys on low tables and bedsheets spread out on the ground. On platform 3, we moved along to the orange-and-red striped pillars indicating that the first class train would stop there. A few minutes later, the train to Churchgate pulled up, and we were on our way.
The first class cabin was crowded and the door blocked, so V and I went to the cabin next to it.
We had a sleeping guest.
Turns out we were on a “sick train” as V called it, for the infirm or ill. Still, V decided that we could pull the “Firenge card” (foreigner) and stay there and keep a seat, because obviously, I didn’t know any better and could get away with it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I could get out of that car, find the appropriate one, and get back on before the train moved on, so I just stayed put.
Since I was seated in a sparsely-populated car, I was able to look around a bit. The skull and crossbones on the wall indicating it was a “sick car” was a bit off-putting, but overall, I was impressed. Shiny, well-maintained metal surfaces, hard surface seats that were sturdy and clean-ish. Only one homeless person.
One thing that IS kind of freaky is the fact that you will never hear, “doors closing” because people, that ain’t happening. Train doors don’t close, and in fact I’m not sure there are any. I’ll have to look during monsoon. It’s a bit dangerous, and during certain times it’s so packed that you see folks hanging off the edge out the door. It’s also a bit unnerving the first time you see people jumping out on the platform while the train is still moving, but I’d say about 92% of the locals of all ages do this. It’s part of the reason that trains in Mumbai (and across India) have such a dangerous record. In 2017, over 3,000 railway commuters in the Mumbai area were killed.
By the time we arrived at our station, I was so excited to be home almost an hour earlier than usual that I was ECSTATIC. V thought I was amusing. I think that’s what that smirk meant.
These days, I ride the train regularly. I even took the train from all the way out in Andheri one day and it took about an hour of solid travel, so I figure I’m a pro. If you’re ever on the Western Line, look for the blonde lady in flip-flops with her hair in a topknot listening to her iPod next to the doorway, enjoying the breeze as the train flies by. Just don’t expect me to jump out in front of you onto the platform while the train is still moving as it pulls into the station. I’ll leave that to the truly intrepid.