Local Travails

Oh locals, you disrupters of idyllic Mumbai mornings,

You perpetrators of sallow faces and sweaty bodies,

And destroyers of trouser creases,

This is your doing.

Local trains are probably amongst the most chronicled aspects of the city. And also, the most resented. While the thought of wading into and out of a sea of humanity and more importantly, humidity, is not exactly the most appealing way to start one’s mornings, it is but apt for the ‘lifeline of the city’ to be an embodiment of the city’s utter disregard for the acceptable notions of population density.

My past experience with locals has been, irregular. While I had usually enjoyed gallivanting with my friends to and from my coaching centre in Borivali, I also recollect entering a train on the day of my 12th Standard Maths Board Exams with my watch and coming out of it, after much straining and pushing, without it. As such, when my father advised me to get a first class pass as I set out for a month-long internship, I, unlike my earlier frugal versions, did not even bat an eye.

Through my first fortnight of travel, I somehow managed to squeeze in at Kandivali, endured paunches and punches (both unintentional, I guess), and held on to the overhead rod for dear life till salvation arrived in the form of Andheri. The irony of that last statement is not lost on me. In any case, it is only after making the wiser choice of taking the saner train back to Borivali and return, with the luxury of a seat to watch my former comrades at Kandivali, push their way into apparently non-existent standing space that one realizes that in a sense, that return train, with the erstwhile pusher becoming the pushed, is not unlike the wizarding world’s time turners, saving seats instead of lives (which is probably the same thing if you’re a regular traveller.)

 

A lot of people compressed into an area, while not conducive for breathing and practically any body movement, never leaves you bored; the mobile phone, the modern replacement of eyes as the window to a man’s soul, being primarily responsible for that. There’s seemingly an anti-privacy agreement that one innately signs before entering a local, granting one full immunity to gawk unabashedly at other people’s phones. My month of traveling has introduced me to various characters, or at least their phones. What follows below is an attempt to encapsulate the people that I related with, was intrigued by and laughed at, in no particular order.

  • The Romantic– Given their penchant for omnipresence, in one form or the other, is it even a surprise to see the romantic make the list? They are always there, tired and leaning back on the seats for support, and yet maintaining a steady flow of kisses on chat, equally to compensate for the lack of conversational ideas as for genuine displays of affection. Their names for their loved ones beget a thesis of their own.

The cake must however surely go to a guy I met on my way back home from work about a week ago. As the train emptied out at Malad, (the rush of relief is unrivaled), I happened to find myself leaning against a guy who must have been in his mid-twenties. Out of habit and because of the burdens that exceedingly tall people must bear, I glanced at his phone. He had replaced the phone’s battery life indicator with a heart! As I stared at his screen, something dripped from the virtual heart and lo and behold, its blood levels had insignificantly gone down. Whether it was a subtle nod towards how we’re defined by the devices we use or just a stupid way to indicate battery life while simultaneously and significantly reducing it, we’ll never know.

  • The Philosopher- Getting off at my destination on my second day and reveling in the confidence of knowing my way to work, I was trudging along with the crowd. The two men, in front of me, meanwhile, were in the middle of some serious philosophical meandering.

Guy 1: “So, what does this crowd teach you?”

Guy 2: “What?”

Guy 1: “That there are many people like you. If you want to stand out, do something different.”

Guy 2: “Hmm.”

And as is the wont with all philosophical conclusions (and eavesdropping), they both went their own ways and I went mine.

On some other day, in some other train, I was standing beside a guy who was furiously typing away. He seemed to be working on a philosophical birthday wish.  Suddenly, with an exasperated sigh, he gave up, opened Whatsapp, went to some group, searched for ‘father’, copied a forwarded poem (ignoring the original sender’s proud proclamation that his eight-year-old daughter was the writer of the same,) pasted it into his chat with his father, appended a “Happy Birthday, Papa!” and he was done.

Two roads diverged... Well, you get the gist.

  • The Bookie– It is fairly common to have people browse Facebook on trains. To be fair, it’s common to have people browse Facebook anywhere. I have been subjected to a lot of things on my feed because of my pre-college Facebook activity but it all pales away in comparison to what the bookie made me a party to. India were playing Bangladesh in a pre-Champions’ Trophy warm-up game. Naturally, people were checking scores. That was my first impression of the bookie, too. Gradually, as I slunk closer to him, I noticed that it was the Sri Lanka vs New Zealand game which had his attention. Intrigued, I initially alluded that to the pitiful fight that Bangladesh were putting up in their chase, but New Zealand were not doing much better themselves. Suddenly, a message popped up: “Sri Lanka pe kitna lagana hai, bhai?”(How much do I bet on Sri Lanka?) Bhai dutifully reverted with a number and the odds of a Sri Lanka win. Another New Zealand wicket fell, and Bhai revised his odds. I was fascinated and was trying to find avenues to strike up a conversation with him. And then, he opened his Facebook account.

A link to an article in Hindi analyzing the prospects of the Pakistan Cricket Team appeared at the top. He swiped it away with a derisory smirk. His pending friend requests were up for scrutiny next. From what I could gauge, all female requests were approved. Bhai kept scrolling through his feed, generously giving likes to any picture with a female in it. Philosophical captions were also duly awarded with his approval. A post asking to be shared in five groups to get Mata‘s blessings was dutifully shared.

Bhai was not done yet, though. He started watching a video called “Arrogant Katz.” I was expecting Katrina Kaif to show up at some point, especially given how often the adjective is associated with her on Quora, but it was not to be. They were just arrogant cats, oblivious to human attention and Bhai‘s delighted eyes. Suddenly, Andheri intervened and that was the last that I saw of him. For a guy whose sole aim of existence on Facebook seems to be the ephemeral publicity of this blog, he was and will probably always be the zenith of Facebook activity.

  • The Observer- A local train compartment is a miniature and fast forwarded version of life. There are people and things who’ll make way for you, people who’ll give you understanding smiles as they watch you struggle (in my case, to avoid hitting the overhead rod.) You are also bound to come across show-offs who’ll put on a fake accent when picking up the phone, vain uncles who’ll stop Dangal midway on their phones to check their reflection in the phone screen, people who’ll lie point blank on phones about their busyness and then turn to the serene violence of Candy Crush.

There’s an overhanging monotony about the whole travel routine. I stand close to the door, watching the lights from Andheri’s twin McDonalds’ and Malad’s MM Mithaiwaala whizz by, refraining from indulging the memories. Even the station announcers all sound alike; proud possessors of a baritone and terrible voice modulation skills. Ram Mandir’s appearance always cracks me up. The Western Line station, that is. Interesting name for a station, that. The only aberrational delight is in the rare form of an undercover ticket checker, who reduces the freeloader’s sense of pride and the number of notes in their wallets.

On some days, as I get off at Kandivali, swamped by hordes running in all possible directions, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody starts blaring in my ears:

“Is this the real life?”

You bet it is.

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