Friday, September 14, 2007

Trials and Travels in Mumbai

Mumbai has one of the best public transport systems in India. It also has one the most overused public transport systems in the country. Those of us who use these systems everyday are either desperate or masochistic or trying to cleanse off our bad karma. On the plus side, we always have stories to regale an audience of saucer-eyed listeners about the trials and travails of the experience.

Much has been said and written about travel in Mumbai’s local trains. One particularly curious experience must be added. This particular ‘event’ occurs only at large terminal stations like Borivali or Churchgate from where trains start. To get into the train at these stations, it is not enough that you reach the platform before the train leaves, but in fact, before it even arrives on the platform. Once you reach at least two whole minutes before the train, you must plot your exact co-ordinates on the platform from where you are closest to the compartment door. It is important to know whether the train is 9 or 12 coaches long, whether you will travel by first class or second and how far ahead on the platform the train usually stops. This last detail can make the difference of only one compartment door but it is enough to throw one’s plans for a seat completely awry. If you are the kind that excelled at long jump in school or the sort who has done fielding for the South African cricket team, then you should stand in the first row where you can execute a perfectly timed flying leap into the not-yet-slow train. Of course, this must be accounted for when you plotted your waiting position on the platform. For athletically challenged ones like me, I have found that it is a better strategy to stand in the second row. You won’t earn the wrath of people behind you if you didn’t leap in, and you can move towards the compartment door quicker than the women in the first row if you didn’t stand exactly in front of it.

Some agile and intelligent men of the species stand where the ladies compartment is supposed to arrive. To do this, they beg for a little elbow space from the rightful owners of that spot. As the train approaches, they begin to wave wildly at the people who are leaning out of the train. Even as you wonder how they seem to know all these people you realize that this is a signal for them to get out of the way. In most places in the world, the rule is to allow passengers to alight first. Not so here. Here, you stay well out of the way of the jumpers lest you find a human projectile landing on you. But, since the Mumbai sign language is understood by all those who regularly commute by trains, the passengers dutifully move out.

Every time I go through this experience, the scene from Braveheart comes to mind. The women brace themselves for the onslaught. The college girls reposition their bags; the women tie their dupattas in front of themselves, the first row of people inches back in anticipation, just as the rows at the back move forward in eagerness. We can all hear William Wallace, the great Scottish hero, commanding his troops to “Hold, hold, hold…”, and, when the train does arrive, to throw caution to the winds and “CHARGE!”

And after all this planning and strategizing you finally receive the fruits of your labour… the coveted window seat in the ‘right’ direction*. Of course, if you had some poor luck and were stranded behind a Mumbai newbie (a.k.a. moron) who doesn’t know to work the system, then all you get is the meagre fourth seat.

Bus travel is not too easy either. First, there is the endless wait for the once-an-hour bus. Then you wade through the mass of bodies (in the predictably overflowing bus) to evict the young men sitting on the seats reserved for ladies or the one marked for pregnant women. Of course, it is hard to ignore the (Santoor soap) looks you get from people for sitting on the pregnant women seat! If you’re not lucky, you are standing on tip-toes and watching 2 people (one of whom is the driver) in the huge Innova next to this bus adding to the inch-by-creeping-inch traffic jam, which was created in the first place by the kind of people who need an entire multi-utility 8-seater vehicle to haul their (only) arse. All the while you stand there and plot all manner of evil on the owner of the vehicle, or think of ways to improve Mumbai’s roads/traffic/car pooling systems, or think of how you need to blog about this, or engage in other fruitful thinking. Who says Mumbaikars don’t have leisure to “stand and stare”? And I have little patience with people who think that we don’t have any patience.

I am convinced that all travel in Mumbai is a means of strengthening one’s character. If you can head out each morning into monstrous traffic jams, bad roads infested with selfish road hogs, crushing crowds in trains and buses and emerge with sweat-soaked shirts but smiling faces to face the day (and the journey back home at the end of it) then you are truly an evolved being. Give yourselves a pat on your back Mumbai!

*Right direction: In the winter, this is opposite the direction the train moves, while in the summers, it would be with the direction of the train. In the monsoon, usually people try to avoid the window seats!


Sumedh said...

Once I saw this firang with his handycam taking a shot of the sea of humanity climbing one of the bridges at Andheri station. The number of people on those steps were probably more than all the people in his country!

But even though this situation is the way it is, public (and not private) transport is in need of improvement. Firstly, it caters to a larger crowd; and secondly, it will be cheaper to execute!

Instead of high-speed flyovers, which get clogged by single-passenger cars, wouldn't it be so much better to have AC buses on the highway without flyovers? Instead of an environmentally-hazardous sea link, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in a Metro like Delhi?

MMRDA should impose a toll for entry into the "town" so that it discourages use of private vehicles, and use the money for improving public transport. This will encourage car-pooling and reduce congestion!

Firebringer said...

Wow! That's some serious research!
Alternatively, one can stand for the Bandra local at Churchgate, and travel peacefully (pre - req - live in Bandra). Of course, you have the "kaunsa side aayega?" dilemma, with enough people to support both sides at times :D.
Of course, one of the greatest mysteries to me is the dynamics of the Ladies compartment, which, I am given to believe is worse than the general compartment.

Plans of a monorail I hear - when will they ever materialize?

Veena said...

Oh! the ladies compartment is a world by itself. A stupid, infuriating, screeching-loud, colourful world! I have so much to say about it, I don't know where to start.

I do hope some solution comes in sooner rather than later... I lost a slipper in the crowds of the evening borivali local while trying (fatally) to get down at andheri.

As for AC buses, I'm all for it. but how about starting with at least one normal bus route all the way from Borivali to "town"? None exist.

Akshay said...

Nice blog veena..Lemme add a bit more info n trivia about Virar trains (being the veteran in this case).. The only difference between the Jews herded off to the conc camps n v Virar train travellers is that v pay 4 the journey..If i need 2 meet some1,i can only leave as per the 7.45,9.53 n the 11.10 Bhayander locals (Virar 2 risky to go in during peak time).V Bhayanderiites r called BSF Jawans in train parlance,the Mira Rd ppl r called Kargil ke jawaans,the Dahisar ones r the shaheeds!!..while those @#$*& getting in at Borivli r the Pakis!!..

Hardik said...

are nice one re

but u forgot the return passengers ka funda !!!

that is also a major thing causing this entire circus

if we had trains starting from malad as well i think that would help a lot

as to the idea of a metro i doubt it could withstand apna mumbai ka barish

n i think that the AC buses r already there but the volume is quite low

but how about an overhead railway?

and all said n done i doubt if the public transport in any other place is as resilient as mumbai's is...

in fact the public transport in pune is virtually non-existent, but thats a seperate story

and plz do elaborate on the world of the ladies compartment. [:P]

Akshay G N I said...

my goodness.
thank god we BEST loyalists dont have any such kind of politics and naming any group of passengers jawans or shaheeds or pakistanis.
but yes travelling in mumbai is an experience.
@ sumedh, delhi is far less congested in terms of people per area. also the roads are wider and since they have the 'ring' system of roads , similar to chandigarh and bengaluru , it allows traffic to bypass congested routes where metro cnstruction is going on. and delhi is expanding into neighbouring areas like faridabad , gurgaon, noida etc. no such luxury for the island of mumbai.
forgive me for digressing - veena , well written once again. pleasantly unusual words,
animated detailed descriptions with a sarcastic garnishing - typically veena.

Anonymous said...

Its such a pity that u started the blog with "Mumbai has one of the best public transport systems in India"... Its the worst

captainjohann said...

right direction is great gyan

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