Sunday, December 02, 2007

Scenes and the City, Episode Two

The train.

Ubiquitous, inescapable, inevitable, essential, infamous, embracing, pervasive... Mumbai is the local. The local is Mumbai. Books have been written on them, movies made, songs sung... as long as you're in Mumbai, you're in the train. One way or another. You'll travel in them, close deals, make plans, dream, sleep, make friends, meet that one person you've been searching for all your life, come face-to-face with your worst enemy, risk your life hanging literally by your fingertips, experience that sublime relaxation of the corner window facing direction in the shade... you'll go for treks, you'll make friends, cut vegetables, pray, sing, play music, listen to music, read, sleep, dream, sometimes even take a dump, argue, chat... you won't escape. Not them, never. They're as much your life as the clothes you wear.

It begins like a wildebeest migration on the Serengeti, when over a million bodies pass through one narrow pass every hour, not seeing, not thinking, just one giant mindless swarm, a herd, moving forward, upward, all conscious thought suspended in the great hivemind awareness of simple movement... Mumbai gets up and goes to it's trains.

Squeezed in like... like commuters in a Mumbai local (there really is no analogy that doesn't fall short of reality, except maybe neutron-star matter), you realize that the only difference between first and second class is that in first class, the sweat lets you identify the soap used in the morning. In second, you identify how many days ago any soap had been used.

The art of reading a newspaper in the crowd - how precisely to fold the broadsheet so that pages can be turned, quickly, efficiently, with minimal movement, minimal space occupation and minimal pokes in the eyes of fellow passengers. It's an art, it's the Local Origami that's far more challenging than it's namesake.

Time and place has no meaning in a local - all laws are suspended. So what if a few minutes a go, you had an air-conditioned office, a desk, everything. Now is when you have the Idea; and now is when you close the deal.

The ancient signboards have developed a code all of their own, one that baffles - hopelessly - the first time traveler. or even one who may have been on it for years. A code that changes with time and place, with train and direction. Green stripes or red stripes? After 7:30 or after 9? Am I carrying a large suitcase? How large is too large and has to go into th Luggage? Where is the Luggage? What is C - Churchgate, Kalyan, or Karjat? What's the difference between Neral and Nerul? Why do I see new stations every few months? What is 'return'? What is a 'starting' train, and why does it pull in pre-loaded with passengers already in the best seats? What is AD, A, K, C, T, TI, VA, V, B, and BY? How does a person balance 70 kgs on 4 fingers for 45 minutes?

Quoted from Local, by Amitava Ghosh, I think - Mumbai is the only city where you have three classes of friends - work, home, and train. People you meet only by a shared coincidence of time and destination, that grows into lifelong friendships - in the train only. Biggest example, the card clubs. 3-4 packs combined into one giant deck, a briefcase balanced carefully on 4 independent knees, and staying rock-solid despite crowds, the push and the shove, the sway and the jerk... one industrial-strength rubber band holding the loose cards down, one scorekeeper with a tiny notebook / scratchpad / ancient scroll keeping score of games that may have lasted for years, in 45-minute intervals each.

And in the late nights, when the last train leaves, and the coaches are empty, and the train is an oasis of light, silence and stability in the middle of roaring, windy, heaving darkness outside, the train is the witness to some of life's greatest aspirations - and also expressions of shattered dreams, broken hearts, dashed hopes, and the heart's last lonely cry in the end, poured out through a sketchpen onto the walls on the one thing that's remained constant through ll the upheavals. You'll find, scrawled on the walls - poetry, obscenity, cries for help, suicide notes, come-hither messages...

'I said... I will always love you, S... till the end of the world...'

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