Nestled in the midst of a sea of people, one stands with both feet and hands restrained by a countless pair of limbs occupying the finite space in a railway passenger car. Two to three hands clutch an evenly spaced array of straphangars on the steel cylindrical pipes running throughout the ceiling of the train. Feet rooted firmly to the floor of the train in a particular posture and cramping up as soon as you get a push from a fellow passenger. This is when I realized the unabashed beauty of travelling in a Bombay Local: The inherently sophisticated organization in the seemingly chaotic mess of the thousands of people pouring in and out. The fabric of inter-connectivity and the inter-distribution of space is remarkable. As soon as some passengers alight from the railway car that newly vacant space is evenly distributed and occupied by more people from one entry to exit point spreading throughout the aisle- people self-organize themselves. If their stop is a little far away then at this moment they realize the flexibility and adaptability of the human body to adjust in the minimal breathing space surrounded by innumerable sapiens breathing, resting, talking and sometimes being in pugnacious disposition to protect their own…an ephemeral space is created to let them pass through to the inner parts of the car with their heavy fifteen kilos of luggage, each person helping and supporting him and to make his journey from the entry to the aisle less dreadful, while the others sitting on their seat helping the luggage to reach the rack on the top of their seats. It clearly exemplified in a matter of minutes, the sophistication in co-operation, generosity and support which is lent by every passenger to each other in the local of Bombay whether it is some tourist, servant, middle class employee, farmer, peasant, slum dweller or a student. They work together to make their journey comfortable while living in the most excruciating conditions in the city of gold.
While travelling in the Bombay local, I gained knowledge about the city and its denizens. My journeys used to begin from CBD Belapur station: one of a kind in its superiority and simplicity to make someone awestruck. The station lies under a gargantuan brutal concrete building which shelters the totality of a railway train under its floor plates. It becomes immaculately white under the sun’s rays. The minimalism, symmetry and its gargantuan form is underscored by the lines of corridors and balconies originating from one of its brutal concrete ends and ending on the other. It is punctuated by longitudinal rising towers functioning as service blocks and punctured with numerous minuscule windows in hexagonal patterns to let it breathe and let light into its monumental persona. The station has four platforms out of which 3 platforms were spic and span but the other one was being constructed or renovated thereby releasing dust onto the other platforms and making the impatient irritated. I often used to travel in the local at the mercy of others who would guide me and concoct a clever travel course avoiding roadways and landing me to the nearest station of my destination. Often I had to change locals at Kurla Junction. If a train used to get late by five minutes I was able to discern the humongous size of the city’s population. One moment there are fifty people standing at the platform and five minutes later the numbers rise exponentially. The arrival of trains invigorated people and many would try to nonchalantly leap into the train before it came to a halt. Being a Delhi-ite, I used to remember Rajeev Chowk which was way less crowded and never posed a threat to my safety. Initially, crossing the impenetrable barrier of heads, bags and legs to get into the train was intimidating. Eventually though I got used to jumping into the train and lingering close to the door while clenching a pole and breathing in the air of Mumbai at 60-70 km/h. The rides transformed into a thrilling adventure often having its ups and downs- the ups being the experience of freedom that comes from hanging fearlessly in mid air and the downs being pushed away by the stampede of impatient people.
Tracks as the Communal Open Space
The contrast between the exceptional and the familiar was astonishing during the local rides. Hanging by the door, I used to gaze outside the framed vista of the local’s doorway. My favourite was when the train used to pass through the creek- I felt the moistness in the air even before the creek appeared. The sight was pleasing as the water shimmered in the sunlight for a mere three minutes. While beholding the limitless extent of blue, the green colour of the grass and the trees gradually rose from the banks. At that moment, nature’s beauty dissolved the city of Mumbai manifested as a mosaic of informal settlements and affluent towers kissing the sky to resonate with global standards.
Slums are the invention of need, poverty and the struggle for survival in the city of dreams. Often I saw the ingenuity in their construction techniques and the judicious use of materials in making their shelters habitable. Plastics, polythene, shipping containers, wood, brick, concrete and bamboo are used to form the modules of dwellings. Mothers bathe their children near the railway tracks. People sit or lay on foldable beds in the outdoors. Men brush their teeth, drink tea and read local newspapers. Groups of teenagers menace around, bicker, laugh and hug. These sights were ubiquitous with squalor and filth. I found their way to happiness living in the midst of an indigent lifestyle to be inspiring and motivating in certain aspects.
Tracks as Street Furniture and Boundary Walls as Enclosures
Adjacent to these informal settlements were high rise apartments and banners promising a new and bright future with an unparalleled lifestyle through facilities crafted by multinational corporations. The glaring disparity between the rich and the poor was at times acrid but it had its purpose: to continue to contribute towards the endless chain of supply and demand. The reflecting glass towers felt atypical. At times, I was alienated but was reminded that this staggering metropolis is the financial capital of our nation provoking the visions of exoticism and outlandish grandeur. In the midst of this, there are incalculable dilapidated housing structures in which caged windows have ropes strung from one end to another to dry clothes. The extra space created within is used to store cardboard boxes, old furniture or sometimes plants to add vibrant colors to the brown rusty cages to make it habitable.
In these momentary delights, I used to blend into pensive thoughts of realization on how democratic and republic this quantum of space is, where caste and creed has no role and everyone is equal to support each other. On one occasion when I was sitting, a man accidentally brushed his foot against mine. It was barely noticeable but he touched my knee and then his chest with his fingers in a gesture of apology. Sometimes I saw old people playing with children of others to distract and calm them. I saw people from different segments of society taking turns to sit and guiding others with useful information on topics ranging from train fares to wisdom from the depths of their soul. I was a stranger to this city but people respected and conversed with me as if I was their own. My journeys ended every night with the memory of talking to countless strangers who invested in me, made me understand the blueprint of the city and the role of vice and virtue in the shaping of the city. The conversations were about camaraderie among strangers who sometimes became memorable friends. It still surprises me when I look back and comprehend the extent of humanity I felt in that Quantum of Space… in those tiny capsules of time… in the Bombay Local.