My Extremely Hectic Daily Indian Train Ride
5:36 pm: I arrive at Churchgate station, which is the beginning of the Western line, to wait for my train to pull in. The train will pull in empty, but no matter. People jump onto the train before it’s even stopped, scrambling over each other and literally running to get the best seats. I was once with a coworker who let out a frightening sound similar to the sound a hyena makes (I don’t know what sound a hyena actually makes, assuming The Lion King isn’t an accurate point of reference) and then accidentally knocked me to the ground in her mad dash onto the train. Or maybe it wasn’t accidental… awkward. Anyways, after the initial excitement dies down, I settle myself into the women’s compartment and buy a samosa from a vendor who’s just hopped on.
5:44 pm: A few stops later and the train is filling up fast. Someone will get on and point at me, and I don’t need to ask why. I say “Bandra,” the name of the station where I’ll be getting down, and she points to me again. We both nod a little bit. This is how we’ve agreed that when I get off at my stop, she’ll take my seat. This is only a small piece of an elaborate web of “claiming” seats. One woman who’s sitting will claim another woman’s better seat, a woman standing will claim the first woman’s “worse” seat, and so on and so forth. It’s a system that confused me and made me laugh at first, but now I see the logic, even if I can’t bring myself to claim someone’s seat when I’m standing and in for a long ride.
5:51 pm: Sweating. A lot. The woman next to me might be reading my book over my shoulder, or she might offer me a bit of home-made food from her tupperware.
5:53 pm: A young woman with a baby slung on her hip comes through selling earrings, hair clips, and bindis. By now the train is packed like wet rice in a pressure cooker, with people in the women’s and general compartments literally hanging out of the doors over the train tracks.
5:57 pm: There should be a new and more descriptive word for “sweating.” Or maybe there shouldn’t be.
6:02 pm: Some days, getting off the train requires a little mental preparation. Positioning is key, and if you’re doing it wrong you the women around you will definitely let you know. Well before the train has stopped, women are jumping off and other women are pushing on. It’s simple- if you don’t jump off, you probably won’t make it off. The oncoming rush of people will literally stampede right over you. Usually I make it off relatively unscathed and bruise-free.
Most days, in spite of all the craziness, women will be laughing and gossiping during the ride, but I have seen a few rough fights break out. I’ll move on though, because the train isn’t the end of it. Once out of the train station, navigating the streets is the next step. I remember being at a total loss as to how to cross the street when I first arrived in India, and now, I just cross my fingers and pray that I don’t get hit when I wind my way through the traffic madhouse. There are cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, cows, goats, bikes, wheel barrels—you name it, we’ve got it, and they’re all following some traffic code that I have yet to decipher. The one rule I have discerned is that cows always, always have the right of way. Add in street vendors selling every imaginable food or ware and you’ve got yourself a straight up circus. I’ve gotten into the habit of just sticking my hand out to stop whatever oncoming vehicle is about two inches from my face while paving my path through the streets.
And if you’re trying to get directions anywhere, well, best of luck. First of all, there are rarely road signs, and when there are, they often refer to the new street name that nobody’s ever heard of. Places are often identified by a nearby landmark, as in “two buildings past the petrol station” or “past the Union Bank but before the traffic signal” And to top it off, there’s the concept of “saving face.” Many people would rather give you wrong directions than admit that they can’t help you out, so it’s best to triple-check your directions to avoid landing in an industrial complex 20 minutes away from where you meant to go (yes, that happened to me… twice).
Navigating the city can be hectic, but usually I love it. If nothing else, it always keeps me absolutely, 100% wide awake.