There was a time, not so long ago, when the daily commute meant a crash course in the sights, smells and sounds of the real Mumbai, all crammed into a mobile matchbox-like compartment that is now integral to the city’s glossary -- the “ladees dabba”.
Regulars were the ustads on board -- knew exactly where to sit or stand, they’d ask the right questions, seize the moment in stealthy moves as seats were won in battles of shrewd wordplay, and often via the head-bobbing quiz session that continues to baffle social scientists. You miss, I sit, -- as this rulebook states.
There were the wannabes -- mostly the young, college-going variety. Donning glam warpaint, stilleto-heels, popping their heads to the latest tracks from their trendy gadgets and gizmos on Mumbai’s train commute deserved a pat on the back. Why? Imagine having to negotiate slippery platforms and potholed (yes) railway overbridges in this garb. They’re still not quite there with the unsaid commute rulebook but this “No sweat, dude. Let’s chill” generation doesn’t really care.
Then, there are the out-of-towners, mostly piggyback riding with Mumbaikars for the ‘experience’ of a train ride. A truly memorable one, it turns out, more often than not. Often, one has been privy to statements like -- “Send her in a Virar Fast; she won’t return,” doled out by regulars as wishlists for such folk who unwittingly invite the Angel of Death. The other suspects include vendors -- selling anything from ‘bra-panty’ to ‘here-peenz’ and the holiday crowd -- who make it a ritual to step out on every public holiday and Sunday. All in all -- a circus and a study in human psychology.
But as one completes nearly two decades of the commute, change on this living, breathing vehicle of survival and co-existence seems inevitable. With the advent of earphones, headphones, smartphones and its ilk, it’s a new look compartment. The sounds have changed, if not gone softer; there’s noticeably lesser buzz and chit-chat between commuters. Even government job-holding Mrs Sawant prefers her radio station music to gossiping with Mrs Moghe her ‘train friend’ (another for the glossary) from the 6.03 Thane slow for 25 years now. Laptop-totting corporates can be seen jamming away their Powerpoint presentations, app-happy teens and the cool brigade would rather share the latest bits and bytes online than exchange a word for their 35-minute commute. It’s a strange sight but a rapidly visible reality check of the changing face of Mumbai’s population that seems to have gotten insular with each passing day. And what better place than the train to reflect this seismic shift.
One hopes that the deafening quietness of this once-vibrant slice of Mumbai life doesn’t get phased out completely. A bit of Mumbai will be lost along with it.
-- The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY