Lindsay Pereira: Our collective lack of grace
A lot can be accomplished by our ability to be more tolerant, even if living in Mumbai actively encourages us not to
Two people fell off our local trains last week. There may have been more, because those tracks claim lives regularly, so it may be more accurate for me to point out that reports about those two people were all I noticed. Reading about them reminded me almost instantly of one morning a couple of decades ago, while I was on my way to college, when two people happened to fall off the train I was on. They fell within minutes of each other, between Goregaon and Jogeshwari, one on either side of my compartment.
The exists were, then as now, overcrowded to a point where stepping into the train was no longer an option. They must have hung on nonetheless, scrabbling for a few centimetres on which to rest a foot, before slipping. According to the people watching them, while hanging on themselves, both survived, which is why I haven't forgotten that little miracle.
What I also haven't forgotten is how I barely managed to hold on myself, over the decade or so in which I was compelled to take the local train every morning. It is with sadness that I think of young men and women, the disabled, senior citizens or children who must, for reasons beyond their control, still rely on public transport. I had no choice because my college, and then my first office, both happened to be located at the opposite end of the city from where I lived. When I think about those trips now, safe in the knowledge that I may never have to step into a local at 9 am again, I wonder what allowed me and a million others to travel back and forth relatively unscathed.
I remember with a startling amount of clarity what it meant to hold on to the pole at the entrance of every compartment and pray. I remember every muscle straining for relief, and cramped fingers and calves when I would eventually arrive at my destination every morning. I remember being pushed and shoved, my bag pulled behind me, as commuters of all ages struggled to reach the staircase or exit of the railway station. I pity the millions of women who still deal with this manhandling twice a day because they have no choice.
Mumbai is a city that encourages us to be ruthless. The 'spirit' that politicians constantly refer to, as a rug beneath which they hide their incompetence and apathy, is nothing more than a lesson on the survival of the fittest, where the fittest are taught to ignore those who are in no position to fight for survival. We don't even spare children, let alone women or the elderly, as we run into overcrowded trains, jump off overcrowded buses or battle our way across a pavement to get to our offices on time.
There must have been a point when this ruthlessness had no reason to exist, when our grandparents made their way through a less crowded, less frantic city. Blaming this state of affairs on our rising population is easy though, because it absolves us of our own responsibility to behave a little better. Why give way to someone when no one gives way for us is a thought that consumes us, enabling us to get away with nonchalance. It's why tragedy no longer has the power to move us; it is simply something to gawk at, to take pictures of and move on. It's why we walk around accident victims, shake our heads when confronted with death, walk around a fight and forget about what we have seen minutes after we have borne witness to them.
It is naïve to imagine that we can turn into better behaved citizens, of course. I do think about that possibility more often as I get older though, because I worry about how much worse things will get when our crumbling infrastructure makes those daily commutes harder rather than easier. I worry about how students will get to college at other ends of the city, the way I once did. I worry about the elderly trying to reach a hospital a decade from now. I also worry about those two people who fell off the trains last week. They fell because we are still losing that aspect of humanity that encourages us to be more accommodating.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to email@example.com
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