A Statistic in Mumbai

April 1, 2006
Mumbai

I saw one embodiment of a statistic today – a dead body being carried off the tracks on the Western Line as I rode from Vile Parle to Churchgate. While the train was stopped between stations, the four people charged with the gruesome task entered the women’s compartment in which I was riding with a metal stretcher, crossed the compartment, and exited onto the adjacent tracks. As the train pulled away, I glimpsed the body being lifted onto the stretcher; a male body whose right arm had been severed at the shoulder. Was he pushed out of a compartment while the train was moving? Was he killed crossing the tracks? Did he fall while clinging on to the outside of the train?

Andrew Strickler, in a November 2004 article for the San Francisco Chronicle, reports that over 6 million commuters use the three main suburban lines in Mumbai a day, with 4,700 people riding in trains built for a capacity of 1,700 passengers during peak hours. 3,500 people a year, or 10 people a day, are killed. Countless others are injured. Every Mumbaiker knows someone who was injured or killed.

Mark and I became minor victims later that evening. We hadn’t been on the trains for over a month, and were in Mumbai for a day, in transit. We were going to meet Pawan Mehra, who was flying in from Delhi for the weekend, and had called out of the blue, with no expectation of finding us in India, let alone Mumbai. We got on at Churchgate, a terminus, so were able to get seats together in the back of a compartment. I chose to ride with Mark and not in a women’s compartment because we did not know exactly where we would be meeting Pawan, expecting to hear from him while we were en route. We were tired; we weren’t focused on our situation.

Pawan called to tell us to get off at Borivali instead of Andheri since he was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t get to Andheri in time to meet us. About halfway before the Borivali stop, we made a move to get up to make our way to the doors. Our seatmates, who were the only ones with space enough to notice, were incredulous. “Where are you going?” “Borivali.” “Oh, you’ve made a big mistake.” “Why, doesn’t this train stop there?” “Isn’t Borivali the next stop?” “Yes, but you’ll never get off.” “You shouldn’t have gotten on this train. It is too crowded for you to get off at Borivali. This train goes past Borivali. You should have gotten on a train that only goes to Borivali.” “You’ll never make it.

Mark and I had gotten on the first train we came to from a side entrance at Churchgate, not bothering to look at the destinations – they would all go in our direction. Now, we had to make our way through people who were already crushed so tightly together so that there was no space to maneuver. We got up, which in and of itself, was a feat. Our standing meant that two or three others could squeeze behind us to sit down. We took up way too much space (as we usually do) with our three backpacks (two of mine and one of Mark’s). “Move forward!” Many voices exhorted us. Yeah, right. “Push!” Time and again, the men around us urged us to press forward. Because I (a woman) was there, and because we were foreigners (and in their eyes, didn’t know the ways of the trains), and because Mark was white, people made inches of space for us. And because they made space for us, we had to keep inching forward, against our better judgment. We would have preferred to make a big push at the station, when there was bound to be some movement.

So, Mark in front, we made our way towards the doors on the left side of the compartment. As we neared the station, the extortions for us to move forward got stronger, and men who could see me warned other men beside me who were not in a position to see that there was a woman getting off, to please make some room. One or two men (I couldn’t really see) jumped off. Then Mark was gone. “Get off, get off!“, the men urged. I could see a man on the platform ready to jump on, so I stepped off, knowing the train was still moving, but not realizing how fast. I fell. I knew I had to keep some momentum going, but my pack destabilized me, and I didn’t realize that I had to “run” off the train because it was still moving so fast. Many hands reached for me but didn’t touch me. I was able to get up quickly. I knew I had a raspberry on my right knee, but I didn’t stop to take a look. I searched for Mark, and someone pointed him out to me. He was near a kiosk a little bit away. He had taken a hard fall. He was pushed off the train (in a gesture of helpfulness, I’m sure), and had to wrench one of the backpacks free from where it had been wedged among the people by the door to avoid getting dragged outside the still fast-moving train. He had a huge bruise on his left hip and knee and a raspberry on his elbow.

The hysteria with which people approach the trains is beyond us. Yes, there were very few people getting off and on (there was no room) the train at Borivali, but we would have managed. We even see the mad rush of people running on and off trains that are relatively empty – an instinct born of habit. The hysteria is raised a notch at transfer points like Dardar, where you can switch between the Central and Western lines. Even when you can’t see the stop, you know you are at Dardar because of the raised level of noise and shoving.

There is a right way to ride the trains, and the way we do it. Even a month of commuting on the Central line from our donated apartment in Mulund did not give us the time to learn the ins and outs of efficient riding. We traveled to too many different locations for meetings all around town; we carried too many things (posters, backpacks full of computers, digital and video cameras!), and we traveled at all hours of the day. So, we never learned the schedules of the local and express trains, didn’t know which trains to get on for which stops, whether at the times we were traveling the local train would be less crowded than the express train, and once on the train, we didn’t know the proper way to conduct ourselves. Depending on which train you were on, and how far you were going, you needed to position your self accordingly. The first thing to do is to put anything you are carrying on the overhead racks, even your purse (unless you are sitting, in which case you take other peoples purses and packages on your lap). Then, position yourself. If you are not getting out at the next stop, you need to move in. How do you do that when the train is already carrying three times the intended capacity? Somehow, people manage. They squeeze into and through spaces that I don’t see. (After a few days of being told to move back into the car and not seeing a way to do that, I resorted to telling people to move there themselves. Inevitably, they all managed to move around me and my backpack, which I rarely put on the racks.) Then, you maneuver towards the doors for your exit, when and where depending on the train and time. All this learned through a lifetime of commuting.

“Welcome to my world,” Mark says in resignation. This is what he and John had to face everyday for the month that we were in Mulund. I had an idea, but I really had no idea.
The women’s trains were crowded but at worst, they only carried twice the carrying capacity of the compartments. From its relative safety, I heard the daily fights in the next compartment and the war cries of the men hanging out of the doors, daring additional passengers to get on the not-one-inch to spare cars.

Of course, there are people living in Mumbai who have never stepped foot in a train, relying on chauffer-driven cars or taxis and staying within the confines of the exclusive enclaves of the city. “I’m really impressed – how do you do it?” they say, shaking their heads in wonder. Really, how did we do it?

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