Mumbai Public Transport (yes again!), being on the radio & why trains are a metaphor for the world.


local-train-_-from-burrp-com_.jpgAny of you who have followed my blog for a while will know I like talking about public transport – maybe because I spend so much of my time on it – maybe I’m just weird.

Yes I know, I hear you, why not take OLA share? However, trains get you places faster, are considerably cheaper for the daily commute, plus I get car sick, hate AC set to Arctic and am socially awkward (not to mention the time OLA share took two hours for a twenty minute journey). So happily each day I plug my headphones in, bury my head in a book if there’s space, another person’s armpit if not, and chalo on the train.

See how I refrained from calling not one single OLA driver a moron in that paragraph? The other day however, I did not have the same self restraint when it came to the Mumbai local. After yet another irritating experience on the train I let rant on social media, requesting some good retorts I can give back in perfect Hindi to the aunty train mafia. The response was overwhelming. Many people gave their sympathy, offered support, were shocked, angry, etc. I even had a friend who works in radio ask if I would come and do an interview on the subject!

I was taken aback as really the experience, whilst annoying, hadn’t left me especially deeply traumatised. Then a thought struck me -others, less thick skinned than myself might have been.

What if you were a young girl going to college for the first time and you found yourself having to do daily death defying leaps onto the approaching train (necessary  if you want any chance of not being trodden on, elbowed and having your slippers kicked off as you try to enter)? What if you were just starting in a job and taking your first train and dared to take a seat ‘reserved’ for another lady by her friends in ‘their’ carriage?


Image pilfered from Pallavi Jain – check out her brilliant art and give her some paise here

What if you were so very, very ill you couldn’t fight your way onto the train to get a seat that day, so asked, very politely mind, to take the ‘fourth seat’ and got brazenly ignored, then shouted at, for trying not to fall off the zero cm of space that no one had bothered to shift even a tiny bit to give you? And then got gossiped about in front of your face by the ladies you have to see every day on your morning commute, while they all pass cake around thinking it is all very funny like the time they trod on you while you were on your hands and knees in the train doorway trying to retrieve your shoe from the edge of the platform (again). Hilarious.

Ok well that last bit was me. I’m over it now. So far all sounds a bit like a school bus with a bully problem? Over lunch at work I heard much worse stories – a friend who had her glasses broken, yet more shoe losses, purse thefts, cat fights, people not being allowed by others to board trains or get off trains, people being pushed off moving trains, people screaming for tmumbai-local-759.jpgheir lives as they hang out of moving carriages whilst others refuse to go inside further, old ladies being dragged along the platform by their dupattas and one lady of 55 died in Borivali jumping off a moving train, being dragged underneath it. The very worst story by far was of a lady who sadly passed away. She was beaten up by a (female) train gang after refusing to give up her seat – she had given birth only a few days previous. No one was caught.

So every rush hour traveler knows as a rule, the ladies carriage is worse than the mens, never to take the Virar train (unless you are going to Virar) and where to stand if you want to have any chance in hell of getting off at your stop. Most commuters, including myself generally know how to fight through the whole experience. But what ****SHOCK**** if we stopped fighting for a minute and decided to help each other through this daily assault course? Fighting to get on a train happens even when there is plenty of space and plenty of time before a train leaves. Why? Is it really the highlight of these people’s days that they got a morning seat on the local train, risking their own and other’s lives to do so? Why do civilised ladies suddenly become animals, all over 30 square cm of plastic seat?

It struck me that the local train is like a microcosm for the world. People claim their territory and try to keep it from newcomers by forming gangs. In 2008 the state of Maharastra saw violent attacks on migrants from North India. We all know about the ongoing clashes in Kashmir. I look at my country of origin and see the anti-migrant aftermath of the Brexit vote- and lets not even start on what is happening in America! There is a lot of talk internationally about ‘the greaI5fqZaH.jpgt evil’ of economic migrants and how we need armies and walls to keep them out (along with the refugees). This talk makes me both angry and befuddled. If you travel a great distance and suffer a great hardship to be able to work, then you are likely to do just that when you get there. More hard working people in the community + more money in the local economy = better infrastructure and welfare, all with the added bonus of cultural diversity, which can lead to the better understanding of each other so we can all live in blissful harmony. In theory. Of course it depends on the honesty and competence of who is in charge and the influence of the media on popular opinion. I think though it is safe to say that in most cases, if these migrants get wherever they are headed and find nothing, they are more than likely to go somewhere else – because they want to work! Anyone who argues they are here to take your job – I second the guy above (replace English with whatever applicable language). Conclusion, territorial behaviour and isolationism = bad, migration and diversity = good. Anyone in charge who tells you otherwise is more than likely blaming migrants for their own shortcomings in governance and/or trying to control using fear.

I digress. So back to the radio. Initially I dismissed the request as rather funny and no thanks, not a chance, no way in hell basically. Whilst a lot of people would jump at the chance to be live on the airwaves, I work behind the scenes in production for a reason – I’m actually pretty shy. Then I learnt about the motives for asking me on the show – noble ones of generally getting people to be nicer to each other and making the train a safer place for all, so I agreed. Especially after I had read the inspirational article of this lady who stood up to train bullies and recalled once being brave enough to go on BBC Radio 2 to speak up in defence of squatters.

However, the night before I got cold feet when I heard it was to do with a film release Atithi in London (Guest iin London). There is a saying in India ‘atithi devo bhava‘ which translates as ‘guest is god.’ It rings well as Indian culture is renowned for its wonderful hospitality (and tendency to feed guests as many biscuits and cups of chai as possible). I didn’t want to give the impression that I felt that as a foreigner, I was a guest and should be treated as such, as god – after all I live here, work here, have family here, pay tax here and consider Mumbai my home (as much as any other migrant). The producer assured me this would not be the case and I took the plunge.

The interview was with the very sweet and down-to earth RJ Archana, someone who is genuinely trying to make a difference in the world. In amongst sharing train stories we talked about how we are all equal on the train- and not in a ‘some are more equal than others’ kind of way! Everyone should look out for each other and bullying should not be tolerated – especially in the case of grown men and women who should know better! We should extend the ‘guest is god’ mentality outside of our homes and to all the strangers we meet every day, on every train, from every state, from every country. Being nice to each other on the local train maybe a far cry from achieving universal equality and world peace, but it’s a good start.

You can watch a video which includes some of  the edited interview here.

You can see RJ Archana preparing for her very own trip on a Mumbai local train here.

And you can listen to her show Mon-Sat 7am-11am on Radio City.



Mumbai (un)Public Transport part 3

my Sunny Scootoni as modeled by a random man

I’ve written previously about my experiences on the Mumbai public transport system. Now I would like to share with you my newfound love, my daily joy in sunny yellow, my savior from traffic jams, chore rickshaw drivers and being pretty much beaten up getting on and off local trains – introducing Sunny Scootoni – my sexy, Italian and rather stylish scooter.

She’s daring, a fast woman in bike form with matching retro yellow helmet. She doesn’t care how loud you beep your horn or if you are on a noisy massive Enfield because you can just eat her goddamn dust at 5mph stuck in a queue of two-wheelers on the side of the highway. No you are not jumping ahead in front of this lady – where are your manners? What happened to chivalry?!

I know she is a little dangerous and my mother does not entirely approve of her but I love her and I hope we will never part. I look forward to waking up to her each morning and coming home from work on her each evening. All the family love riding on her.

I’ve ridden scooters before when I stayed in Goa but always been a little terrified of the Mumbai infamous crazy traffic. Most ex-pats I know have cars with drivers to ferry them safely through the chaos (nothing wrong with this – living the dream!) Not having the option of this luxury coupled with depressing journeys in OLA cabs watching the two wheelers zip around me stationary in the traffic jam there was nothing for it but to take a deep breath and ride on regardless! My journey time has halved and I’ve not only become accustomed to but adept at weaving my way through the gridlock.

For others brave or crazy enough to drive/ride in this city here are the unofficial rules of the Indian roads:

  1. Lane discipline is not really a concept and undertaking is totally OK.
  2. Mirrors are also not really a concept. I saw a lady the other day who had chosen to gaffer tape carrier bags over hers because it was raining or because she was a lunatic, I’m not entirely sure. Instead of relying on your fellow drivers to see you in their mirrors, it is customary to beep the shit out of your horn when overtaking and take responsibility for your own life by making it’s presence heard.
  3. Many places in town have no horn beeping signs. These are largely ignored.
  4. Horn beeping is not considered rude or something done in anger as it is in many other places in the world. However it is often rude and done in anger. It is also really annoying if you live anywhere near a road until your brain creates a natural filter to ignore it.
  5. Right of way is who pulls out first in front of the other, unless you are a bus.
  6. At busy times traffic cops will direct traffic at various junctions. They are largely ignored just as traffic lights are.
  7. Helmets must be worn by law but only if you are the driver – your wife, sister, four children and goat that are also traveling on your bike need not wear one.
  8. Paise gets you everywhere in matters involving traffic cops.
  9. Pot holes, pot holes everywhere. And cows. And pedestrians with death wishes.
  10. The existence of the pavement is another thing that is not really a concept, certainly not as an area for walking on anyway. Setting up a shop selling pani puri, corn specialist treatment, place to tie up your goat/cow, or housing four generations of a family under a single piece of tarpaulin on the other hand….
  11. Transvestites clapping at traffic lights is a common sight, as are people selling all sorts of plastic crap and hot nuts, people with no legs on skateboards and small skinny children with big pleading eyes. They all want your money and they all break my heart when I see them.

Mumbai Public Transport (part 2)

view from Bandra skywalk

I spent a good twenty minutes this morning trying to get an auto rickshaw to stop and take me to work. Most sailed by already crammed with passengers. Out of three that did stop, two were hijacked by other commuters who acted as if I was invisible and certainly not in the decent way that I would have done if I saw someone trying to get in who had clearly been waiting a great deal longer than me (hhhhmmmpph!) The third just looked at me with certifiable eyes, shouted angrily “hundred rupees!!!!” and then drove off before I even had a chance to tell him no thanks I prefer the meter (which I knew would read 15 rupees only by the time I reached work).

The clock was ticking and I was now late for sure. Whilst thinking up my excuse and looking in the other direction I nearly got ploughed down by a scruffy looking auto. A passenger got out and I just jumped in immediately instead of the customary query to the driver asking if he would take me to my destination (a question which often produces a blank expression, followed by a shake of the head and a face that looks like you just asked to be taken to Mars, shortly before auto departing empty seated).

The driver turned round with a toothless grin and informed me “wait two minutes! Pray to gods!”

Despite my lateness I decided that this probably wasn’t a bad idea knowing what the roads of Mumbai were like – deathtraps at the best of times and that is even before you consider the traffic and other drivers! This is a city where right of way is given to he who pulls out first, or simply drives in front of you. This is a place where it is considered rude NOT to beep your horn, constantly, day or night – how else would other drivers know you are there otherwise? They would have to look in their mirrors or other such unsafe driving practices! God(s) willing is very much the law of the road here, where it is not uncommon to see a family of six balanced on a rusty old Enfield swerving round a cow. Recently my friend told me about a photo used for a press release of two guys and a donkey on a motorbike  – that stuff really does happen I kid you not! Just last week I saw a guy on a bike last week with his friend behind him desperately truing to balance a car windscreen in-between them. Of course many people are forced to travel from A to B with whatever bulky, bizarre or dangerous goods in whatever manner they can afford, however unsafe. However I am certain that many of the people I see on the roads here doing strange and precarious things are actually just plain mental…!

auto stuck in traffic

Mumbai Public Transport (part 1)

on the Western Railway

Mumbai, like any major city has it’s fair share of amusing characters lurking around it’s public transport system. Yesterday morning a toothless, crazy eyed but well dressed (and clearly bonkers) elderly gentleman spent a good ten minutes until my train arrived trying to persuade me to put my recently purchased and imminently to be eaten as soon as I set foot onto the train sandwich into a grubby looking carrier bag. He seemed to speak perfect English but persistently failed to understand why I could possibly want to eat my sandwich and not put it into his kindly offered plastic receptacle, much to the amusement of the platform of waiting commuters. In the end I accepted his bag kindly thanking-him-sir, which seemed to make him ecstatically happy and off I trotted, or rather fought my way tooth and claw along with the teeming masses onto the western railway train.

That evening returning home, cardboard tube of bhel in hand I was complimented by a friendly lady on how ‘Indianized’ I had become. Not aware that this was a point for congratulations I quizzed her on what on earth she meant. Apparently she was impressed by my ability to force myself through the wall of people onto the train and deftly take the ‘fourth seat’ (a kind of half bottom perch on the end of a row of seats clearly only built for three) ushering the current occupants to move up with a shooing hand gesture that would almost certainly be considered rude in my native Britain. I rather like the Indian no nonsense approach to communication with complete strangers though, and although it felt a little odd at first I had embraced blunt directness. Other points the lady noted with glee were they way i was shoveling the bhel down my throat, raw chilies and all. Also the green glass bangles jangling on my wrists- a Hindu badge of motherhood and one I wore proudly. Apparently she took great delight in the novelty of seeing a foreigner adopting local quirks and customs and just looked confused when I pointed out how Westernized many Indians were as a juxtaposition. Somehow this parallel didn’t produce the same joyous reaction, It stuck me how for many the customs and traditions of the West were seen, at least by the largely Catholic community who had adopted them, as preferable, at the very least more modern and advanced in some way. For me, who takes great delight in Indian fashion and food as an antidote to our bland and dull Western counterparts, the whole thing strikes me as bizarre. For Indian women diamantes and sequins are everyday wear and this is something I wholly approve of!

Going back to the lady on the train I guess what she was really getting at was how comfortable I seemed in an environment that at times was a little hostile to foreigners. Most days I am the only foreigner I see all day and I certainly cannot recall ever sharing a train carriage with one. The stares you get can verge on intimidating, as are the Cowboy movie style silences that fall as you enter a crowded room sometimes. A thick skin and strong stomach are prerequisites for an ex-pat living a ‘normal’ life in Mumbai, un-insulated from the general population due to lack of cars and drivers, high paid job with a foreign company and British husband to deflect unwanted advances by men that believe white skin equals loose morals. Most Indians I meet question why on earth I would want to leave my so-called comfortable life in England to share their hardship on The Western railway.

My final and most disturbing encounter of recent was this morning in Bandra station. I paused for a moment to get my East-West bearings and a man stopped and wished me a lovely holiday and a safe trip. I smiled and explained I wasn’t a tourist but lived here. At first he failed to absorb this information and once again said he hoped I enjoyed my vacation. After repeating my thanks ‘but no really I live here,’ he looked appalled and told me to leave India as it was not safe anymore and how dangerous the country had become. As he walked off I wondered if it was unwise to write him off in the same crazy category as Mr carrier bag man? Surely so, after all – people say the same about parts of London. Was his opinion a more paranoid version of the lady from the night before – shock that a foreigner (especially a woman) could, or would want to fit in here? Was it based on an idealised view of the West coupled by an Indian media hype on the recent rape in Dehli?

Sitting this evening nestled in the bosom of the ladies carriage on the Borivali slow train I feel right at ease and perfectly safe, lulled into the serenity that the familiarity of public transport produces, especially when the carriage heaves a collective sigh of satisfaction when the train pulls into that inevitable end-of-the-line station known to them as ‘home.’