Give and Take in Mumbai

Bombay Commuter Train

Our morning and evening commute from and back to the central Bombay suburb of Mulund on the local trains is, as they say, quite a trip. Think of the Tokyo subways during rush-hours, with their legendary “pushers” to shove people into the trains so the doors will close. Then remind yourself that the Japanese are the most order-loving people in Asia; India thrives on chaos. And the doors on the Bombay trains do not close, ever. I have ridden on commuter lines in both cities. For intimacy, nothing beats the trains of Bombay.

It is not uncommon to have four or five bodies pressed against one’s torso simultaneously; and yesterday I counted six, at one point. At least one stays warm on the ride. Really warm.

On yesterday morning’s train, I was sure that one might hear the sound of snapping rib cages, as bodies crushed bodies beyond their load-bearing capacities – if only the din of the train itself were not so deafening.

Getting all these sardines on and off the trains at their intended stops is no mean feat. It helps that the Bombay commuter trains have no doors, although this also contributes to the 15 passenger deaths the local rail experiences, on average, each week. The iconic image of the Bombay commuter train is of five or six guys hanging from every open doorway. The trains pass each other at close distances, and electrical poles are often dangerously near the human mass that bulges from the doorways.

The scrum to get off and on a crowded train must be experienced to be believed. It is every dog for himself. It is chaotic, and violent, and dangerous. It is a bit like any other sport: winning is always a question of who wants it the most.

Almost all the passengers on the commuter trains are actually trying to get somewhere. Unlike the Paris metro, where it sometimes seems like three-out-of-four passengers is there simply to take advantage of prime pick-pocketing opportunities. (Twice I have seen guys get wallets snatched in Paris – and once I was actually able to prevent it.) This is not to say that the nasties are not drawn to the Bombay trains; it’s just that they prefer to do their work in the entry scrum, rather than actually taking a trip.

I lost my watch in the scrum a few days ago. It was ripped right off my wrist. Two of my fellow passengers “saw the guy”; but like me, they were helpless to do anything about it. Once you have committed your body to the rip-tide of the scrum, changing direction is not an option.

I liked that watch; so did everyone else – including, apparently, the thief in the scrum. Oh well.

In truth, losing my watch was no big deal. I continue to launch myself into the scrum twice a day, without a second thought. The people who ride “second class” know that these things happen sometimes; but they also know that most people are honest and that these incidents are rare. One can ride in the “first class” for nine-times the fare, but scarcely more comfort. But the real “first class” of Bombay don’t ride the trains at all. They drive – or, their drivers drive them – in Tata Sumos and Mahindra Boleros and Toyota Quaalises.

Our dear friend Rajiv Thakker is, by any measure, “first class.” He and his father, the wonderful Gandhian Babubhai Thakker, have been making our Friends Without Borders project click by letting us treat their office – and their broadband – as our own. Rajiv is a man so generous and so hospitable that the very instant we met, he whisked us into a taxi, took us to his favorite restaurant, got us a table, ordered for us, and then ran off for his next meeting.

Rajiv is not a rail-rider; and I never should have told him that I lost my watch. Leave aside the well-meaning lectures this disclosure has subjected me to, the generosity has nearly killed me.

At dinner on the evening of the incident, Rajiv’s lovely eleven year old boy announced that he was giving me one of his watches. What followed was a string of Omega and Cartier offerings from Jai and Rajiv that I could never in a million years wear, much less accept as a gift. Eventually, they understood my reservations and hit upon the perfect present: a Chinese-made pocket watch stamped from the finest aluminum in all of Asia. As Jai points out, it will be safe in my pocket while I ride the trains.

watch Jai and Hriday Thakker
My new time-piece (left) and my patron, Jai Thakker, with younger brother Hriday,
displaying letters at the recent Friends Without Borders press conference.

My morning commute my not be very comfortable, but at least I know I’m arriving for my meetings on time, thanks to my eleven year old benefactor.

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