Chronicles of the 7:33-Churchgate-Fast Rat

Puja Birla loves to travel by train, in Bombay and outside. She has worked as a journalist in an English-language daily in Bombay and New Delhi and has some intention of becoming a writer. She is currently completing a second MFA in Literary Translation at The University of Iowa.

Men write fiction and nonfiction about the cities of the world. Perhaps this is a generalization but when I began rummaging for a woman’s perspective — sustained through an entire book in the English language — on any one city, I couldn’t lay my hands on any titles. Wonderful, exasperating Bombay gets described almost every year for several hundred pages bound within colorful artwork and it’s the men who are doing the describing. Suchetu Mehta’s Maximum City or Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, both well researched and entertaining, are the most recent examples of male perspectives sitting pretty on book shelves. Constituting almost half of the city’s population, women haven’t presented their ‘take’ on Bombay yet.

I don’t disagree with the male stories but there are definitely more, other varieties of things to note about Bombay; some uniquely female. This essay, about the metonymic local train, is about women, about Bombay, about being a ‘Bombayite.’ Those of us who live or have lived in cities across the world share the stories with women of the Bombay locals; share a daily grind, a pre-packaged struggle that is annoying and exhilarating, crushing and freeing, at the same time.

Puja Birla on train.

It is time to take the test, plunge into the moving train and get the window seat in season. A crisp, clean morning in September, I am preparing to jump into the 7:33-Churchgate-fast, ladies, second-class compartment after being an attentive bystander for two months. This is worse than taking a national exam or standing on stage in front of a thousand people. One misstep and I could die or maim myself for life.

Platform number two pullulates with hundreds of black-haired heads, some moving, some still; some tilted, some bowed, more and more joining the sea from the narrow deltas of overhead footbridges connecting the outside to the station’s interior. All these people are going to board the 7:33, some getting into the crowded Bombay train before it comes to a complete stop. The rush a form of Darwinian natural selection and daily way of life for almost half the people in this city of 14 million.

This stop is the last one for the train before it begins its southbound run. It will halt here, at Borivali, for three minutes, maybe four. For two months I have been a mousy commuter, scared to be in the way. It’s not easy trying to get inside with 200-odd women at the same time; 200 women pushing through the same door, fighting for a particular window seat, for a—debatably—comfortable 50-minute ride to the business districts of Bombay. Even if I had the courage and jumped in for the window seat, I would have women stepping on my toes all the way to downtown Bombay where my undergraduate college is located; 50 minutes of tightly-pressed spines, cramped legs and squashed toes. When I first moved to the city, I thought it insane to have a grand plan simply to board a train.

The moment the train comes into view all casualness seeps out from the postures of women standing around me. In 45 seconds the train will come to a halt; in 45 seconds it’ll be over; either I will be inside the train or horizontal on the platform; or, if natural selection is not one bit interested in adding me to the gene pool, I’ll be lying broken and contorted between the train and the tracks, a position impossible to achieve without external intervention or extreme suppleness.

45 seconds. Women standing in the middle of the platform ease toward the edge. They don’t push or shove; they find an open space and curve their bodies to occupy it.

40 seconds. No space left along the edge of the platform. The women on this side wrap their scarves and sari pallus tightly around them.

35 seconds. Some women remove their wristwatches and toss them into their bags or jam them into back pockets, others pull their long sleeves to cover the fiberglass dial.

30 seconds. Sunglasses removed from the eyes, from the tops of heads. Eyeglasses resting snugly between ample cleavages put in their cases.

25 seconds. Women wearing large hoop earrings take the lower end of the hoop and tuck it behind their ears. Nothing should encumber the jump.

20 seconds. The grip on bags, purses tightens.

15 seconds. One hand clutches the pleats of the sari.

10 seconds. The first row has pounded, bounded, stepped up and run into the compartment, making a split-second decision on where to sit.

5 seconds. More women push in. For a moment, everything freezes; there is force and counter-force as everyone tries to get through the door at the same time. Only for a moment and then everyone is inside.

The train has come to a complete stop.

Hardly any black-haired heads remain on the platform. A few people trickle out of the train and climb the footbridges taking them outside the station. I manage to squeeze in.

If riding the train requires so much strategy, what is living like in this city?


The suburban train in Bombay is called “local” by the locals and is everything its European or American counterpart is not. It runs on ground level and doesn’t have the sleek metallic look of subway trains in the West. The local is bulky—almost fat—and painted red and yellow, unless some soap company has paid for an advertisement. Then the entire nine or twelve coach train is lime green or brick red. The windows always open; in fact, sometimes it is difficult to shut them, which makes the window seat a clear disadvantage during the monsoon. The seats span the width of the compartment and face each other.

Like windows, doors remain open at all times too; no swishing, motion-detecting, automatic doors for them. The local would never leave a station if it had automatic doors; how would the doors close with hundreds of people hanging onto the train from the central pole dividing the wide doorway and from the overhead handholds?

Trains in San Francisco or Washington, DC creep quietly into the station and let out a sharp ding if an unsuspecting passenger ventures too close to the edge of the platform. The Bombay local gasps, sways, rocks and heaves, letting out rude foghorn belches as it enters the station. It can be heard before it pulls in.


The local’s compartments are divided into ‘ladies’ and ‘general.’ Women would not commute in Bombay if the locals didn’t have a ‘ladies’ compartment. To be packed tightly with other women is bearable but to be squashed together with men is to be avoided at all costs. Bombay’s locals have gender bubbles so women don’t have to worry about undesirable male attention. They can travel in the ‘gents’ — also called general — compartments but men are not allowed in the ladies.

The locals are segregated into first and second class too so real ladies and gents don’t have to travel with the riff-raff, although, during rush hours, all nine or twelve compartments of the local are choking with human bodies and it is difficult to tell the first class apart from the others.

The suburban stations have several open entrances and, theoretically, it’s possible to travel without a ticket. But most of the people stand in line to buy tickets or have season passes. Ticket checkers move around the platforms and on the locals, just your luck if you are caught without a ticket. The fine can be up to 500 rupees (~$11) for a journey that costs 16.

Midway to downtown Bombay, the local, about five city blocks in length, will be stuffed with almost 5000 people against its original carrying capacity of 1700. The bureaucracy officially calls the rush hour crowd, “super dense crush load.” The commuters, symbolic of Bombay’s passion for thrifty expressions, have one word for it: gardi, literally meaning crowd; depending on the cadence, it could denote anything from mild discomfort to the outrageous pouring in of colorful, perspiring, determined individuals; thrown together like harvested onions and potatoes in a gunnysack, tied and swung this way and that, much to the horror of visitors from Delhi and Dubai, Bangalore and New York.

Bombay is shaped like three claws of a wild animal, with the sharp tips pointing southwards. The railway lines are the muscular labyrinth; the locals speeding up and down for 22 out of 24 hours every day of every week, every year. The city lives in the north and works in the south, necessitating a daily migration from the body to the claw-tips.


The first time I jump into the 7:33 while it is still moving, I manage a ‘good’ standing spot; like window corners, standing sites can be good, best avoided or, simply, undesirable. I usually have the undesirable spots because I’m short. My nose is mostly at the level of armpits. I smell talcum powder mixed with cheap perfumes, mixed with the sweaty smell of whatever was consumed for dinner the previous night.

When I look out from my spot, the sky seems overcast or, perhaps, the closely stuck bodies have stopped light from entering. The monsoon should have been on its way out. This year it has overstayed its welcome. Each day we in Bombay think it has gone for good and it turns up in torrents. I like this light from the overcast sky; it is the kind that helps me locate details, not blinding like the harsh summer sun.

There are advertisements on the inside walls of the compartments; small poster-sized prints singing the praises of sex therapists, Reiki gurus, the Indian railway and everything in between. ‘Rest in peace tonight’ advises the Tortoise anti-Mosquito Coil; a mosquito-free night’s sleep for 45 rupees. ‘Quick and painless’ assures an abortion clinic’s ad copy. ‘Only for 90 rupees. Be home in two hours,’ it adds. That’s a dollar for sleep and two for an abortion. Baba Bengali promises to help with personal and professional problems, euphemistically referring to the lack of sex and/or gainful employment.

The dull yellow paint is peeling from the interior walls; there’s an abundance of the generic, importuning graffiti scribbled at eye level, head level: ‘Sonia loves Rahul’; ‘For good sex call 3017984, between 1-5 pm’. The wooden seats and iron handholds are sturdy, polished from constant contact. They seem to be eternal, like rocks, made from an industrial strength that the force of a hundred charging bulls cannot twist or crack.

And the women who jump into the local are like charging bulls. None of us would have thought when we first started commuting in Bombay that we would pounce on seats and push and poke. The first few weeks are stupefying. Everyone around us is doing it while we watch open-mouthed. Then we, the greenhorns, join in. That’s the only way to survive.

It isn’t so much by choice we stick together in Bombay. Perhaps it has to do with the pulverizing crush of this cluttered city where my kitchen window might open into your bedroom; where survival so often depends on a stranger’s unexpected generosity. When you are running to catch a train to get to work on time and that train is pulling out of the station in front of your eyes, five hands extend towards you, urging you to clasp at least one so you can be pulled aboard. As the train picks up speed, you are heaved into an embrace. There is not a square inch of space left inside the compartment or next to the doors; yet these hands have pulled you in; given you a sliver of foothold on the edge of the train, to stand and catch your breath. There is a protective arm around your waist, your shoulder, ensuring that you don’t fall off.

The scene has been on a loop for decades, playing and replaying thousands of times everyday on the city’s crowded local trains. When the hands are extended, no one thinks whether you are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Parsi. In Bombay, whatever your religion and social status, you have to take the train. You are just another person who has to reach office on time.


During the first monsoon lashing each year, the central, low-lying part of the city gets flooded and the locals cannot rocket on their north-south routes. In the morning, people still go to their respective suburban stations to make sure the locals are, indeed, not going beyond a certain point. There is a festive mood in the northern stations, bonhomie because of an unexpected holiday; a day off when the weather is perfect to sit with a steaming cup of chai, laced with ginger and cardamom, and stare at the tiny water channels going downhill at mad speeds against window panes. The southern tips of the city are deserted; the stations are hollow; the buses look purposeless. It’s a workday but the spirit of the city has decided to stay north.

Since I began taking the 7:33 two months back, I spot others who are regular passengers, women I exchange smiles with, looks and nods. I’m making ‘train’ friends, people I see only on the 7:33 and with whom I have little conversation but they share snacks with me... after jostling me out of the way in our mad scramble to get inside.

“What you doing! Go in na,” is said in all the languages spoken in Bombay while elbows poke and prod; hands grab and hips grind to push and make way. Even though Marathi is the language in the state government’s paperwork, the use of expletives is largely a mix, in Hindi—or a dialect called Bambaiya Hindi—and Gujarati—including the differently accented Gujarati that Parsis speak. Tamil, Telugu and Kannada—south Indian languages—are used less frequently to vent irritation since they are not widely spoken among the motley mass of women trying to get on the local. English, even when it’s not spoken is understood and used to goad people but real, extreme exasperation can only be expressed in the most colorful cuss words of the dialects of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—northern and eastern states of India—and get thrown together in times and places such as getting into the 7:33 Churchgate fast local.

Make space men. How you hogging like this! Blind or what?

Please adjust yaar. I can’t hang out like this. You think I’m hanger or what.

Pregnant women are treated kindly, royally even. Seats are given up and in summer these could be window seats so that the harried women get some air to breathe and stay afloat. The rest of us swap elbows and expletives.

Once everyone has settled, groups of ‘train’ friends begin chatting like they’ve all met for chai and biscuits. They talk about their bosses and husbands, mothers-in-law and servants, neighbors and colleagues, the government and others in the compartment sitting next to them, across from them, two rows away from them. Special snacks are passed around along with gossip and photographs of a recent vacation or a new baby. Those who have seats in the beginning get up midway through the commute and let others—the standees—sit. When the overhead storage racks are full, women who are seated offer to place heavy bags on their laps. The local will stop at four stations after Borivali before it becomes a ‘fast’ train. At each of these stations more women get in, even though there seems little space left in the compartment.

Go in na! Don’t have brains?

I’m hanging yaar. You think I’m a hanger? Can’t see or what?

Some of the new commuters are greeted with enthusiasm and, out of thin air, extra space is created for them, their bags and paraphernalia are taken care of so they can stand comfortably. They belong to some or the other group of ‘train’ friends.

The local picks up speed. Heads loll, eyes roll. Women read, nap, talk and shift their weight. We can hear the loud singing of bhajans and other devotional songs from the gents or general compartments where groups trade piety for decibels. The clanging of manjiras, local cousins of hand cymbals, keeps beat with the train wheels clanking against the thick metal rails.

Train groups are formed when women commuters see each other at the same time on the same train day after day in the morning or the evening. After a time they begin nodding and smiling at each other. Questions like where you live, what you do, bring the women together and soon they are saving a seat for each other. Presence and visibility are important in making and sustaining train groups. If you don’t see each other regularly, it’s difficult to bond across train timings and window seats. Many women who don’t have a fixed train or travel at different times on different days never become part of any train group.


In the afternoons, poor women and children hawk all sorts of unnecessary knick-knacks in the local. Hair clips, elastic bands, key chains, night suits, underwear, gold-plated jewelry, bindis, dry foods, handkerchiefs, bed-sheets, cheap make up. This kind of hawking takes place only in the ‘ladies’ compartments, especially in the second class. The first class commuters are real ladies, not much interested in cheap imitations. Or they are students who get a 50 percent discount on the season pass but have no pocket money to buy these things. I’m one of those discount first class commuters but I seesaw between getting a first class pass and a second class quarterly, depending on demand and supply of money in my life.

I finish with my classes around three and that’s why travel back home in the afternoon when the local is divested of sweaty armpits and squashed bodies. I stretch, take off my shoes or sandals and put up my feet on the facing seats. Even if a window seat is unoccupied, I don’t rush to grab it. It holds no appeal in the face of zero competition. Most of the other women are napping so I stare around boldly; sneer at ugly moles with two long hair sprouting from inner cores; smirk at hairy upper lips and dried snot sticking to nose-rims. As the train speeds between the ‘slow’ stations, I sway in rhythm to its motion; the napping women sway and rock too, their breasts heaving in sync.

Updown updown right. Updown updown left.

If these breasts were eyes, the women would be described as shifty. I laugh aloud at this thought. I think I’m being cruel; flat-chested and cruel.


At a tea stall on one of the stations where the local stops on my 21-mile ride back home, the owner has installed fountain Pepsi. While Coca Cola and Pepsi have been around for a few years, FP and FM—as the TV commercial sings of fountain Pepsi and fountain Mirinda—is a new phenomenon. There are three drinks, three colors to choose from: burnt-brown Pepsi, suspiciously-orange Mirinda and clear 7up. The ‘ladies’ compartment stops next to the tea stall. My ‘train’ friend and I keep the change ready—five rupees for a cup—and before the local comes to a halt, we jump and spit out our orders. “One FP; one FM.” After the first time, the man behind the counter knows we will get back on the train with our cups before it leaves 12 seconds later. He hurries; we slap a 10-rupee note—chhota Gandhi—on the counter and walkrun to our coach, careful to keep the cup at arm’s length. If there’s another friend traveling with us, we order all the three Pepsi drinks the stall has. We can’t have two cups of the same flavor because it can’t be tapped out simultaneously and if it’s not poured at the same time, it takes more than 12 seconds for two cups of FP. We have no intention of missing our train. Our bags are inside; that’s part of the thrill.

Each time we get off, our varying co-passengers holler to our disappearing backs. “AIIEEEEE, HELLO; YOUR BAG. You forgot your bag.” When they see us hurrying back triumphantly, the liquid in the cups dancing expectantly on the brim, they look, in turn, sheepish, defensive, disapproving. “I thought you were getting down without your bag. What stunts you people do, huh?” But on a parched afternoon, while we slurp a cold drink, all they have is saliva. The women purse their lips in censure.

One woman says we should send this idea to Pepsi for them to make a TV commercial. She says we might get paid a lot of money because Pepsi is a rich company looking for original ideas and this one sure looks unique. I dream of all the movies I haven’t seen, all the books and clothes I can’t buy but before I second the woman’s proposal, my ‘train’ friend tells her she’d never write to Pepsi. “After seeing such a commercial on TV, every kid will try this out. What if something bad happens, like an accident? I don’t want to be an irresponsible citizen. I’m educated.”

After five days of buying FP daily, the tea-stall owner keeps the cupfuls ready. He smiles, confident we’ll appreciate his initiative. But it’s not the same thing. When he does it the first time, we are too surprised to react, aware that our bags are still in the local and someone is calling out from the train, reminding us that our bags are still in the local. We don’t say anything on that first day. But the next time we tell him we don’t want the pre-poured drinks.

“Start the tap only when we come,” I say, “otherwise we won’t buy it.”

“But this way you’ll save time,” the owner says.

“But this way isn’t fun,” I say.

“And what if we don’t come one day or come on a later train or an earlier one?” my ‘train’ friend asks. We leave empty-handed. The next day, the effervescence rises only after the chhota Gandhi is handed to the owner.


The train arriving on platform number three is a 12-coach, fast local for Borivali. This local will not stop between Bombay Central, Dadar, Bandra…

… the PA system at the downtown Churchgate station doesn’t get a breather during the morning and evening peak hours. Information about locals arriving and departing on different platforms is announced twice, in three different languages, first Marathi, then Hindi and finally in English.

There are times when I return in the evenings when the poking and cussing is worse. The same women, who go to Churchgate in the morning, travel back in the evening but at the end of the day they are desperate to get home in a way they are never frantic about getting to work. It is understandable for women to be a few minutes late for office—they have lunches to pack, parents-in-law to feed—but there is no excuse for them to run behind when returning home. Women, it seems, are conditioned to feel duty-bound to return home as soon as possible; it is a pre-requisite. The rush hour in the ‘ladies’ compartments is over by 7:30 in the evening.

The black-haired heads in Churchgate in the evening loom more menacingly than at Borivali in the morning. The sound from the PA system booms and crashes against the enormous concrete pillars and thousands of tired bodies waiting to get home. Churchgate is a huge-domed station with a cavernous opening on one side. Several halogen lights of the station seem like countless eyes in the face of a glowering ogre. The echo from the PA system becomes the rumbling reverberation of the angry beast.

The train arriving on platform number two is a nine-coach, slow local for Borivali. This local will stop…

The jumping into the local is a repeat of the morning performance but in the evening, there’s no mercy. Caring, nurturing, soft and submissive women are transformed into aggressive champion wrestlers. Doe-eyes, olive skins, svelte figures in elegant garb push and cuss for 45 seconds before the train comes to a halt. Fat women defy locomotive laws governing the speed and dexterity of the sluggish and lunge into the local. Perhaps natural selection has already done a cleansing; what I see around me are the fittest women in the city with the fastest reflexes. If it’s after 4:30, I don’t even try to get on the ‘double fast’ train. “Super dense crush load” will make a concentrate out of me.

The ‘gents’ compartments are crowded till 10 in the night but the peak traveling starts later. The men are nonchalant in the evening. They meet friends; go out for a drink. I know some who work late to avoid the rush hour altogether, reaching home three hours after their wives even though the work day ended at the same time for both of them.

The train arriving on platform number one is a 12-coach Ladies’ Special. This local will stop at all stations. Gents are requested not to…

Once the women have taken their seats and standing spots, others enter; those who sell the evening news rags in different languages, who sell snacks and the latest gossip magazines. Wares are thrust under chins and pitched in loud voices.

Middaymiddaymidday, newspaper midday
Garam garam samosa
Peanuts for time pass

Some women have already dozed off before the local is out of Churchgate. They will be shaken awake several times and asked in sign language –a minimal shake of the right hand, horizontal and palm-side up—Where you getting off? The dreamer will feign irritation and reply in the same language—a dismissive gesture with the right hand—Last.

Sometimes the questioner will strike lucky because the dreamer is getting off before, much before, the final stop. Then she will smile at the seated woman and point her index finger, first at herself and then at the woman, swinging her head like a dancer all the while—give me the seat when you leave it.

The women who don’t nap, read, do the crossword or chop vegetables in preparation for dinner; some stare in space and some try to sleep standing; some listen to music on their walkman; invariably, the treble leaks out through the earphones, earning the blissfully unaware listener aggrieved looks and sounds from her neighbors.

Along the middle stations, women get off and new passengers get in. In 12 seconds 50-odd women get off the local and a similar number climbs in to take their place. A sign, painted next to the door on the outside and inside of the local says, ‘Allow passengers to alight first’. In the face of tremendous, equal, opposite force, five to six seconds are lost; the deadlock breaks only because desperate wivesmothersdaughtersinlaw have to get off at that station and they push like they would during labor.

’m stuck in the middle of this standstill, solid human sea. I hold on to an overhead support but there’s really no need. There’s no way I can lose my balance and fall down; there’s no place to fall. I crane my neck; the armpits are nauseating. When I look up, a print ad on the interior metal wall catches my eye. ‘Indian Railway: 150 years of bringing people together’.


The crowded second class makes me step into the ladies first class compartment. I have my pass and tonight I’m at the end of a novel I want to finish on this ride. It’s not too late for me to travel although I notice only after the local picks up speed that I’m the only one in the compartment. Usually a railway constable travels in the ladies first and second class compartments after nine but he is missing from this coupé tonight. It’s a fast local and I begin reading my book, impatient to get to the end.

Within minutes I’m aware of being stared at. When I look up, a man in the adjoining compartment is leering at me. I have walked into a ‘video coach’ that has a mesh for a wall between the two compartments. He must have been the person I dimly registered running for the local after it had already picked up speed. I change my seat and sit with my back facing him, ready to pore into the book. He starts calling out obscenities to get my attention.

I read on.

Then there is silence from his side. I stop reading, wondering if he got tired of trying.

And then I almost jump in my seat and reflexively turn around. The man is pulling violently at a crack in the mesh to widen the gap. For a moment our eyes meet. He wants me to understand what he is doing.

My first thought is he’ll never be able to pull it apart, let alone make a hole wide enough for him to pass through it. And then, as I’m staring hard at his efforts, the mesh gives out by two or three inches.

He grins.

The next station is seven minutes away. What does he think he is going to accomplish in seven minutes? Ironically, the metal wall I share with the ladies second class compartment is completely sealed; no windows or wire meshes between us.

I can’t call out for help.

I can’t pull the chain in-between stations. It wouldn’t serve me well. After all no one can enter my compartment to investigate. The floor of the compartments is more than five feet above ground and the compartments are not interconnected.

He calls out obscenities and touches himself.

I sit with my back to him. I look in my bag for the sharpest thing I might have and know, even while I rifle through that I don’t have anything more than a pen. The local is approaching Santacruz station. It won’t stop here. Less than six minutes before it stops at Andheri.

It seems as if he is crashing against the mesh using his whole weight. He’d have to be standing on the seats to do that. The local is swaying slightly because of its speed. How can he jump like this and still keep his balance? I don’t want to look in his direction and yet the image that he might be at my side the next moment is killing. Every time he heaves himself against the mesh, I feel my heart will pound out of my chest.

Why did I take this stupid compartment? It’s my fault. I invited this. Just because I wanted to read 20 dumb pages.

And then a dull thud. As the tracks change direction, curve slightly, the speeding local lurches a little more. My heart beat is louder than noise of the train but I hear him groan and curse. He is drunk.

Please take time, please take time, please take time, I chant softly.

The local whizzes past Vile Parle station. Less than three minutes.

He is back at the mesh, angry and more aggressive.

I look in his direction again. I tell myself that the gap hasn’t widened. The lewd gestures and comments continue.

My heart beats at the rate of the local’s iron wheels churning. I’m furious with myself for feeling like this. Do something. Do what? Can’t just sit there and feel scared. Oh, I should stand and face him, look him in the eye and shame him?

The local is slowing down. Please don’t stop. Occasionally fast trains stop half-a-kilometer outside Andheri station because they don’t get a clear signal. The local slows but doesn’t stop.

And then the tone of the comments changes. “Aiyee, chikni, aiyee smoothie. Scared you didn’t I? You can tell me… didn’t you have fun?”

I stand by the door. I’m going to change compartments and get into the second class. He keeps talking and asking for an answer. Even before the train comes to a complete stop, I jump out and run towards the second-class compartment. I’m carried inside along with the momentum of the crowd. I’m so glad to be ensconced between cotton and nylon saris and the smell of dried fish. I turn around and see him standing on the platform, next to the door.

“Bhenchod, sisterfucker,” I say loud enough for him to hear. He smiles. The women standing next to the door hear me, look at him, put two and two together and stare him down. In any case, they are a foot higher than him because the level of the platform is a foot lower than the local’s floor.

“Oye batata aankh, mummy ke pass ja, potato eyes, go to your mommy,” one of the women says to him. The local starts again. The next station—14 minutes away—is mine. The compartment is packed. I squat on the floor next to the woman who just spoke. “Pani, water?” she asks. I shake my head. She smiles and pats my head and stares outside where weak bulbs from the slums seem to be dancing in mid-air. A few minutes later, she turns back to me, perhaps to ensure that I’m doing fine. “Mulgi, chinta nako kara. Yethe aahe na mee. Girl, don’t worry. I’m here,” she says in Marathi.


It’s dad’s fiftieth birthday and I want to give him something special. I decide to knit him a woolen vest. But knitting requires long thick needles and room for the elbows to move. Where is the space on a local to move elbows and knitting needles, maneuver wool and fingers? Standing and knitting is out of the question. I have to stop each time the local stops—with a jerk—and then start again, as it wrenches us all from a restful moment.

When I sit and knit, my knitting needles poke women in their bare midriffs and ample bellies. There are tsk-tsks in my direction, loud whispers and constant, incoherent mumblings. If I’m sitting on the edge, next to the aisle, then the women moving in and out of the compartment flatten me; there are times when an elbow jams my needles and I lose a stitch.

“Sorry aunty,” I say.

“Why you have to knit here, when there are 500 women around you. Can’t wait or what? Want to wear this sweater tomorrow?”

“Not for me aunty; it’s for my dad. It’s his birthday; fiftieth. It’s a surprise present,” I say.

“Surprise you are making?”

I nod and smile a sickly sweet smile

“All alone you are making? You are a beautiful daughter. And what for mummy? Here, you shift in; it must be hard to knit with everyone banging into you every second.”

I move into a cocoon where I’m not compressed by the women coming in and getting out. When someone else lets out a tsk-tsk, the first woman turns around and defends me. “For her papa she is knitting; his fiftieth anniversary; surprise item.” This quells all disjointed grumblings around me. “Knit, knit; knit in peace. You are a very beautiful daughter.”

One evening, strangely, the local is not crammed with bodies and fabric. “Where is everyone today? Why no gardi?” someone asks, surprised she’s managed to walk into the compartment without jumping or shoving.

“Why ask such questions men; be happy na,” another responds.

“Aree yaar, I’m missing the gardi.” The first one says.

“You are mad men. Why you missing all the gardi?”

“If there’s no gardi, how will I get my evening massage? When there is too much crowd, I get a nice massage, free also, and when I get home, I’m all fresh. But today…” We indulge in a fit of giggles. Someone examines my knitting and says my stitches are loose. “Do tighter, that way, it’ll be warmer.”

Traveling in a local is a challenge, in a city that confronts her people at every corner. The test begins with getting into the train and ends only when the commuter gets off. If the task is easily accomplished, it can’t be fun. If there is no struggle involved, no strain, can it really be a remarkable achievement to live in Bombay? Perhaps the commuters of the locals share this with city dwellers across the world, a desire for complication in the minutiae of life, something that gives us a sense of beating another day.


For two years now I’ve been a regular on the 7:33. I don’t know any of the names but I recognize my regular aunties. They are all working women, close to my mother’s age. If someone is missing one day, I send an inquiring smile her way the next. “Where were you yesterday? Everything OK?” my smile asks. “Got late; took the next one,” her smile says in answer.

One day, as I am putting on my earrings in the ‘ladies’ compartment, a screw slips out of my fingers and falls on the dark floor; a tiny gold screw lost in the soft falls of silk and cotton saris and scarves and leather shoes and sandals.

“Shit!” I say. Maa is going to kill me for this.

“What happened?” someone asks.

“I lost the screw of my earring. It is gold,” I say.

“Well, who told you to wear your earring here, in the middle of so much gardi?”

“What am I going to do now? My mother will kill me,” I say.

“She should. Today’s children need to learn the value of these things.”

“What do I do? Aunty, please help me,” I say to a woman I see almost every morning and who always scrunches up her hair in a tight bun.

Aunty-in-a-tight-bun launches into a proper search calling on the other women. But there are too many feet, too much fabric. The train will arrive at my station in five minutes. An obese Parsi woman from aunty-in-a-tight-bun’s group tries to help but her ample proportions hamper more than aid.

“Dilshaad, you stand in one corner. Let the thin ones search. If you bend, there is no light on the floor,” she orders.

I am on my knees, feeling the floor with my hand and only accumulating dust. “Someone give this poor girl a tissue so that she doesn’t get her hands dirty,” aunty-in-a-tight-bun yells to no one in particular. The tissue is produced but it doesn’t do much for my hunt.

“Don’t you get off at Marine Lines,” she asks. I nod. This is the last but one station on the southern tip of Bombay. “Here’s the plan. Meet me on the same train, same time, Monday”—it is a Friday—“and I will give it to you. After everyone gets off at Churchgate, I’ll look for it. I’m sure to find it,” she says.

That morning I don’t get off at Marine Lines and once the compartment empties at Churchgate we look for the screw again. The light is still not enough and I am ashamed of holding back the women. They all have to sign in at their offices before nine if they wanted to avoid a ‘late’ mark. I urge them to leave and they do. I am on my knees again and within a second I spot the elusive screw. It is under the seat, not very far. I rush to the door to see if the women—my aunties—have gone too far on the other end of the platform.

“Aunteeeee” I screech.

Five heads turn, my aunties’ heads. I hold up two fingers, my thumb and index, linked together with the screw. “I found it.”

They clap and cheer. Some people look at us, but most others are in their own world, bracing themselves for another day.


At the end of platform number one on every station on the entire network, there is a room with a dull metal door that usually remains locked. There is no official name for the room but invariably someone scribbles, in one language or another on the door or its surrounding walls, Dead Body Room; appropriately, in red paint. The contents or activities associated with the room are not a secret. More than 3000 people die each year in Bombay in some train-related accident. Either they fall off the train because it is so crowded or they lose balance after being hit by an electric pole or tree branches; or they are run over while crossing the tracks at a level crossing.

I see a body for the first time at a station after I’ve been commuting for almost three years. It has been hurriedly arranged on a bloody stretcher and is not covered well. The local has stopped for more than five minutes. It only means one thing: man under. I look out of the window and before I realize it, I’m staring at a human leg that has somehow been flattened into a giant potato chip with minimum splattering of blood and tissue. As two men carry the stretcher towards the “dead body room,” thick drops of blood dot the platform, looking like globs of cranberry sauce.

How could he not have seen this gargantuan reptile, 11 feet tall, snaking its way towards him? Why did he think he could cross the tracks before he could be touched, gnarled, pulped by this 50-ton fast-moving heap of solid metal? How will the train’s driver—the motorman—eat dinner tonight? How will he sleep? Or has this happened often, too often? I look around the compartment.

Women around me mutter a prayer for the dead man. Some make the sign of a cross, some touch their hands to their ear lobes and some just join their hands and bow their heads. Not a squeak about the delay; not a single eyebrow raised. This could have been any of us, given the way we board and get off the locals and travel hanging on to the doors.