Next station, Churchgate

Nowhere on earth is there a higher population density than on the 8:20am Virar-Churchgate local. The per square inch pressure experienced in the second class compartment is higher than found in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean. The locals – as the Mumbai suburban trains are popularly known – collectively carry a population equal to that of Switzerland. Daily. It is no wonder then that the locals are known as the lifeline of Mumbai. In the morning, people get in, fresh and healthy like red blooded tomatoes. In the evening they drag themselves back peeling off on the way like wilted cabbages. Like arteries of a living organism, they transport people to and fro tirelessly. And any rupture in this circulatory system can put the city in a medical emergency. No wonder why citizens go berserk any time there is a major deviation from the norm, be it in terms of train timings or in the fares.

Although travelling by local trains may be the fastest way to commute, it is not the most comfortable way to do so. This is because like everything else in Mumbai, there is a severe mismatch in the supply and the demand. Each train is filled with hundreds of passengers more than it was designed for. This means that each local train is a highly pressurised container where the slightest physical or verbal infraction can cause a sudden outburst of rage among the passengers. Fights are frequent, arguments even more common. Inspired by the capacity of a Mumbai local, Walmart and Big Bazaar have conducted secret studies on local trains to understand and replicate how so many people can be packed in such a small space. This, they say, would result in huge savings in warehouse spaces.

In a Mumbai local, people hold on to whatever they can – greasy handle bars, broken seats, or even other passengers, to keep themselves from toppling like dominoes with every lurch of the train. It is a Herculean task to survive that forty-five or so minutes to their station. Once their destination arrives, the ordeal ends and out they flow with other passengers on to the streets. But for those forty five minutes, the train is their home, a dense cloud of people, their conversations and their bodily excretions – sweat and farts mostly. The daily commute of Mumbaikars is the real Mumbai Marathon, in which millions participate every day, covering distances much more than forty kilometres, in the hope of reaching that ever elusive finish line.

The Mumbai middle class truly grows up with the local train. The day you can recite all the stations in the correct order from one end of the line to the other is when you have achieved puberty. It is said that you stay a virgin until you have travelled in one of the local trains. In a second class compartment. In rush hour. Many families still consider this as part of the initiation rituals for children. There are different levels to be cleared, failing which the child may even be exiled from the family. The levels vary in difficulty, starting with the easiest level, which is travelling without a ticket. And the most difficult. Getting on to a Churchgate-Virar local from Dadar and then get down at Borivali. Many people undertake months of rigorous training to complete this task.

In fact there is a viable business opportunity in Mumbai for classes which teach newbies the art of travelling in the Mumbai locals. Who knows maybe one day, some of the IIT-JEE coaching classes or the flight-attendant training academies may introduce this as one of their courses.

Western, Central or Harbour

The Mumbai suburban train network is spread across three routes. The first one is called the Western Line. It runs from Churchgate in the south to Dahanu Road to the north.[However people need to change trains at Virar.] The second line is the Central Line which runs from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (a sister station to Churchgate) and branches off in three directions ending in three stations – Kalyan, Kasara and Khopoli. The Harbour Line starts from CST as well but doesn’t really go anywhere. If and when the trains do run on this line, they do so with utmost laziness and without a care in the world.

“Where the hell are the seats?” -First time traveller on the Mumbai locals

The local train is around 9 to 12 coaches long. A few of the coaches are reserved for women while the rest are split for the general public into First Class and Second Class compartments. With a frequency of every few minutes, trains make multiple trips daily carrying lakhs of passengers from their homes and back.

At this point, if you’re new to Mumbai, you might be a little excited in starting to think what could possibly be so difficult in travelling in a Mumbai local? After all, getting a First Class ticket is always an option, right? Wrong. First, the only difference between a First Class and a Second Class compartment is how likely it is that you will be able to glance at the seats. Not sit on them, mind you, glance at them. Think of the last pilgrimage you took where you stood in a long snaking queue, getting pushed ahead every now and then. The success of your pilgrimage depended solely on one factor, whether you were able to get a good look at the deity. Similar is the story on the Mumbai local. In the densely packed crowd of a typical compartment, people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to touch the seats, let alone sit on them.

Of course in the First Class compartment, you may get a chance to sit for the last few seconds or so before the train pulls in to the last stop. And some commuters, indeed, do not let go of even this brief opportunity at comfort, considering the expensive ticket which they have paid for. It is an altogether different story in the Second Class compartment. The Second Class has been so crowded with people throughout the day and night that no one has been able to see a seat in the last 4-5 years. Rumours are that the Railways has just removed all of the seats in the second class compartments, and no one has even noticed it.

People are so relieved at being able to get on to a local train that all other things are forgotten. Travelling in a local train reminds me of the sage advice of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Just do your duty. Do not think of the consequences.” I’m not sure if he had the Mumbai local in mind but it fits quite nicely with the situation. Your duty as a commuter is to push, shove and do just about everything to get yourself on the train. Everything else is secondary. For those who do have had the beautiful experience of travelling in a Mumbai local, let me take you through a typical journey in a Mumbai local. For the sake of continuity, imagine yourself getting down from that bus in the previous chapter. As soon as you get down, you weave through crowds towards the ticket counter. The queue for a Mumbai local is almost as long as the journey itself. At peak hours, it snakes out of the actual ticket room, onto the street and back to the ticket room. Mumbai – a city where people queue up even for a ticket to hell. For the next few minutes of your life, you patiently wait in the queue guarding your position and preventing people from trying to cut the queue. You see a lot of those, people trying to cut through the queue. The first excuse is always that they did not realise that there was a long queue. Sometimes it is a made-up emergency. But it is not that easy to break the queue in Mumbai. The rest of the passengers already standing in the queue, with their pitchforks, ensure that order is maintained at least before getting into the train.

But there is yet another group of people who will brazenly ignore the queue, walk up to the ticket window, and thrust their hands directly into the small opening, demanding for a ticket. These are not relatives of politicians or other VIPs. These are the demi-gods of the Mumbai locals, the first-class passengers. Although women do not have a separate queue for tickets, first class passengers do. It is easy to identify these passengers from far away, from their chubby fingers filled with gold rings. Treat them with deference, and if you can find some space, bow down before them. They have earned their right to pay more to travel in the same amount of chaos.

The snake dance

If you are new to Mumbai, sometimes you will see people standing in the queue for tickets doing some kid of a strange snake dance. This is not some esoteric Hindu ritual to get tickets faster but simply that time of the day when the clerk at the ticket counter leaves for lunch. At the exact moment when a “Closed” sign comes up at one counter, another ticket counter opens. And what you’re seeing is the whole queue shifting to this counter. At this brief moment of chaos, you have a chance of improving your position in the queue. But you have to be quick. The disintegration of the queue from one ticket window and its magical reappearance in front of the other window is almost instantaneous. If you’re not quick, you’ll find yourself starting from the back of the queue again.

As a result, by the time you get a ticket you are already late. You’ll have to catch the fast train again. So you grab the ticket and run up the footbridge towards the platforms where the fast trains stop. After a few minutes of waiting, you spot a train turning around a bend and creaking slowly into the station. People are hanging out of the doors from both sides of the train. Roughly, the Railways recommend as many people hang out of the train as there are within the train. This maintains the balance in the train and enables it to run with maximum efficiency. As the train nears the station, you slowly warm up and loosen your muscles, rotate your neck slowly and channel both Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali into your body. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You keep repeating the mantra to yourself. Although you don’t have that precious mouth-guard to protect your teeth, that piece of gum you have been chewing for the past few hours will do nicely.

Can I get on now?

Getting aboard a Mumbai local is an art so ancient that Zen Masters have written about it in many books. One of the most famous Zen teachers in recent times said

Smile, breathe and go slowly –Thich Nhat Hanh.

But I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh ever had to get on a Mumbai local. Smiling is definitely not useful while trying to get on to a local train. Showing your teeth is not only a sign of aggression among apes and other mammals, it is also risky. An accidental knock on your exposed teeth from one of your fellow passengers will quickly turn your mouth into a bloody mess. There is only one thing worse than not being able to get on to a local train, and that is not being able to get on a local train with a broken tooth. All the more painful. So, gentle is not what you want to be doing on the platform. Instead you need to be someone like Bruce Lee.

Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless – like water. –Bruce Lee.

Yes, that is more like it. Bruce Lee hit the nail on the head with that quote. In order to successfully get on to a Mumbai local, you have to acquire the precise properties of water. You must be able to twist your body out of shape; you must be able to flow around people and other solid objects and settle down in gaps or crevices in between them.

Keep in mind that as soon as the train stops, there will be an army of people rushing towards you. Imagine King Leonidas facing the mighty Persian Army without his loyal band of 300 soldiers. Imagine Neo having to fight an army of Agent Smiths just after his parents reveal that he is not the Chosen One. It is like Saving Private Ryan, it is like… well you get the point. But don’t lose hope. The next section gives a detailed step by step instruction for becoming a master of local train travel.

As the first wave of alighting passengers surrounds you, grab the door handle with one hand while hanging on to your bag, purse or child (you brought your child along?!) with the other. Curve the toes of your feet upwards in case you’re wearing chappals to make sure that they stay under your feet. In case you lose any one of your chappals in the melee, I would advise you to kick off the other one as well. You are better off bare-feet than hobbling on a single chappal throughout your entire journey.

Hold on to the handle as strong as possible. As soon as the first wave recedes, start to push any passengers in front of you so that they start moving inside. By this time, the train would have stopped moving, and it would be easier to get on. Do not worry about the subsequent wave of passengers trying to get down. They may complain and crib but there is no space for the lazy and the slow on the Mumbai local. Assuming that you do manage to get inside the compartment, find a comfortable space and try to maximise this as much as possible. Comfortable is just a relative term here, and how much space you are able to capture depends on the time of the day and the route you are travelling on. The world record for the longest travel using the smallest space possible was held by a government employee who used to travel daily on the Thane-CST local. Last heard, he was planning to undergo surgery to separate his limbs which were fused together from years of travelling in congested spaces.

All of this may sound very scary but it is easy provided you keep your focus on the goal. And that goal is to put as much distance as possible between the door and yourself. Under any circumstance, do not turn or look back at the door. The unwritten rule of travelling in Mumbai locals is that the person faces the direction in which he wants to go. In case you turn around, people standing by the door will assume that you want to get off and will enthusiastically help you in getting down, whether that was your original plan or not.

So let’s assume that you get enough space to stand inside the compartment. Unless you are travelling after midnight or unless you are a former Youth Icon trying to mingle with the common man, you won’t immediately find a place to sit in the Mumbai local. But here are a few tips to improve your chances of getting near a seat. First, the ground rule. The number of people who can fit on a row of seat is flexible. Although the seats were built to comfortably seat three people, you can always fit in a few more. This secret is known to all people regularly travelling on local trains and a simple flick of the hand pointed in the general direction of the seat can magically create space where there was none before.

Here’s a bonus tip for you. In case you have already bagged a seat and another commuter asks you to make some space. In such instances, you do not have to actually move. Just pretend to slide to one side but instead just wiggle your butt in place a couple of times. This technique always works. You sacrifice nothing but a few inches, and the other person will happily fit in whatever space you make for him.
If there are already four or more people sitting in a row, you will not immediately get a seat. But you can improve your chances of getting a seat the next time someone gets up. There are two ways of doing this. One is by standing in the centre aisle, facing either side. This will make you the de facto bouncer for that block of seats. The only thing missing is the red velvet rope separating the haves from the have-nots. Any person wanting to enter or leave that block will have to take your permission before moving in or out. As soon as someone gets up, you can slide in between the rows and occupy that seat. The second way to maximise your chances of getting a seat is to position yourself between the rows of seats itself facing either row. So as one half of the people stare at your crotch, the other half face your butt. If the thought of staring at your butt for the next half-hour doesn’t cause one of the passengers to get up, the sudden smell of mooli paratha in the air will definitely claim a few victims.

The fastest gun in the west

Mumbai locals come in two varieties – the slow and the fast. If the slow ones look crowded, the fast ones literally overflow with people. The reasons why fast trains are more crowded is because they apparently stop at fewer stations and take you to your destination faster. According to my calculations, this difference is on average 7.9 minutes. Thus the mad rush for the fast local. But taking a fast train does not always guarantee that you will reach your destination faster. This strategy can, at times, work against you. This is because fast trains have an annoying habit of halting for long durations between stations. No one has been able to find out the exact reason why they do so. But just like you have to be patient with cows standing in the middle of the road, you have to be patient with these fast locals. The fast trains halt for not more than fifteen minutes. Compared to road-side traffic jams which can add hours to your commute, fifteen minutes doesn’t sound too bad. But when you’re squeezed on all sides by sweaty passengers, each minute can seem like an eternity.

The people having the best seats in the local train are ironically the ones who travel on the foot-board. This is where you don’t have to ‘adjust’ to share your precious space. Nor do you have to deal with the fans facing the wrong way or simply not working. There is a constant cool breeze refreshing you as the train ploughs through station after station. Although a very dangerous practice, thousands of passengers continue to travel this way, often supported by only one hand. A sudden push or shove can cause people to lose your balance which can prove very dangerous for not only them but their co-passengers as well.

However when you are stuck in a situation mentioned earlier, the people on the foot-board get the best ring-side view of the situation. As people within the train keep on grumbling, you on the foot-board don’t have any such problems. There is still a light breeze which keeps you from breaking into a pool of sweat. In the meanwhile, slow trains amble past and you have to deal with vulgar gestures from the people hanging out of those trains. You pretend to look at your watch as the passengers in the slow train show you the middle finger. But the civilised human being that you are, you refrain from responding in kind. Every few seconds, people keep shuffling and asking each other about the reason for the delay, as if they have a hotline to the control room. But secretly, everyone is pleased. This unexpected delay means that they can spend that much time less in the office listening to their hyperventilating boss.

In Mumbai, you can always blame the delay on the traffic or the trains. Be it a meeting or a date, an interview or a wedding. Be it film stars or politicians. Be it friends or relatives. Everyone in Mumbai uses this get-out-of-jail-free card. And there is only one reaction possible to this. The other person can only shake their head in agreement because they would be guilty of using the same excuse at some point in time.

Battle hymns to the God

During the long arduous journey in a Mumbai local and especially during such unscheduled stops in the middle of two stations, there is one group which can instantly raise everyone’s spirits. I’m talking about the bhajan mandali groups. Yes, Mumbai has a brilliant, free of cost service for listening to devotional songs while you commute. What better than spending an hour or so in an atmosphere of devotion and purity. Leave your iPods at home, mute your mobile phones, and sit back and enjoy the soothing tones of these enthusiastic singers. In terms of sheer practicality and reach, the bhajan mandalis are more widespread than the Ramdevs and the Nirmal Babas in spreading Hindu faith among the common-folk.

It is not clear how this concept started. Maybe a group of people got tired of reading newspapers daily, or listening to stock market tips. Maybe they got bored of playing cards. But whatever the reason, they are not firmly entrenched in the psyche of the local train commuter.
These bhajan mandali groups bring their own musical instruments, which thankfully consists of mostly small cymbals. But I’m sure as their popularity increases, they would not be averse to introducing additional instruments like harmoniums, drums, and trumpets in their repertoire. Who knows one day college students may also introduce a drum set, complete with electric guitars. The main function of the bhajan mandalis is to regale fellow passengers with their music. Self trained in the classical gharanas, they tirelessly keep the mood of the passengers upbeat with their soulful renditions of famous bhajans of whichever deity they are associated with. With the Hindu pantheon consisting of million of gods, theirs is an extremely long playlist.

But lately, these groups have come under the scanner due to complaints from fellow passengers. Railway officials have started to crack down on such groups in undercover raids. In spite of the danger of such raids, these bhajan mandalis continue to spread the message of Hindu culture. Rather than cracking down on such group, I would only wish that their representation grows day by day in number. Not only that, I also urge brothers and sisters from all the other religions to join in to spread their respective culture and religion as well. I mean, who wouldn’t love qawwalis and carols in local trains? If this doesn’t bring Mumbai together, I don’t know what will.

So, after what seems like an hour or two, the train suddenly lurches forward. There are audible sighs of relief. It was nothing but the collective will of the passengers which caused the train to resume its journey. You look out the window as the train gathers speed. Within a couple of stations, you would be almost back on schedule. Slowly but surely, the fast trains catch up with the slow trains which had gone past a few minutes ago.

When two local trains run neck to neck, it is a moment of great suspense and tension. It is like one of those standoff in a cowboy movie. Who will win this battle? Will your train go ahead or the other? As you spot those guys in the slow train who had earlier given you the middle finger, you realise that this is the moment you were waiting for. You stare at the offender while he glares back. This is when it gets intense. Everything is a matter of luck and chance. Right now, both the trains are running head to head and it is not clear which train will win. Warily you look at him without making any move. You slowly channel Clint Eastwood and start to squint at him. You feel your train slowly inch forward as it picks up speed. Apparently the fast train has been given the green signal. This is the right time to make your move. This is the right time to show him who’s the boss. Your hand slowly reaches down, and you grab your crotch and thrust it in the air menacingly towards the person in the other train. By now the other train has slowed down considerably. Knowing that he has been defeated fair and square, the guy on the other train starts looking elsewhere. You mouth your favourite dialogue from that old Clint Eastwood movie, “Hasta la vista baby” and smile smugly. Now you’re left in peace to pursue the rest of your daily activities in the train, which are mainly ogling at the passengers in the ladies compartment and picking your nose (not necessarily together).

With each subsequent station, the train starts getting less crowded with more people getting off the train than what get on. Slowly, the bhajan mandalis run out of bhajans, the stock market punters run out of tips, and the college students run out of gossip. As the train cruises through the last few stations, the remaining people in the train spend the rest of the journey mostly in silence. It is almost as if they rue the ending of the raucous yet unavoidable journey which is part of their everyday lives. Even before the train stops at the last station, the train empties almost instantly. People head in different directions while the Mumbai local stands in silence for a few minutes, as if catching a breath or two. It cannot rest for long though. The electronic notice boards have updated to show the new destination of the train. The new drivers arrive and check their instrument panels. As the timer ticks down, people come running from all directions so as to not miss the fast train. Welcome to Mumbai, where people spend years of their lives trying to save a few precious seconds.

* * *

This was a free chapter from my book, The Immigrant’s Guide to Surviving Mumbai. If you liked the chapter, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the book. Do share this with the people you think will enjoy the book. Thanks for reading.


  1. Bhai, a great great description of what a common man dependent on the trains goes through! Didn’t know that you have authored a book, but then, your writing was always so subtly hilarious yet so impactful! Looking to buy the book and enjoy it!

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