Inside the train they are silent, compressing their torsos into tight balls, their legs and arms twisted around others, bearing the heat, the sticky sweat of others, wanting to move but not having enough space to even twist themselves into a comfortable position. This is the usual commute for a Bombay commuter. Squeezed, deformed, demoralised, yet surviving by their sheer will power. No matter how much they improve the coaches – make them twelve from mere nine – they still don't have comfort. They are like cockroaches in a fetid and dank place, they are silent and revolting all the time. But they soon learn patience.
I was standing at Vashi watching people alight from train. I had just got down. The heat encircles and dances around one. There are screams and exhortations. It's easy to get in or out when you are bawling your lungs out. It helps you concentrate, makes you come alive. Hair tousled, face shiny with sweat, clothes crumpled, they have a look of suppressed anger and violence. Then a sort of transformation happens. They flex their muscles, put right the nearly-torn ligaments, stretch cramped muscles after the hours of standing holding a dangling iron stirrup-like thing suspended from a steel rod fixed to the roof. Ah, the freedom you feel. The deliverance from this unique system once the destination has come. There's a job to be done and dreams to be nurtured, plans to be made for the future, a life to be lived. There are children to be educated, parents to be looked after, a whole life passes inside a train without one knowing it.
They say five million people travel around Bombay every day. I think the figure is highly under-estimated. Some of them clamber up on the roof to be struck down by the high voltage, some hold on to the bars of the windows, some stand on the narrow ledge in between compartments, some hang on to the rod placed in the centre of every door already full of people hanging on like leeches. Many fall to their deaths. Many get maimed for life.
But life goes on on Bombay trains. We are a hardy lot. We survive.