Mumbai and Commuting

I’m here in Mumbai for a month teaching photography travelling through the week from the suburbs into town. You obviously hit straight into what the middle classes/lower middle classes deal with while engaging with the public transport system. Having been here a decade ago I don’t remember it as being as painful as it is now. And that most definitely has to do with age. I can no longer run, push, shove, wait, hang out of buses/trains and neither is it easy to be at the receiving end of the above. The rains make Mumbai so difficult to get through especially if one depends on the transport system.

The buses here are fabulous when they turn up. Hours are spent waiting at the bus stop at the end of a long day hoping that your bus number will somehow magically turn up. The cabs are incredibly expensive for a daily commute, even if only to the nearest station. When the bus does turn up then it is a fight to get in. Unlike Bengaluru where women are allowed to get in through the front doors while men enter from the back, here in Mumbai one has to fight it out with the men. Not so much the fear of being molested but to fight with men for space to climb on is tough. Sometimes there will be a nice man who’ll make space to let you enter first but most likely rare such a happening. On the contrary the bus stop at Andheri station is such a good example of lining up for the bus. Probably because the bus starts from there (once every hour!) But everyone lines up, no one cuts the line and we all in a very civil, calm way climb in one after the other. And change, every conductor will provide you with change, unlike Bengaluru where you will be asked to get off when they don’t have it.

The trains are a wonderful way of testing one’s level of fitness. So three bogies on a 12 bogie train are reserved for women. I wonder if this is representative of labour force demographics, highly unlikely. Fighting with regular commuters to get on is quite a skill. The other efficient way is to let yourself be pushed on to the train or be pushed off. It has resulted in a few injuries but I still get to where I want to go on the plus side of it. When I look at the conditions under which people travel in these trains I wonder why there isn’t much anger here in this city. The way this city treats its lesser off citizens and the reaction to that is boggling. A friend who lives here tells me that people are too busy accommodating themselves to what exists just to be able to get on with life. As I wait for hours at a bus stop in a really posh area of Mumbai the number of cars, big cars, expensive cars with most of the time only the driver driving them is a sight that grates. The roads are crowded and getting crowded by the day but the cars only get bigger and bigger. There is no sense of disciplining the desire for a car and sustaining, building and encouraging a good public transport system. On a very rainy day as the waters started to flood the street I had to walk on to reach work I met a woman. We were both in knee deep water, hanging on to our umbrellas, walking slowly making sure that one didn’t step into an open drain. As we passed each other she turned to me and said “look at us, look at this, look that side (pointing to the cars who were happily swishing by) it is only always the workers who suffer.” I smiled back at her in agreement, the anger that was welling inside me about the state of that road, calmed down. This was precious. Those words were so precious. It was precious to be able to receive them having been unable to say them. We both walked on drenched to start the day’s work.

Mumbai with its extremes on the wealth front makes it a very very difficult city to visually negotiate/ understand/live in. I have to constantly fight this anger that keeps welling up. It doesn’t help that I have to encounter this absolute disdain, a disdain that can only come from daddy’s money. And encounter this desire, this desire to make it big, make oneself famous, reach somewhere and all I can feel is sadness looking at it, a sense of hope being drained for the future of this country seeing the children of neo-liberalist policies.

Saw this most amazing thing happen on the local train in the women’s compartment. A woman, a very young woman stood in front of me with a baby on her who was fast asleep. The baby could have been about 3-4 months old. As the rush started building up I could feel my anxiety grow. I stood near her making sure that no one pushed her. The next stop coming up was Andheri, a lot of people were going to get off and a lot of women were going to get in. They will kill you if you are in their way. I dreaded getting off, was pushed off and I turned back to see what might have happened to that young woman. About four women had crowded around her putting their bodies in the way protecting that woman and that young child. They would have been beaten, shoved, pushed. I could see it happening and yet there were these four women protecting someone they didn’t know at all. These are the images that start to replenish hope. The kindest people I meet have been working class women and men, all struggling to cope with a city that offers so little to them. I always thought of it the other way that the lower you drop in class the more anger exists. And yet the anger, disdain, attitude, indifference and nastiness I only see carried amongst the very rich, the ones who have absolutely no reason to be so.

Mumbai is a journey in a ladies compartment.

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