The Blue Mumbai novels have swallowed me up whole the last few years.
Just like many Hollywood movies occur in Los Angeles and New York, which have now made their mark worldwide thanks to their portrayal on screen, Mumbai too dominates the Indian consciousness. So many movies take place in Mumbai, and in those that don’t, Mumbai is often mentioned. Mumbai’s street food, its skyscrapers, its humans and its movie stars loom large in every Indian’s mind.
In fact, many Indian reviewers of the Blue Mumbai novels have compared them to Bollywood films. It is a city of a million aspects, but one of its most fascinating are its trains, which are like its arteries–carrying people to and from the miles across and along this rectangular seaside city. The first scene of THE BLUE BAR takes place at a railway station. Some day I hope to write a novel set entirely in Mumbai’s local trains.
Today, I’ve invited author Shilpa Gupte, a Mumbaikar herself, to write about her experience on those trains. Shilpa Gupte is a creative writer, freelance writer, and artist. She calls Mumbai home. Take it away, Shilpa!
“In Mumbai, you never take a train and book a seat. You CATCH a train and GRAB a seat—preferably, a window seat. Okay?” advised Gauri, my streetwise, smooth-talking, quintessential Mumbaikar friend, as we stood waiting for our train to arrive at platform number 1 at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
I scanned the crowd gathering around me: women with their pallus tucked around their waists, some securing their dupattas and their bags under their arms, mommies with their kids in tow, their fingers interlinked, preparing for action, fisherwomen with their baskets dripping fishy water, peddlers with their many wares. Gauri caught the nervous look in my eyes and whispered, “Shilps, don’t worry. You will get on the train in one piece. Just go with the flow!”
Around 28 years ago, I enrolled at the SNDT University in Churchgate to study sociology, with a dream of becoming a social thinker. It’s a different matter that I became an over-thinker, but let’s not go down that lane today.
For someone living in Vashi, New Mumbai—a satellite city of Mumbai—it was a ticket to freedom, an opportunity for this little frog to leap out of its little pond to see the big world. New Mumbai was ideal for retirees back then—laid back and quiet. But I needed speed and the excitement that Mumbai offered. So, I hopped onto a local train to pursue my dreams, unaware that I would be studying sociology not just at university, but while traveling to the institution in the Mumbai local trains.
So, as Gauri would have continued with her instructions on catching the train: the two things you need to tame this beast, are speed and alertness. And, this is how you do it: You stand a little near the edge of the platform, not ON the edge, mind you, with an eye on the indicator for the train’s time of arrival. It could be, 7:37 am, 12:06 pm, and so on. No, don’t even wonder about the odd timings.
Then, when you spot the train making a grand entry, you take in a deep breath, shut out everything around you, and focus. Your stance, that of an athlete—alert, ready for a race. And, when the train slows down, you breathe in a lungful, reach for your compartment, grab the pole in its doorway, leap inside and race to the nearest window seat.
If you are lucky to get the seat, then settle in as if you own it. If not, then you chant the mantra ‘go with the flow’, to help you survive the chaos, as you calmly squeeze yourself to fit into the mass of the warm, sweaty bodies that hang by the grab handles and lean on you, gagging you with their smelly armpits; their oily hair flying into your eyes, tickling your nose; their heeled shoes crushing your toes. You will soon get used to these sometimes perfumed but mostly fatigued bodies, pushing and shoving you as you sway to the rhythm of the moving train.
Do remember the mantra when alighting at your station, too. You won’t even realise when you will be spat out along with the crowd.
Travelling by the Mumbai local trains requires you to develop the Bombaiyya attitude and add to your vocabulary the choicest “pure words”, just in case you need to put up a fight. I mean, it’s a big city and all kinds come here, right.
Fighting for your rights (read, seats) on a local train, makes you feel so powerful, you know, especially if you are the shy, introverted sort. It transforms you into a whole new person. A hardened local train-travelling friend, Monica, urged me to try some of her favourite lines: “Hey, you! Are those eyes or buttons? Can’t you see I am standing here?” Or, “Get out of my way, bitch. Is this your father’s train, or what?” These lines, when spoken in Hindi, sound more dramatic…a verbal punch.
But, let me assure you, your local train travel need not feel like an action-packed thriller. There’s romance, too. A different kind, though.
You see, the local trains are not just vehicles on tracks. These double up as malls, canteens, and cool hang-outs to chill out with your train buddies. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Here, you get the best snacks to fill your grumbling tummies: Mumbai’s staple Vada Pao—spicy potato patties, fried to a golden brown, stuffed inside a split bun, with a fiery garlic chutney for company. One bite and you reach foodie heaven. Or, the spicy, tangy, bhelpuri that makes love to your taste buds. Orgasmic.
For those with tight schedules and tighter budgets, the Mumbai local trains are a shopper’s delight: You can shop, till you drop…at your station. You get everything, from handbags to blingy jewellery, accessories to books, available for “20 rupees only…just for you, sister!” as the seller with her dolled-up face will announce to the compartment of travelling sisterhood, her toothy grin in place, her money bag safe inside her blouse. That’s the safest place, by the way, to hide your money when travelling.
And, the perfect travel outfits? Sarees, with the pallus, tucked securely around the waist, the hassle-free salwar kameez, or your trusted pair of jeans, for style and comfort. Sounds like a line from an advert, does it? I picked it up on my recent train travel to the city, from a girl selling everything a girl needs to feel good. She will make a shrewd businesswoman, learning on the job at the best university ever.
Mumbai local trains are really a microcosm. A world that never fails to amuse you with the drama happening within, every minute of every day. For those not interested in the drama inside, there’s drama happening outside as well, in the city’s ecosystem, where slums rub shoulders with the snazzy skyscrapers—luxury and deprivation, co-existing in this melting pot that’s Amchi Mumbai. The city with so many rags-to-riches stories happening every day, it pushes you to dream big dreams.
Sometimes, I wish I had opted for Literature instead of Sociology. For, I had stories travelling with me every day, waiting to be discovered and shared with the world: The shy college student with the faraway look in her eyes, who seldom talked and barely smiled, but who always woke me up before my station arrived; the septuagenarian aunty who made us laugh with her risque jokes, offering food from her lunch box, and a patient ear, to anyone in need; the spirited fisherwoman whose eyes spoke of the many storms she had weathered to bring some of the best fish for her customers, but who smiled sweetly every time we grumbled about the fishy water from her basket dripping onto our heads; the friendly eunuchs, laughing despite their kismet, making sure we “sisters” were comfortable.
Countless stories that inspired me to brave it all, to just go with the flow, and embrace the life that came my way: the very spirit of this ceaseless city of dreams.
What city has your heart, or do you prefer staying away from cities? Would you like to visit Mumbai? Have you picked up any of the Blue Mumbai books?
My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is on Goodreads, and now available for preorders! Signed copies are available in these independent bookstores. And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin. Find all info about my books here or on Linktree.
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