An author gets some great advice on the Virar Fast.
I was trapped inside a Mumbai suburban train. An impenetrable phalanx of bodies stood between the exit and me. I cursed out loud when the train pulled away from my destination. Then, I heard a laconic voice say: “Tenshun nahi lene ka.”
In Mumbai, you are advised again and again to relax, calm down, let go of tension. How can you? Modern life in any metropolis is challenging, but it is all the more so in Mumbai. Is it any wonder, then, that a song in Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) asks: “Is sheher mein, har shakhs pareshan sa kyun hai?”
For the vast majority of Mumbaikars, daily life is a grind. Recall the opening scene in the Marathi film Dombivli Fast (2005). It brilliantly depicts a bank clerk’s soulless everyday routine. Wake up to the shrill 5.30am alarm; get ready for work while the wife prepares lunch and readies the children for school; board the overcrowded local train; perform dull office work; rush to board the packed train home; into bed at 11pm; up again to the 5.30am alarm. It is enough to drive a man mad.
Mumbai is exhilarating. But its pulsating life also produces tension. Nervous energy fills your body as you jostle with other commuters in the train. There is no respite, even after you battle your way off the train. Hawkers and hordes of people hurrying to their destinations occupy the sidewalk. As the “Bambai Nagariya” song in Taxi No.9211 (2006) tells us: “Saala, idhar to footpath bhi houseful hai!” You have to duck and weave. The turbulence of the big-city traffic jars your very being. The soundscape filled with honking horns and screeching tyres becomes your environment. Billboards and street signage produce intense sensory stimulations. A barrage of impressions, shocks, and jolts becomes part of the subjective experience in Mumbai.
Enveloped in this sensorium of hyperstimuli, I reached Churchgate station. Frazzled by delays resulting from a series of mishaps, I was at the station an hour later than planned. The next train to Bandra would not leave for another 20 minutes. Waiting for it would mean being late for the film that I was going to see with friends. Then I saw that the fast train to Virar was about to leave. I remembered dire warnings by friends: “Don’t take the Virar Fast if you are not going at least as far as Andheri. The passengers will not let you get off.” Against all advice, I jumped into the first class compartment just before the train started moving. After all, how bad could it be?
At Dadar, I began inching my way towards the exit, blocked by bodies packed so tight that sardine canners could have learnt a thing or two. The harder I pushed, the closer I was forced to lean into the sweaty armpits of passengers refusing to concede a millimetre. Undaunted, I pressed ahead but every effort was in vain. A half-step forward would be followed by a surge two steps back. As the train slowed and then stopped at Bandra, my panic reached full throttle. “I have to get off here!” I yelled out loud, but the sea of bodies refused to part. No one was getting in or out.
The train lurched to a start and slowly picked up speed. Angry, frustrated, and beaten, I tried to shame my fellow passengers: “What kind of people are you? I had to get off at Bandra!” Some met my outburst with dismissive stares, but most just ignored my attempt to embarrass them.
It was then that I heard someone say: “Tenshun nahi lene ka.” The speaker arched his head back to look at me as he uttered his advice. I glared back angrily, but he just smiled and continued. “Andheri mein utar jaana.” At Andheri, my advisor pressed his body into the passengers beside him to clear a few inches. Others followed his example. I wriggled towards the exit and managed to jump on the platform just as the train started to move again. Relieved, I glanced up at the men guarding the doorway. Their faces were impassive.
I crossed over to the opposite platform and boarded the train going south. I was pleasantly surprised that my friends were still waiting for me. Very generously, they had bought tickets for a later show when I did not show up in time. When I related my experience to them, they laughed. “Why did you take the Virar train? Don’t you know not to?”
When I think about it, what is striking is that though tension textures daily life in Mumbai like in any other big city, it is only here that you are offered street therapy. In place of professional advice on an expensive couch, the trains and streets of Mumbai provide free counsel in the mongrel tongue of Bambaiyya: “Tenshun nahi lene ka.” What’s not to love about it?
Gyan Prakash teaches history at Princeton University and is the author of Mumbai Fables.
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