Of suburban train culture – here and there, then and now…

I’m big on public transport – my lack of driving skills combined with my restless nature ensures that I hop on to the bus or train at least a few times a week even when I am working from home. And left to myself without any deadlines to meet, I can happily sit for an hour or more just looking around while listening to music.

However, there’s one thing I really miss whenever I travel by metro trains and buses in Dubai – the simple camaraderie of Bombay local trains. (I still find it difficult to think of Mumbai as not Bombay, so pardon me.) For all their faults, they used to be fertile grounds for romance, friendships, social networking (of the real kind, not virtual), office gossip and everything in between. The ‘sitters’ would happily accommodate a bag or two of the ‘standers’ on their laps, and even get up and offer their seats to complete strangers during long-haul commutes.

True, at the time when I used to travel, the second class compartments in those local trains were crowded (a euphemism, actually) LOUD and often filthy with spillage from fish-laden baskets – nothing to write home about, if you look at it practically. The office crowd in the women’s compartment would carefully gather the loose ends of their saris and dupattas to make sure they don’t take with them an ‘undesirable element’ or two – the kind that stinks at that. The owners of those fish baskets would eye us sardonically, some even exchanging comments that were best not heard or understood.

But we had ‘train friends’ and ‘bus friends’ back then with whom we chatted, argued and played ‘antakshari’ – our mates from other walks of life, from other offices near other stations, who lived in other homes in other communities, the only common factor being the train space and time we shared. Oh the eagerness with which we waited to meet our train friends every evening! We would even give the earlier train a miss if need be, and our eyes would scan the crowd until we spot our gang, and then it was Kishore Kumar time.


There would be vendors who sold everything from ‘fryums’ to earrings and ‘blouse pieces’ and a healthy bargaining would be going on at one end of the seat while at the other end some of us would be sharing a ‘dry bhel’ and exchanging office gossip. In long-hauls, there would even be a crowd who sorting and cleaning spinach leaves while singing pal pal dil ke pass…

In Dubai Metro, there is quietness, hygiene, cleanliness – and the omnipresent SMARTPHONE. Ninety seven percent of commuters have their heads down: eighty percent engrossed in exchanging life stories with ‘stranger-friends’ on the other side of the world and seventeen percent in playing Candycrush. The last three percent (of which I confess to being a part) would have earphones glued to them, either listening to music or murmuring sweet nothings to somebody at the other end of the connection or conducting business discussions via the phone, but loudly, as though phones have not yet been invented. In fact, such business meetings are most often the only audible human voices in the train, particularly in gold class.metro6

I remember this petite blond lady, very presentable and always dressed in black, who used to get in at the station next to mine during the months I had been working for APCO. We would meet at least thrice a week, but it took about four months for us to exchange the first and only tentative smile and ‘hello’ – after which she decided that her phone warranted more time and attention than me. Sigh!

I know, I know… the smartphone/social network makes people antisocial’ theme has been done to death! But seriously, what is with us these days? Why are we able to communicate only through devices and not face-to-face? Why are we so ready to spill our collective hearts out to total strangers at the other end of the world but decidedly ignore the person who is sitting next to us? Why are we isolating ourselves to the real world while taking refuge in the virtual? I don’t know… I wish I did, though. Then I could give myself a good, long talk and make me see sense…

P.S. Wonder how it is with Mumbai local now!


2 thoughts on “Of suburban train culture – here and there, then and now…

  1. Ruth Fernandes

    Mini, I can promise you it’s still the same.. the only difference, is, that you don’t have to shout at the friend who is on the other side of the compartment.. you simply whatsapp a message to her. People are on their phones chatting, playing candy crush etc, but there is always one eye, on the passenger next to you, lest you get pick pocketed, or someone jumps into the seat that is intended for you. We Mumbaikars are very smart.. the first question you ask a sitting passenger is where they are alighting. You then book that seat and then you tell the others, that, that particular ladies seat is yours. In other words, don’t you dare jump into it, even if I am on candy crush!

    Fasts & Festivals, needlework and other craft, shopping for nick -knacks or preparing the veggies in your bag for a quick ‘sabzi’ for dinner…. are all still the same. Exceptions though, are some good ones… your fisher women, are forbidden from entering the ‘ladies’, ( you cant learn fisher folk swear words anymore!) vendors have far more exciting things to sell, like salwar khameez materials, saris, Chinese decoration items and the ubiquitous plastic covers for fridges and washing machines… you cant find these in Dubai, can you? Well, take a flight to Mumbai and jump into the ladies compartment of our Bombay Trains, or the Women’s Special which is a train painted in Pink, all for ladies… Only, fakth aamcha!, and shop for the uncanniest things possible.

    And yes, what really bugs me, in Dubai, above all, is when people stand at the entrance of compartments, even though they do not want to alight… I always tell myself, they are not, aamchi Mumbaikars! Oops, Bombaywallis! We have learnt, it is now in our DNA.. ‘dont stand by the door, you will get thrown out!’

    Liked by 1 person

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