Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
VENUE : The Ladies Compartment
LOCATION : The local trains of Mumbai
EVENT : 1. Shopping Gala 2. Bonding Gala
COST : INR 40 / all day travel
TIME : Anytime – no advance notice needed
Local Trains in the linear city of Mumbai are the arteries and veins carrying the lifeblood of any city – its people to and from their work 6 days a week.
The crowds in these trains cannot be imagined – they have to be seen and experienced at peak hours to be able to form an idea of the word ‘crowd’ in its most extreme form. Of the 18.5 million living in the city, an estimate says 6.1 million travel on the local trains every day. 6.1 million! During peak hours, every rake of 9 coaches carries 4700 people resulting in a ‘super dense crush load’ of over 10 people per square metre.
These statistics tell a negative story.
But my story is one of delight and love and adulation – for the Mumbai local trains. And the people in it.
Bombay is my favoritest city in the world. And the local trains in the Western sector are my favoritest place in all of Mumbai. It is the place I go to, to revive my spirits when I am feeling low. It is the place that always gives me an experience that feeds my soul and gives me something to think about – about the human spirit and human strength – all of it delivered to me simply by watching others as they go about their lives.
Mumbaikars – the people of Mumbai in their first month of train travel are taught the little unwritten rules, norms and systems that have evolved over the years. There was no single leader or body that led this evolution nor were there any announcements about these systems. Yet, every regular traveller knows and follows these. More about the unwritten code of conduct on a Mumbai local train in awhile.
When I worked in Mumbai I had several categories of friends : home friends (the people I grew up around), school friends, college friends, work friends and of course ‘train friends’. People taking the train to work, adopt a train schedule that is defined precisely to the minute as trains leave every 3 minutes : ‘I take the 7.41 Fast from Bandra’ is a commonly heard phrase. I am in the midst of an important deal and yesterday some papers needed to be handed over to the buyer. Both had busy schedules. He would be on the 3.11 train starting from Churchgate and was going to Borivali. The train would arrive at my station 15 km away – Bandra at 3.35 – so we agreed to meet at a particular compartment for the 30 seconds that the train stops at Bandra. The train arrived, we identified each other, I stood at the platform and handed over the envelope to him as he stood at the door of the compartment and in 30 seconds the train left. Task accomplished. Effectively and efficiently. And this precision is the success to the Mumbai Dabbawala story run by village men who are not educated beyond Grade 5, but themselves lecture grad students of Harvard Business School. (But that subject deserves a dedicated article of its own)
Onward to the ladies compartment.
The Ladies compartment is a place where you can strike up a conversation with the lady in the next seat, share your life with them, spill out all your deepest darkest problems to them, jointly find solutions or solace, and then when you arrive at your destination – you can go your own merry way without the slightest chance of ever meeting your confidante, your ‘psychotherapist’ ever again. And she will do likewise. Mother-in-law problems, children problems, maid problems, husband problems, household matters all get thrashed out right here.
And when we are not bonding or giving/taking psychotherapy sessions, we multitaskers are either shopping – for a very diverse rangeof products sold by roving vendors – or chopping vegetables or knitting or catching a nap even if you are standing or just enjoying the breeze that comes at you at the speed of 80kmph in your face when you hang out of the door. Nothing comes close to that thrill and that experience!! Great songs could have been written about this experience – but my guess is that the reason that these songs have not yet been written is that the people who get their dose of adrenalin this way, simply do not have the time for writing songs.
A glimpse of the shopping
Earrings & rings
She is just going about her business as if this is the way it is meant to be. No self-pity. No whining. Just embracing her circumstance! Much to be learnt from her.
These vendors get on at one station, roam the compartment making sales pitches and when they have covered all the sections of the compartment and exhausted every hope of a sale, they alight at the next station and take the next train. This method allows them to target fresh audiences to pitch to. Over the years I have seen saris, sari petticoats, hot chapatis, files, phone covers, pens, toys, cakes, fruits and vegetables being sold in trains. Usually the items are low value consumables so that decisions do not take long.
And now onto the next activity: household chores: This lady is cleaning & chopping ‘Methi’ leaves (Fenugreek leaves)
note the blurred tracks above and the blurred purple of the train passing on the adjacent track below
by the time she reaches her station, the vegetables will be ready for cooking.
And finally an innovative sales gimmick that deserves to be seen on video. (Will upload soon). The lady vendor is selling hair clips and to demonstrate the use of these, she brings along her grand daughter to work.
In front of the audience of women travellers, she combs the little girl’s hair and ties it into a neat bun with the clip, narrating her sales dialogue that included cute claims ‘a clip used by NRIs (non resident Indians (Indians residing in foreign lands) – a group seen as financially elite and therefore worthy endorsers of this clip!) Will upload the video soon.
And upon reaching my destination – an unexpected bewildering sight greets me : a pair of turkeys – just outside Churchgate station building!! My little brain cannot comprehend their presence here. Strange. But true.
After my work is done, I head back home to be received by the magnificent Bandra Station.
An interesting anecdote from 30 years ago before I end. : I was on my way to a party and took the train to Churchgate. As the ladies compartment is quite empty in that direction at that time, travellers usually cluster together and sit in one section of the compartment to feel secure. There were just 3 of us in that compartment – and we sat together and a conversation started. Both were much older than me. I didn’t realise it at first, but the trivial chatter revealed that one was a ‘professional’ lady and the other was a eunuch and I was a 17 year old college kid. As the train sped through the stations, the two of them talked at a deeper level and I became a silent observer. Both talked of problems of the heart. Both spoke of their unrequitted love. And here I was – a teenager nursing a transient crush (today I cannot quite remember who the lucky object of my attention was in that particular period!) completely empathising with them on their common problem. We came from 3 different worlds yet faced the exact same problem. We had come together once and only once in our lifetimes, in the only place that could have brought us all together : the Ladies compartment of the Churchgate fast train!