At rush hour in Mumbai, the ladies’ car of the city’s Western Line train is stuffed with working ladies in smart salwar kameez sets, tribal women with tattoos on their wrists and gold jewellery in their ears, and ambitious university students with flowing hair, tight jeans and backpacks full of engineering homework. Breezes blow the smell of sweat and jasmine through the air, along with the sweet, mournful voice of a man in the next car singing to God. The crowd at each station platform looks gigantic, and the passengers trying to get off are as determined as the women pushing their way on. It looks as though some will not make it -- the train stops only for a few seconds -- but somehow, magically, everyone does.
The Mumbai Suburban Railway
transports seven million people every day. The Western Line, along which most
of the city’s suburban sights, stores and bars are located, runs every two
minutes with what you would call Swiss precision if it was not so Indian – as
chaotic and crowded as it is serene and efficient. Mumbai is huge, and the
train is what makes this city run, allowing rich and poor alike, from anywhere
along its 465km of rails, to get to work and home again.
For travellers staying in the city
centre, the train makes it possible to explore the old guard of sights and the
suburbs, where many of the coolest lounges, restaurants and shops have opened
up in recent years. Wake up early and do a three-faith pilgrimage, stopping at the
Pagoda off the Borivali station, and Haji Ali Mosque and Mahalaxmi Temple in Mahalaxmi. Shopping
trips can take in Anokhi in Bandra for woodblock-printed
clothes, Shrujan in Vile Parle for hand embroidery
from Gujarat, Lower Parel’s over-the-top luxury High Street Phoenix mall or Chor Bazaar on Grant Road for antiques and
old film posters . Both Girgaum Chowpatty on Charni Road and Juhu beach
in Vile Parle make fun beach breaks with excellent snacking. Dinner at Culture Curry in Matunga or drinks and live
music at Bluefrog in Lower Parel make for perfect
But often it is the encounters on
the train that are the highlights of a trip. The festival, temple or slum that
you see out of the window, or the oddly great taste of the namkeen (fried snack) bought from a wandering train vendor, is what
stays with you. Sifting through boxes of bindis
or hairclips with other women in your carriage is surprisingly comfortable,
even homey. The train is one of the few places where you can participate in a
truly local ritual, and distinctions between Indian and foreigner fade. Everyone
here is just a passenger.
The same goes for the train stations,
worlds unto themselves that are worth exploring before jumping on the train or
heading out to the road. Here, weight machines light up like arcade games and,
for a rupee, give you a “health card” printed with your weight and a fortune.
(“You have a rare, unapproachable delicacy, poise and a charming manner.”)
Flower garlands and knockoff Chetan Bhagat novels are for sale, as are
snacks like chikki, a kind of peanut
(or sesame or amaranth) brittle, and vada
pao -- a fried mash of potatoes, veggies and spices, served on a tiny bun
with chutneys and chilli. The ubiquitous “Rail Aahar” (literally, Rail Diet)
stalls also make masala soda, which is club soda with lemon juice and jal-jeera
powder (a mix of spices that includes cumin, mint, black pepper and ginger,
among many other things). It is often served in a stainless-steel cup and,
along with some people-watching, makes a perfect post-train-ride break on a hot
day. Order one, find a seat somewhere, and -- like many millions have before
you -- find yourself slowly becoming part of the city.
The Mumbai Suburban Railway is
easier than it looks, especially with a few tips:
hour on the train is an experience, but maybe more of an experience than you
need. To beat it, do not ride southbound trains between 7 am and 11 am, or
northbound from 4 pm to 8 pm.
rush hours, start edging your way toward the exit at least two stations ahead
of yours. One station ahead, get as close to the door as you can; ask someone
which side your platform will be on. At your stop, push forward and let
yourself be pushed from behind.
women’s cars, if you are stuck standing, you can arrange to take the seat of a
fellow passenger. Ask where they’re getting off (If English is not working, try
Hindi: Ap kahan ja rahe hain?), and
if it is somewhere close, just gesture that you will take her seat and you have
cross the tracks at official crossings or flyovers, do not hang out the door or
jump on or off the trains as it is moving, and do not sit on the roof (however
tempting!). About 10 people die every day on the rail network. Mumbai trains
are no joke.
not board “fast” trains (marked with an “F”) unless you know what you are doing.
They run express and may skip your stop.
Railway sells “tourist tickets”, which give you unlimited rides for one, three
or five days -- much easier than navigating the complex ticket system.
Otherwise, second-class fares are quite cheap -- a few rupees in most cases --
but you will need to queue up to get them.
The article 'Riding the rails like a Mumbaiker' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.