This is not a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents mentioned in this narrative are neither products of the author’s imagination nor are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely intentional and barring a little bit of exaggeration, are all true.
Okay, more than a little bit of exaggeration.
The very thought of writing a travelogue gives me jitters. Not only are they long, bland and boring, but they are also irrelevant for those not planning to pack their knapsacks anytime soon. Besides, I am certain most of my readers either hail from or have been to Mumbai. But then, there’s something special about this city that even after millions of narratives from half a million others, you have this urge to pen down your own…it’s a freshly painted bench that despite being warned not to sit on it by every passer-by, you still crouch down and touch it, just to see it for yourself.
So on the 19th of December, I found myself on the Andheri platform, waiting for a fast train to Churchgate, where I was supposed to meet a friend. Six-thirty in the evening is the time where you have better chances of running blindfolded on a highway and not getting run over than going by road from Ville Parle to South Mumbai and still making it in time for dinner. The local train was my only option. So there I was, a needle in a haystack of bristling, bustling folk waiting for the next train to their respective destinations. I carried First Class return tickets in my front pocket, my wallet in the all buttoned up backpocket reinforced with the commanding presence of my right hand over it. In the left side front pocket lay my 80% charged Samsung Galaxy Phone, fortified by the presence of my left hand in the pocket. From behind, I am certain I resembled a 5 year old kid at an immunization camp, still recovering from the trauma of the needle on his right buttock, ensuring that the candy in his left pocket provided as a sugar coat to hold still during the torture doesn’t fall off.
As per the advice of the sixth person I queried regarding the platform on which the Churchgate bound train would arrive, I stood at the designated platform, trying to decipher the content of the electronic board informing of the trains arrival. It contained the two words I was looking for: CCG, which I presumed denoted ChurChGate and F which presumably denoted Fast. It also mentioned 18:37 as the ETA of the train, remarkably digital for an analog world. I quickly went through the routine checkups: First Class Round trip tickets: check, 6 feet distance from the platform: check, left hand over the Samung Galaxy: check; right hand over your right buttock: check; eyes in the direction of the train: check.
At exactly 18:37, the train sped in. Based on what my friends had told me, I theorized that since the rush hour traffic would be in the opposite direction, there were chances that I would be able to board the very first train that arrives and need not let a few trains go by. That of course was just a theory.
Before the train came to a halt, half the people waiting at the platform had already entered and almost all waiting to deboard had jumped off, two of whom ran into me, almost knocking me off my feet. But then we Delhiites don’t back off so easily, do we? I regained my stance and rushed to the nearest door, then the next and then the next. Finally, I found a door which had no takers. Stupid crowd, I thought. The jubilation didn’t end then. Back in the compartment, elated at having found totally vacant doors to climb on to the beast, I realized that but for a few occupied seats here and there, the compartment was almost totally vacant. If there are a million reasons to be happy, this of course is the millionth plus one. My mind alluded to the Alchemist, the most boring novel I had ever read, and I pictured the whole episode as my beginner’s luck. I moved aside a heap of what felt like a fragmented plastic mass and occupied the window seat. Within no time, the train was moving again.
All was good. Life was beautiful.
I marvelled at the dichotomy Mumbai has to offer. Manhattans and slums inside the same complex. The co-existence of the rich and the poor. The adjacency of the crowded and the sparse. Crowded, just like the compartment next to mine, which I could see though the metalworks that separated it from ours. And sparse, like our compartment. Commotion on one side and tranquil in ours.
It is then that I realized that all eyes were on me. It was a stare, not a gaze.
I am certain people wore attire similar to mine (full sleeved shirt, trousers, formal shoes) all the time. But for a few interviews, my unkempt hair had never been a cause of concern. Besides, I had taken my phone out of my pocket, hands off them and finally, on it.
So what was it?
And then panic struck.
Everyone around me looked different and alike; different than usual but like one another. I peeped into the bag that I had moved aside and saw a white cane, a visually impaired man’s walking assistant.
The sparse crowd, the vacant seats and the stares, all made perfect sense now.
I had heard how men are fined and pushed off ladies’ compartments in the Mumbai local. The punishment for travelling in a Differently Abled compartment must be even more severe, I thought. I pinged my friends and all of them asked me to get off immediately. No, not even a first class ticket gives anyone the permission to travel in Differently Abled compartment.
By this time, we had already crossed Ville Parle and since this was a fast train, it didn’t stop there. The next station was Bandra and I knew I had to get off at any cost.
What happened next is something I have regretted for the past week. To avoid the stares and the subsequent embarrassment, I faked a limp on my right leg and neared the doors. As the train came to a halt, I hobbled off the train and found a nice little corner for myself at the platform.
Still smarting due to my behaviour and carelessness, I let two trains go by. I wouldn’t have been able to board anyway, as they were extremely crowded. Yes, even the First Class compartments.
I hopped onto the third train and as expected, found myself amidst a sea of people. Not knowing whether it was a first class or a second class compartment, I just wanted to reach Churchgate as soon as possible.
Following the guilt, came the affirmation. Yes, my theory was right. Most people deboarded at the next stop: Dadar. I even found a window seat for myself.
I sat there feet up with the Andy Dufresne Roof-top expression on my face for the remainder of the journey. By the time the train neared Churchgate arrived almost 15 minutes after, I had gotten over most things. By in large, the journey wasn’t painful. There were a few mishaps, but it wasn’t a misadventure.
Not until then, of course.
As the train entered the platform, I felt strange that of the 30 odd people inside the compartment, I was the only on getting off, very odd for a terminal station. As I waited near the doors, at least a couple of people seated behind shouted at me to move to one side. Stupid crowd, I thought. Last station it is, who cares?
And then it was Varkala all over again. The tide was a human wave, the shore was my original seat. The tide swept me off my feet, back to the shore. In the process, I received multiple blows to my face, chest, gut and knees.
Ten seconds later, I could still feel the searing pain throughout my body. It was my right knee though, which hurt the most. For the second time that evening, I limped off a local train compartment, made my way to the Eros building, exited without looking over my shoulders.
Needless to say, I took a cab back to the hotel.