Like staring into pitch darkness until you have no sense of balance, or saying “echo” over and over until it loses its meaning and sounds foreign, or hearing 4’3” for the first time and having no desire to listen to anything else for a good while after; joining the evening commute on Mumbai’s western rail is an immersive assault on your senses that will - if you let it - carry you into another dimension of self-awareness and reorient your perception of the city.
The invasion of sights, sounds, movement, physical contact, and smells will encroach you from all sides, but there is no sense in guarding anything except your valuables, as you watch local men and women converting their backpacks to frontpacks for safe watch on the journey. Your personal space, privacy, and sense of self undoubtedly will be violated.
Once you get past the entrance of Churchgate Station in the business district and through teetering metal detectors that look like they were imported from the Soviet Union and after they had stopped functioning - instilling a high level of confidence in the security of one of the most hotly targeted terrorist landmarks in Mumbai - you will reach the main platform: both the beginning and end to one of the most impressive feats of civil engineering and public service the state of Maharashtra has seen.
The terminus, though old and stately, is nothing as impressive in appearance or stature as the trains docked there. These trains perform one of the most remarkable productions of mass human movement across over 688 kilometers of track each day. They stand like menacing steel water boilers: perforated, dirty, turned on their side and linked together 9 to 12 cars long. They are as unforgiving and raw as the landscape they traverse over 633 times daily. Their clearance must be at least 6 feet above the ground, so stepping up into them from the raised platform into a wall of people requires more than a healthy spring in your step. Steel cages in place of glass windows and nada in place of doors, they are stripped down of anything extraneous or breakable. They are engineered to be abused, overused, and overloaded; mercilessly providing the most efficient method of transportation to about 7 million people each day while causing the death to an average of 12 people each month.
These are no vacuum-sealed, air-conditioned, polished trains that you might expect when you think “efficient”, but “efficient” is what they are. Each train makes over a day, carrying between over 4,500 passengers per train in peak hours - that’s more than 38% over capacity limit - on time, fast, and remarkably smoothly. They are some of the most rugged conveyances of human capital as you can imagine within the realm of modest civility, but they are a welcomed reprieve from the constant agitation of the street.
As with most amenities in Mumbai, the train car has been adapted into a hybrid place serving multiple purposes: for hawkers to sell goods, small children to beg, small groups to share lunch or gossip, a place sleep, to read
the newspaper, or just listen to music. As the sky turns a ruddy dark gray and home-bound crowds of people swell, the harsh white light projected from the interior of the cars calls to attention everyone who is inside, on display to the world. Men and women are separated by gender-specific cars but both groups stand equally relaxed - bold - in the open door frames of the speeding cars with their legs, heads, and arms leaning over into the night air. It is an incredibly exhilarating experience that feels illegal, natural, free. Packed like sardines, tired faces, knowing looks, create a sort of civic bond that is not apparent on the ground. Venturing into this pandemonium is like a right of passage. I no longer feel like an outsider here. You are at once utterly exposed and completely concealed, but you are on the same level as everyone else in the crowd coming from every corner and walk of life in this city. It is one of the most concentrated examples of democratic space in the city.
For all of us, the train is an opportunity to stop, remain perfectly still, and be moved. For me, it is one of the most profoundly reflexive experiences I’ve had here. It is like entering the impenetrable darkness; hearing a word for the first time, differently; experiencing a deafening silence that opens your ears. When I step off the train into the flow of traffic I feel like I’ve gained something I didn’t have before I got on.