Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bombay Local Train Tour

Being a city which attracts a large number of tourists, Bombay has its fair share of tours. These include the usual conducted tours which show you the main attractions of the city, and also heritage walks, the Bollywood tour, package tours to Elephanta Island, bazaar walks, and the controversial Dharavi slum tour. It seems no one has yet come up with a Bombay Local Train Tour, but I think it’s a brilliant idea, as – truth be told – most of my ideas are.

The Mumbai Suburban Railway is one of the four things I like best about Bombay, and there are many reasons why it deserves a tour all to itself. It is the oldest railway system in Asia, and carries over 6.9 million commuters daily. But most importantly, the Bombay local is the city’s lifeline, inextricably linked to the lives of its people, a true institution. You can talk all you want about the Gateway of India, Leopold’s, vada pav or the BSE. For me, there is nothing which is so fundamentally Bombay as the local train. There is simply no better way to get to know the city.

If I were in Bombay now and had a few days to spare, I would do some first-hand research and post a detailed Bombay Local Train Tour Plan. At the moment, I have only my memory to rely on, but still, here is a rough outline. Be warned, however, that neither the Bombay Local Train Tour nor this post is for the faint of heart.

The tour starts on a weekday around 9 a.m., which is the peak hour. You are to take the Virar–Churchgate Fast, but don’t get up at Virar. This is the most crowded train in Bombay, and unless you are a seasoned traveller, you will never manage to board at Virar. Instead, catch a down train a few stations south of Virar. This way, before the train reaches its terminus and reverses direction, you will get a place to sit, if you are lucky.

The Virar Fast sometimes has 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor-space. There are people clinging to the window bars, and people riding on the roof, risking electrocution. Many of those who ride on the roof disdain to climb down to the platform. When they arrive at their station, if they have not already been electrocuted, they vault up directly onto the overbridge.

There is incredible overcrowding, but also incredible kindness. Suketu Mehta described this in Maximum City.

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the compartment. […] But consider what has happened: your fellow-passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, [...] will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.

Alight at Dadar, fighting your way past the twenty thousand people trying to get on the train. Now switch from the Western to the Central Line (Dadar is a junction), and catch a southbound train to VT.

Stroll around VT for a while, goggling at the gargoyles and the monkey and peacock-heads jutting from the walls, and admiring the extravagant architecture (a fusion of Victorian, Italianate, Gothic Revival and traditional Indian styles, Wikipedia tells me). Before the security staff get suspicious, catch a northbound Harbour Line train.

If I had my way, there would be no guides on the Bombay Local Train Tour. You would just have a pamphlet describing the route, and also providing trivia about the stations that you pass through. Masjid, the first station after VT, is not named after a masjid. It gets its name from the Gate of Mercy Synagogue, which was built in 1796 and is popularly known as Juni Masjid. The Masjid–Sandhurst Road section has a gradient of 1:34, which is one of the steepest gradients in the Indian Railways. This is quite strange, because Mumbai is relatively flat. (For comparison, the Kalka-Shimla line has a ruling gradient of 1:33.) The supporting pillars of the Sandhurst Road station still bear the inscription GIPR 1921 Lutha Iron Works, Glasgow. GIPR stands for Great Indian Peninsula Railway which was founded in 1849 with a share capital of 50,000 pounds. You think I’m overdoing the trivia? Okay, I’ll give it a break now.

Mankhurd on the Harbour Line is the last stop on Salsette Island, before the train leaves for Navi Mumbai on mainland India. When crossing the Mankhurd-Vashi sea bridge, you get some magnificent views across the Thane Creek, especially if you time it right and cross it during sunset. If you get lucky, you might even spot flamingos.

Turn back at Vashi and retrace your route as far as Vadala. From Vadala, take the feeder line which connects the Harbour and Western Lines. Alight at Mahim and take a southbound Western Line train. This is the last leg of the journey, and also the prettiest. You catch your first glimpse of the sea shortly after passing Grant Road. Near Marine Lines, where the railway follows the contours of the bay, there are sea views, cricket fields, fair grounds and historic buildings. And then you’re at Churchgate, at the end of your tour. You can smell the sea almost before you leave the station. Marine Drive is a hundred yards to your right, what more could you ask for?


Kunal Bhatia said...

lovely idea. and once they finish the metro lines - after a decade or two - one could zip-zap across the different lines
- Mindless Mumbai

Anjana Talapatra said...

:) I lived in Mumbai for two years and have traveled all those routes separately at one time or the other..minus the Virar local. I could never quite summon the courage for that one. In the course of those journeys I remember a mixed feeling of solemnity and excitement..a feeling I never really allowed myself to recognise fully, until I read this post I think. Don't grudge my calling it Mumbai, I've lived all my life in Maharashtra, it's always been Mumbai to me!

Karthy said...

So my fellow intern was like: well why do you wanna intern/work so badly in bombay when you're in delhi? And it was a little difficult to explain that it had everything to do with blog posts. :)

Sroyon said...

@Kunal: Spoken with true Mumbai optimism!

@Anjana: So long as you don't grudge my calling it Bombay... :)

@Karthy: Which blog posts?