The bonding in packed locals makes up largely for the travelling discomforts

In the 2008 film A Wednesday, Naseeruddin Shah is driven to act against terrorism by among other things, the death of a young fellow commuter, in a bomb blast. The two would exchange greetings, sometimes just a smile, in the overcrowded locals, on their way to work, standing mostly, the thick jostle not allowing leisurely conversations. In that one scene of silent relating between two commuters in the Mumbai locals, writer-director Neeraj Pandey captured the essence of the bonding that happens wherever people share a common mode of public transport to work, prime example being the Mumbai locals.

When boarding a local especially in peak hours, annexing a seat, standing for long periods, squeezed in a muddle of bodies, and wrenching one’s way out to get off at one’s destination are all challenging acts wrought with different levels of anxiety, an outsider would well wonder if there could be any joy in this kind of travel. The reality is commuters ‘create’ joy for themselves, by simply interacting with each other. As the popularity of WhatsApp and Facebook has reconfirmed, nothing delights humans so much as relating to other human beings. And the locals provide ample time, if not room for interactions. With a hundred differences, people come together instinctively in packed compartments, united by the one commonality – their chosen mode of travel – and the bonding makes up largely for the travelling discomforts, rendering the tedious bearable and indeed pleasant. Warm camaraderie has heft!

Sapna Hinduja, who would regularly commute between Andheri and Churchgate by locals for three years, for work, till recently vouches for this power. “We did not know how the time would pass, as we talked; we were a group of eight, we would board from different stations. We would learn about each other’s day-to-day difficulties and share our own.” Such sharing is always easier than sharing problems with one’s close people, for the former involves no responsibilities, no obligations. But it certainly deepens compassion and helps to look at life from other perspectives than one’s own, adds Sapna.

Problems apart, the train groups score high on celebration – celebrating festivals, events like birthdays, and generally life itself with zest. “We would cut birthday cake in train, share til laddoos on Sankranti and other snacks. We even once played dandiya sitting during Navratri.” As is vital to any celebration, such groups break into singing easily. Commuters crooning popular film songs in locals, playing the favourite Antakshari game is a striking feature of Mumbai locals – peculiar to nature of Indians – something which one cannot imagine in locals in other countries like Japan, where people travel by metros or their bullet trains, in absolute silence with mobiles on silent mode.

Chandrika Maiya, who taught History in Bhavan’s College, Chowpati and was a regular commuter for 30 years, recalls how she made a good friend Prabha during her commuting days. “Three of us were singing in our compartment. Prabha, a lecturer from Jai Hind College heard and joined us…and our group expanded.” The real sign of bonding between commuters can be seen in Navratri, especially in the ladies compartment, when women turn up in same colour clothes, in deference to an agreed colour code.

Shares Anjali, who has been travelling daily on a particular train for years now, “Over the years, in the two-hour commute to South Mumbai where I work, I became part of a group. Given we see each other for hours daily, what initially started as a casual conversation has over the years built a strong bond. From discussing films to office politics, and from chopping vegetables to competing on Candy Crush, nothing is off the table. Festivals holds a special significance for us. One week earlier, we all contribute some money, assign tasks and distribute snacks to celebrate. There are times when we are out together on a weekend, shopping or exploring places. And the next day, we end up showing our pictures to the entire compartment!”

While women mostly chat, men who regularly commute form groups too and bond with fellow travellers in other ways. Playing cards in trains to pass time is a common form, though of late this has lost a lot of traction, with the scintillating landing of the smart phone in locals. A few men tend to sleep it off in trains, most meander in the various spaces offered by mobiles, mainly films. Sharing movies, pirated copies, on mobile is the new bonding activity. As the word goes these days, “Even before a film is released in theatres, it gets released in Virar locals.”

While the mobile has whittled down train discussions to an extent, conversations in locals still flourish, observes Anarkali, who has been commuting earlier as a college girl and now as an office-goer. “Women especially still speak a lot to each other,” proving the ultimate appeal of a face-to-face interaction over all other modes of communication. ”Since I don’t travel at fixed times, I am not a member of any group.”  

Being a member of a group in a local also serves an important practical consideration. Members take turns to sit, when there is a seat crunch in rush hours, thus allowing each member to rest their tired legs for a while. And in really packed compartments on the Virar line, even to board the train you may need to have a group’s support. Men especially can deny access to a crowded train to passengers, by blocking doors, unless they happen to be members of their cohort.

For all the strong feelings these groups evince, it’s a fact that friendships that start off in trains mostly end there too, as passengers drop off one route or change jobs and daily travel destinations. But the memories remain as sweet residue, the exchanges nourishing and shaping people subconsciously. In a nutshell, commuting can be a drudge, or fun and learning. It’s up to a commuter to tease joy and meaning out of it.

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