Installment #9 - November 20, 2000
Riding the commuter trains of the Mumbai suburban railway is a contact sport. I decided to take a round trip from the northern suburb of Santa Cruz to Mumbai's Churchgate Station on Thursday morning during commute time to try my hand at it. The train was not full when I got aboard, but it filled fast and, once it filled, the fun started.
Before the train reached a complete stop at a typical station, the first wave of commuters began to jump from the train to the platform. If they waited for a complete stop, they would have to struggle against the flood of passengers climbing aboard, and they would probably be pushed off anyway by the crowd of exiting passengers behind them. The passengers on the platform waited until the train stopped, but not a second longer. They then began to push onto the train, conflicting directly with the passengers still trying to get off. This was the heavy contact part of the sport, as people moving in opposite directions shoved to get on or off during the 15 seconds or so that the train remained in the station.
I was standing about three feet inside the door, against a wall during this action, and saw the intense looks on the faces of the boarding passengers as they did their best to get aboard. I had to brace myself first against the outgoing tide, and then against the incoming. As the train began to move, there were two or three layers of passengers outside the door, clinging to the door opening, and speaking in urgent tones. I imagine they were requesting that passengers inside the car move away from the door or compact themselves a little more so that the outermost layer of clinging passengers could get closer to the door and not be wiped off when the train passed the next signal or utility pole.
I had no problem getting off at Churchgateit's the end of the line. I walked around Mumbai for an hour or so enjoying the sights (which included my first seashore view since leaving the USA) as I walked along Mumbai's Back Bay. I understand that Mumbai was originally seven islands, but filling over the years has combined them into one. The old name Bombay is derived from Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the Koli fisherfolk, the oldest inhabitants of the area. About 40% of the city's population is Marathi, and the name was changed to Mumbai, the Marathi name for Bombay, in 1996 by the pro-Marathi Shiv Sena party, which came to power in 1985.
We had arrived from Rajkot at the Dadar station in the Mumbai suburbs on Saturday morning and taken a cab to Santa Cruz, where Jikaka had arranged for us to stay with Parul and Manoj Pandya, related through Jikaka's cousin. On Sunday afternoon, we took the commuter train to Mumbai's Victoria Station. Rita took one look at the crowded train and decided to ride in the ladies-only car. I barely made it into the general compartment before the train left the station. In Mumbai, we caught our train to Aurangabad for a visit to Ellora and Ajanta caves (they are covered in the next report).
On Wednesday morning, we returned to Santa Cruz, where we spent two additional restful days visiting and dining with extended family members, and I tried to catch up with picture editing and report writing. On Friday morning, we said our good-byes to our hosts and headed out for a day of sightseeing in Mumbai before catching our Friday evening train.
From what we saw of it, Mumbai is a clean city with very few animals on the streets. Autorickshaws are not allowed in the downtown areaan anti-pollution measure. The number of private cars on the roads seemed much higher than in the other places we have visited. Both Churchgate and Victoria Terminal (recently renamed and referred to as ST) are much cleaner than the other train stations we have seen.
We visited the Gateway of India and took a ferry from there to Elephanta Island to visit the caves located there, but mainly for the 45-minute (each way) boat ride in Mumbai Harbor. On the return trip, I paid 10 rupees extra to ride on the top deck of the ferry, where I had a cool breeze and an unobstructed view. I was the only passenger up there at first, and I was soon conversing with the helmsman, who offered me the wheel. I ended up steering the ferry for a half hour or so. [Can't imagine getting away with that here in the US, the land of the litigious.]
Back in Mumbai, Rita visited several shops while I waited outside and watched the city pass by. As I sat on the front step of a jewelry store that Rita was visiting, I was approached by two young (perhaps 8 and 10 years old) girls who asked me the usual questions (where are you from, how long have you been in India, etc.) The older one, Sonya, told me that she spoke French, German, Italian, and Japanese. I asked what language they spoke at home, and the younger girl (whose name I don't remember) began to answer, but after a look from Sonya, said she didn't have a home, that she lived on the street with her younger brother and sister. She said that her brother's name was Sonya, but after another look from Sonya, and a little thought, changed it to John.
Eventually, they told me they didn't want money from me, but did want me to buy them some milk powder. They said they were hungry, and that their younger brothers and sisters were hungry as well. I said I had to wait for Rita. The younger girl left briefly and returned with a piece of Indian candy that she ate slowly (she did not appear to be hungry). They asked if I knew any English songs, and the three of us sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat". Sonya pointed to the numbers on my watch as she counted to 12. The younger girl needed a little help with her counting. A third, older girl (about 14?) who was selling flowers nearby came by and demonstrated her ability to count to 90 in English. They periodically repeated their request that I go with them to the store to buy them milk powder or, at one point, banana chips.
By the time Rita came out of the store, I had been entertained by these girls for about 45 minutes, and I knew that most of what they were telling me was made up on the spot. They were professional beggars, and very good at it, in my opinion. But I felt they had earned something from me and, assuming we were talking about a 20 rupee bag of milk powder, we let them lead us to the nearby vendor where they selected one 300 rupee can of powdered milk each. We declined to buy the milk, and ended up giving them each 10 rupees.
These were bright and talented kids, and I wished I could somehow help them finish school and get jobs that would put their linguistic and sales abilities to good use. But what I did was give money to professional beggars who, from their appearance, were eating well and probably not deserving of charity. Did I do them a disservice, encouraging them in the wrong direction? Or did I tip them for services rendered, just as we had tipped the guide that we acquired at the Taj Mahal, even though we had told him we did not want a guide?
We had supper at a nice restaurant with a view of Back Bay and the northwestern Mumbai shoreline, and then returned to ST to catch our train. We were soon asleep in our bunks and on our way to Goa.
Click on the thumbnails below for a larger view, then use your browser's Back button
Rita with our gracious host family:
Jaimie, Parul, and Manoj Pandya.
Jahnvi, Jaimie's little sister, was
sleeping when we took the picture.
Commuters climb aboard a suburban
commuter train. Unfortunately, the
picture does not do justice to the action.
This group of guys seems to have
set up housekeeping at the remote end
of a station platform.
The inside of the Churchgate terminus as seen
from the platform. The view inside ST is similar,
but the outsides are dramatically different.
Churchgate is a rectangular, multistory office
building, while ST is a gothic building, completed
in 1887, that looks more like a cathedral than a
A family sleeps on the sidewalk in
Santa Cruz, north of Mumbai.
This cobbler is at work in his shop adding
holes to my belt.
I thought this was clever. This guy rides his bike
to his customer's location, then puts the bike on
its stand and pedals to run the grinding wheel
to sharpen the knives of street vendors.
The view looking across Back Bay to the
northwest shoreline of Mumbai. The rocks
in the foreground are in the middle of the bay.
[Use your browser's horizontal scroll bar to
view the entire scene.]
India Gate as seen from the Elephanta Island
ferry. This stone archway was built to
commemorate the 1911 visit of King George
and Queen Mary to India.
Indian Navy ships in Mumbai harbor.
The aircraft carrier seems to have an
upturned launching ramp, a feature that
I don't remember ever having seen before.
Here I am steering the Elephanta Island ferry. The
wheelhouse is too short for me to stand straight. The
wheel has a full turn or more of slack before the rudder
begins to move; it takes some getting used to. The dot
on the panel to the right of and below my right hand is
the plastic compass. Less than an inch in diameter, it
looks like a prize from a Crackerjacks box. But the
course is set visually - no need to refer to a compass.
Sonya (right) and her friend. These girls seemed
bright and talented, and I hope there will be more
in their future than begging.
- Alright, alright, here is a picture of me and the Prattmobile.
- Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!!!