During my days as a commuter in Mumbai's rush hour traffic, I remember how people in trains and buses made the best of a tedious routine. Long train journeys served several purposes. Some allowed the rocking train to lull them into a hard-earned catnap. The trains threw many people together, regular commuters who shared the same compartment on the same route daily for years. They played cards, exchanged pleasantries and some even became bosom buddies. Many trains had their regular card playing teams, with onlookers placing bets and cheering their favorite side on.
Mumbai's commuters knew all about multi tasking long before management gurus extolled its virtues. Women in the second class ladies' compartments caught up on domestic chores on the way home. They usually reached their suburban homes very late, and every minute mattered. The enterprising ladies knitted, sewed, and even peeled and chopped vegetables for dinner. Vendors entered the compartments and sold everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to hairbands and cosmetics.
Two incidents linger in my memory. One morning, my train halted a furlong from the Churchgate Terminus platform. It was quite a height to jump off, so I waited, hoping the train would start again and take us to the platform. But as office time neared, the more intrepid among us girded their sarees and tied their dupattas, took off their shoes, and took the plunge.
As the minutes ticked by, I remained one of the timid few in the stationary compartment. I peered down yet again at the height I must jump, and faced the exciting options of risking a broken ankle and arriving late at work.
"Don't be scared." A voice startled me by its sweetness. "Hold my hand, close your eyes and just jump."I stared at the owner of the outstretched hand, a slim young woman with an exuberant afro hairdo. Her rich dark skin had a hue not commonly seen among Indian women. In the moments I took to overcome my awe of her beauty, she turned proudly on her heels and disappeared among the crowd.
I guessed she was an African, probably a student at the nearby Bombay University. I wanted to reach out to her, to tell her that if people were taken aback by her exotic looks, it did not necessarily imply racism.
On another drizzly monsoon evening, I emerged from Andheri Station and frantically hailed reluctant autorickshaw drivers to take me home to our apartment. My savior finally arrived, a natty young driver dressed like the reigning Bollywood superstar.
As I entered the auto drenched and shivering, he cut me short by announcing, "donÂ't tell me where you want to go. You don't remember me?"
No, I did NOT!
"You're famous," he continued. "You look for autos around this time every evening. We all know you. We know everything about you. I know exactly where to take you, so just sit quiet and don't bother giving directions."
Who was he? A stalker or a hit man from the underworld perhaps? I shivered in the speeding auto while he regaled me with ceaseless chatter. Should I jump off at the next traffic signal and bolt? Or should I wait and watch? He hadn't taken out a gun or dagger yet, so maybe...
True to his word, he brought me right till the entrance to our housing society without my needing to give a single direction.
"So which one is your building, ma'am?"
"You can drop me right here, thanks. I'll need to pick up a few groceries here, so..."
He stopped, I got down, paid him and watched him sputter away down the street.