You Think Your Commute Is Bad… How About A Rush Hour Train Ride In Bombay?
In early 2000 on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I had become disgruntled with my corporate consulting job and decided to temporarily throw in the towel and see what else life had to offer. I traveled the world in search of adventure for seven months or so. This is a tale of an ill-advised journey on a commuter train in Bombay during rush hour.
Disregarding the advice of a local that we wait until around eight o’clock in the evening to board a train to our destination, we decided we had nothing better to do so went to the station. We were heading to Agra to view the majestic Taj Mahal. The first leg of our twenty-eight-hour journey was to be a twenty or thirty minute ride to the main train station where we would catch our “sleeper” train to Agra. I say “sleeper” because very little sleep is involved on a typical Indian overnight train from my experience. Factors such as the hard bed, the rough and noisy ride, random people sitting on your bed, and the persistent tea salesmen coming through the cars and at the stops yelling “CHAI!! COFFEE!! CHAI!! COFFEE!!” at all hours combine to make sleep a dubious proposition at best.
We boarded the train around six, a few seats were available, but my traveling companion insisted we stand as that would make it easier to get off when the time came. I sullenly agreed, though I was quite tired from the twenty-four hours we had just traveled from southern India. At the first stop a few more passengers got on. At the second stop maybe fifteen more boarded. Keep in mind we are the only white people on the train, and are quite a spectacle simply being there and being caucasian, not even taking into account our shaven heads, very dirty clothes, baseball caps, and giant backpacks. As more and more people piled on the train, many would stare at us and continue to do so even after I made eye contact. If I smiled at a person it never failed to bring a huge grin to any Indian face. Sometimes the question “Where from?” or “What country?” would be asked of us. In this manner we made several friends on the ride as the car grew impossibly full. It was jammed tight with people and we were eventually unable to move as we were shoved tighter and tighter into the closed door behind us. Add to this the fact that we both had gotten some kind of bug that made being away from a toilet for more than fifteen minutes or so pretty dangerous. The method for the newly boarding Indians became more reminiscent of a running back going full speed for the goal line rather than somebody getting on a train. A crowd of them would start about five feet away and literally run at the door, not stopping until they had firmly jammed themselves in the crowd. It is amazing the number of people that can squeeze on a train using this method.
I kept assuming people would begin to get off the train and it would clear out before our stop. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, still packed so tight Scott’s body was suspended at an unnatural angle, one foot off the ground. That didn’t matter, he was in no danger of falling over, being held up by the multitudes pressed against him. And the train was packed tighter with each stop. Then the inevitable happened. We asked a man how much longer until our stop. He told us Dukak was the third stop from where we were. Then his face took on a look of panic and he said “You start move now. Other door.” With a sinking feeling I realized there was a very slim chance anybody was getting off the train anytime soon, including us. And what was much worse was that we were near the wrong door. A distance of maybe eight feet had to be covered in about ten minutes. And it looked hopeless. I was closer so I began the seemingly impossible task first, shoving and forcing my way backwards then sideways through the crowd towards the faraway opening, dragging my pack with one hand. It was extremely slow going, pushing with all my might, trying to hang on to my pack while moving inch by hard-won inch towards the egress. Scott had three men at one point pushing him on the back as hard as they could, and he in turn was shoving me into the mass of Indian humanity. After coming to what seemed an impasse against a particularly stubborn Indian I heard Scott yell through all the commotion “This is it! This our stop!” Taking a quick glance backwards I saw a desperate look in his eyes and the veins in his neck and reddened forehead popping out, sweat streaming down his face. Shoving the especially obstinate man enough with my hip to get moving again, I heard my pack rip. Somehow I managed to turn my body slightly and get a second hand on it. With all I had I pushed blindly backwards with my legs and popped out on the platform with my pack, into the glorious polluted air, free of the train and free of the press of people. Scott, however, was still on, and the train was going to begin moving at any second. His situation looked hopeless and he yelled a barely perceptible “I’ll meet you here!” over the commotion, indicating he thought he didn’t have a chance and would try and get back to this station somehow. His hat had been knocked loose during the struggle. It was about to come off its precarious position so I reached in and yanked it off his head to his initial dismay until he understood my shouts of “That’s me! That’s me!” He continued struggling, looking doomed for the next station. Then with a loud grunt and a supreme effort, he burst from the press of locals and onto the waiting platform to join me.
Breathing hard, sweat coursing down our bodies, and adrenaline pumping through our veins, we suddenly burst out laughing. A huge crowd of amused Indians had gathered around us. I pulled out my camera and obliged a bewildered man from the crowd to take a picture of us after our glorious and monumental accomplishment of getting off the rush-hour train in Bombay.