As the ladies’ special fast train approaches Churchgate, the crowd moves closer to the edge of the platform. We move closer too. We align our bodies in the direction of the train’s movement, sprint and step inside before the dust-covered metallic beast trudges to a stop.
This is one of the first things you learn about taking a 6:00 p.m. ladies’ special. Climbing into a moving train – your only way to assure a seat. We’re pros, not a single sprain or fracture in the last fifteen years, not even in the monsoons.
Inside, I grab a window seat; Carol follows and slides toward me. Within seconds, all seats are taken.
Carol works at Deutsche Bank and walks to Churchgate station everyday. I’m a travel agent for Globetrotter at Marine Lines, the stop that comes after Churchgate, so I do the reverse journey first. I take a slow train to Churchgate and then catch the Virar fast that passes through Marine Lines without stopping there. That way, I’m almost sure to get a seat. And Carol’s company over the long commute – our only down time to share a heart-to-heart.
The extra commute gets on my nerves sometimes. Especially in summer months when I’m doing double-duty ticketing at work, sending rich college kids backpacking in Europe, all eager to live their Bollywood adventure, get plastered, get laid. But then, I remember Fatima, our other train buddy. “Would kill to have a seat for myself. Tilt my head against the window and nap over commutes. I’d be so much productive like that,” she tells me often. Productive, that’s her favorite word since she’s started working at Runway Shoes in Dadar, a few stops north of Churchgate.
A blonde woman climbs into the train. She looks around and occupies the nook splitting the row of seats opposite us. Her head almost touches the metal rack where passengers have kept their carry bags, handbags, umbrellas, groceries. The blonde brings her henna-tattooed hands closer to her chest and starts reading a book. The cover displays a collage of images – Queen’s Necklace bordering a little too blue Arabian Sea, an endless skyline with Ambani residence highlighted in gold, the call centers at Bandra-Kurla complex, and a group of half-naked women dancing on a stage. I lean forward but don’t see any of the guide names I know. No Lonely Planet logo either. From the title hiding in the corner, it looks like a tourist guide in a foreign language. Mumbai written in blood red stands bold above the images.
By the time the train stops at Dadar, the compartment is so full we wonder if Fatima will be able to climb in. We crane our necks toward the exit door. No sign of her.
The train moves again. The shrill grinding of the metallic wheels blends with the drone of the fans on our compartment’s ceiling. A rancid air adds to the stuffiness inside.
The women standing closer to the gate twitch; a couple of them scream at the fisherwoman who has sandwiched herself between two passengers. She is forcing her way forward while trying to balance a huge basket of fish on her head. Droplets of water trickle through.
“You’re moving to the luggage compartment next stop or I’ll call the police!” One of the women says, as she squints and brings her handkerchief to her nose.
“Train belong to your old man or what?” the fisherwoman yells. Few women grumble. Voices back and forth.
“The luggage compartment is full, can’t you see?”
“The next train was to come in five minutes, couldn’t you wait?”
“Why should I wait when none of you do?”
“The stink from that water on my sari! Aiiyoh, even Surf Ultra can’t wash this away.”
“Royalty should take first class then.” The fisherwoman gives her basket a deliberate shake. The women around squeal and duck their heads.
I remove a cutting board from my bag and place it on my lap. “Drama every day.” I shake my head and start chopping carrots. A little kitchen work on the return commute goes a long way. I get done with dinner and cleaning at home earlier and can help my children with homework before bed. Productive, Fatima would say.
Carol returns fifty rupees in change to the aunty seated across. “I’ll bring you the red ones tomorrow,” she says as she offers aunty a couple of yellow and green water bottles. Aunty is Carol’s regular customer for Tupperware – a side business she runs over the train rides.
“Excuse me,” a voice repeats in the distance, sounding more like scuuz me. Carol looks at me, a sparkle in her eyes. We love Fatima’s town accent since she’s starting working at Runway. Fatima pushes past the crowd and plods toward us, panting for breath. We also love the fit-flop she is wearing these days with fake jadau buttons on the straps. Stylish, yet functional, and the best part, Runway employees get 75% discount. If only we had her shoe size.
Carol pushes her bag of Tupperware products on the luggage rack above, next to her purse. Fatima sits on her lap. We hi-hello, complain about the heat, catch up on our day, and vent about Wednesday, Sunday still an eternity away. We fan ourselves – Fatima with the bottom of her tunic, Carol with a newspaper, and I, with my palm every few seconds I stop chopping veggies.
“What news on the building, babes?” Fatima says, flashing her new vocabulary again. The girls know I was at my residential society’s meeting yesterday. My building is to go for redevelopment like many others in our neighborhood. The three-stories will be demolished and a twelve-story tower will be put up in place. My family will get an extra room like other residents if we all accept the terms set in the construction contractor’s agreement.
“Same old. The hag refuses to give in.” I empty chopped carrots in a Tupperware box to make room for radish. “Always one sample in the herd.” The hag is my building’s oldest resident, a widow unwilling to move and rent elsewhere for two years like the rest of us while the contractor builds a new tower.
Carol rubs my upper arm. The girls know how much I want the bigger space, especially with twins born to my brother. “A family of eight living in one-bedroom flat. Like being stuck in this fucking train compartment for good,” I mutter, avoiding eye contact with the girls. Truth is – five years have passed with these meetings and I don’t want to make-believe any more, nod every time I share my building drama with them. Give it time, babes. What else will they say?
Our heads bob to the rhythm of the train’s movement. Another train rushes past ours, the screech of its wheels drowning all noise in our compartment. When the train disappears, glass-covered high-rises in the distance loom over three to four story buildings like mine where black snakes of tar paint cover the outer walls to prevent monsoon water from leaking in. A long, wide gutter connects Bombay to Mumbai.
“Aa.” Carol pokes my knee with her index finger. The women in our side of the compartment have started playing Antakshari. It’s Carol’s turn to sing a movie song beginning with A. Ae dil hain mushkil jeena yahan, she begins, bringing her shoulder to playfully pat mine. Fatima and aunty join the singing, clapping hands in my direction. I force a smile and join the others. In this collective effort to music, the heat in the compartment dissipates.
Andheri approaches. Many women get down. Few climb in. Air at last.
Two women enter. One is wearing a black pencil skirt, a gray shirt, and a red printed silk scarf wrapped around her neck; another is wearing a navy blue shirt dress and her dark gelled hair is pulled back into a sleek ponytail. They sit in the row next to ours. The blond is sitting opposite them, the Mumbai guide still in her hands.
The sun sets outside. Sunrays light up the brochures stuck on the compartment walls -- abortion ads, contraception ads, English training and grooming school ads, home loan ads, and 999 number ads – police escorts you can call during late night and early morning commutes. This latter, since the Delhi rape incident. One brochure dominates the rest though, covering the sides of the walls, including corners below the metal racks holding passenger bags. Next to the face of a meditating Shiva, the cell phone number of a gold-medalist Baba who assures a 100% wish fulfillment to all desires – higher salary, fertility issues, soul mate search, mental or physical illness. His Facebook page and WhatsApp contact are listed below too.
I’m singing with the girls, yeh hain Bombay meri jaan, as I continue chopping French beans on my lap. Below Baba’s brochure, the blond and the two women who just got in are leaning toward each other, chitchatting, laughing. The woman with the silk scarf brings her finger to point something inside the blonde’s tourist guide. The woman in the shirtdress types something into her iPhone and nods at them. A Louis Vuitton bag hangs by the woman’s shoulder, the one who’s wearing the shirtdress. The fingers tapping her iPhone sport perfectly manicured, scarlet nails.
I stare at the meditating Shiva controlling the walls of our train, his third eye closed over a blissful smile, and give a shriek so loud, the live chorus in front stops. In reflex, I take the finger in my mouth. Aunty gives a gasp and turns her head away. I look down at my cutting board and notice a sea of blood where chopped green beans have formed a pretty archipelago. The islands have sprawled outward leaving a rectangular hollow in the center. The map reminds me of the shriveled back cover of a travel guide on my city I’ve seen at Globetrotter’s. Only senior employees can access the bookcase where the collector’s copy stands tall, locked away, turning its back on us. As I taste the sweet sourness of my blood, I wonder what stories fill up the pages of the antique guide? What color the cover page must have used to name the ancient archipelago? And which name?
About the Author
Namrata Poddar holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She was recently Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Faculty in the Humanities’ program on Transnational Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her criticism and creative work have appeared in International Journal of Francophone Studies, Research in African Literatures, Dalhousie French Studies, The Bangalore Review, The Missing Slate, The Margins, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics (forthcoming), and elsewhere. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Bennington Writing Seminars and English department Faculty at UCLA.