Evening time, Andheri Station, the atmosphere is sheer chaos. Thousands rushing in, a few more thousands rushing out and a couple of hundred thousand individuals passing through the 6 railway tracks. Each train rake is filled to the very brim, people hanging out of the doors like ragged dolls, shrieking, shouting, cursing and more importantly shoving with their lower torsos. As these trains keep moving from one end of the city to another, so many of these ragged men lose their grips and slid down in between the wheels. If they are indeed lucky, death comes instantly else a few limbs are lost and life turns into a living hell.
Commuters, hanging on to the doors, have become immune to such incidences and barely would bat an eye-lid on seeing a bleeding dismembered corpse lying on the side of the tracks. There is barely room for humans on these trains, let alone humanity. Day after day, millions travelling on these trains are dehumanised steadily; etiquette, civility and propriety are ritually shred from the insides. Death, accident, blood, tragedy, pain, trauma; all of these things lose their significance till it doesn’t happen to oneself. This steeling process is repeated twice a day, once in the morning from Virar to Churchgate and in the evening from Churchgate to Virar. In some strange way, this is one of the secrets behind the famous and resilient ‘Mumbai spirit’ that so many of our news channels keep harping about.
It was on one such evening that I found myself standing on Platform 1 at Andheri. Myself and my friend Abhijit Deb had a meeting fixed in the suburb of Goregaon (a mere two stops from Andheri), and much as we would have liked to take the road, the two tiny hands on our wristwatches made us decide otherwise. Now Abhijit is a gritty person hailing from mountainous paradise of Meghalaya, who though cribs about the unruly millions of Mumbai, but has made his peace with them.
Whereas, I don’t really know on which ground I stand; I hate the crowds and this sea of humanity every passing day and fantasise constantly of the day I will not be counted as one of these. Yet, I lack the courage and gumption to break free. Thus these crowded trains truly scare me. Also, another factor that works against me, is my BMI or body mass index, with the weighing scale pointer dancing around the 100 kgs mark, I am hardly athletic or even fit. And if that wasn’t enough, I had both my hand in bandages on that day, sign of a stupid me (but that is another story).
The clock made the decision for us and compelled us to join the thronging multitudes that shift with each passing train. Thus with the 7:09 Borivali approaching, visible from the bright circular yellow halo in the near distance, we geared ourselves as best we could; stiffen the muscles and tried to move as close to the edge as possible. Now, trying to board a train at a major junction like Andheri is a very tricky and dexterous business. While there are 50 shoving to board the train, some 20 are frantically pushing from inside trying to come out and a couple of them are standing on the door unwilling to give up on their advantageous positions. The key is to get in the train even before it comes to a complete halt. If you are unable to do so, then you will have to grapple and labour at the door trying your luck. All this, getting in-getting out-staying put business, needs to be accomplished within 30 odd seconds that the train halts for. And though the frequency of the trains are high during the peak hours, every 5-10 minutes, yet nothing can be gained by waiting for the next one as it will be as bad as the previous one.
Now as the 7:09 Borivali Slow came to a halt, both of us were unable to board the train, we were pushing and shoving the person in front of us. It was kind of odd, as the train wasn’t as badly packed as we had imagined. In the sense, 2-3 people were able to shove their way even when it was stationary; this was making a lot us who were pushing from the outside quite optimistic. But even when it isn’t usually crowded, it is still unusually crowded. Hence, after some customary shoving, I gave up and decided to try my luck in the next train. But gritty Abhijit wouldn’t, and would not let me either. Even with his blithe build, he managed to push a person standing on the door and asked me to do the same, i.e. push him inside.
With bandages on my hand, clutching a small valise, I caught hold of the rod that is bang in the centre between the two compartment doors. Now, I have my honest doubts as to why the rod has been put, where it has been put. I believe on seeing so many people slipping out day after day, the Railways in their generosity installed the rods, so that it can support at least a few more as they hang on to their dear lives. Thus, in no real mood to continue on, I was clutching at the life-saving rod when the train started moving towards its destination.
Hanging outside the door of a crowded compartment is infinitely better than smelling armpits and saving your toes inside. But certainly not, when you are hanging as precariously as I was. I had the valise between both the arms, and barely had my toes on the footboard. To the credit of the commuters, every time a crowded train moves out of the station, it tries to attain equilibrium, and in the process the whole mass expands and contracts rhythmically. And as this equilibrium state was being sort by the hundreds inside, I was getting the jitters. With the train gathering speed, I was being subjected by the external forces, termed as centrifugal in Physics textbooks. The person next to me, standing rather comfortably, was cribbing rather obscenely about my valise poking him in the arms and then there was huge wall of bodies that was pushing at me.
It took me a few seconds for my confidence to get shattered and I started to panic. I started to plead with all around, imploring them to shift sufficient enough for me to squeeze in somehow. The train was moving real fast by now, and I was sure that life, if it remained, would never be the same again if my hands slipped. The wind was bellowing at me, trying to unsettle my ungainly form. In a few more seconds and now I was completely shaken and stirred, my pleas to the wall became rather frantic and I was asking a person who was looking at me strangely through his spectacles to at least hold my hands. Probably, he was waiting to see me fall, so that he could talk about a ‘fat fool’ meeting death in front of his eyes, while discussing Mumbai with his folks and friends. Or probably, he was just benumbed by it all. Finally, he caught my hands, but not strong enough to reassure me.
The train was moving at top speed now, and I was still hanging the same way like I had, when we started from Andheri. Meanwhile, Abhijit had got into full action mode, roused by my frantic please he was pushing wildly at the crowd in front, and when it wouldn’t move an inch he was spewing cuss words on them trying to wake them from the comma they were in. Somehow, every time he pushed at them, the whole mass would budge like a big lard of fat on an enormous beast and then fall back again. My both hands had stiffened by now, and I could feel my feet were shivering. It was as if, my arms didn’t want to carry on the burden of my body anymore and had asked their friends (the feet) to end the trauma by letting go.
Panic was replaced by complete desperation, and sweat forming on my brow, I was doing everything I could, pushing with my torso, begging the crowd in front. Abhijeet was also desperately pushing at the people in front. And probably, my pleas and his push worked, as a little room was made and now, while I was hanging still, it wasn’t as precarious as earlier. Finding a bit more space, I could concentrate and push with my weight now, and I wasn’t as pitiless state as earlier. Abhijeet grabbed my arms and with my full force, I pushed at the lard of weight and finally managed to make some space and squeeze myself.
The train takes close to 3 minutes from Andheri to Jogeshwari, the next stop. So, all I had to do was to hang on for some 3 odd minutes, but that seemed impossible to me. I must have hung for some 63 seconds or more at max. And in that minute, my whole existence was completely shaken. I was sweating profusely, heart beating like a drum in my chest, shivering over self. Standing on my feet inside, I was unable to believe the trauma that I had just undergone. There was such a relief at being alive, to have escaped death by a few inches and a few more seconds because had I hung on for a few more, my hands would have given up.
The people inside the compartment were not exactly sympathetic to my state, holding me responsible for the situation I was in. A few people, like the bespectacled fellow who held my hands, were indeed moved by my cries and were trying to make some way and egging me to push more strongly. But, except for those few, no one else seemed to bother. I remember, there were times in the past when I was inside the compartment being forced to smell armpits, I had heard a few frantic pleas like the ones I was making today. And how I wasn’t moved by those pleas, as I blamed the person for trying to board an overcrowded train and then imploring people to save his life. But, here I was on the other side, with people staring at me in a weird odd disdainful manner.
Jogeshwari came and the train came to a halt, a few people got out and I was comfortably inside. Abhijeet had moved to the door, probably trying to shield me from the trauma or just wanting to feel the rush of air against his face. One middle aged person, who had timidly managed to squeeze in earlier, was talking about how difficult it was for him and how bravely he had faced the situation. I stood there, with my face down, thinking about those 63 seconds and how everything would have changed in those few very moments. 32 odd years dissolved in the chaos and frenzy of 63 seconds.
To be honest, when the train had started from Andheri at that very moment, I had thought of getting out, but that would have been a catastrophe as well, since the way I was hanging, I would have surely tumbled rather painfully had I done the same. By now, my arms were hurting, and I didn’t know whether to thank them or curse them.
A few minutes passed like that and our destination Goregaon came and we disembarked. I was never happier to have firm ground beneath my feet, and a thought passed, how fortunate I was to have survived those 63 seconds and how a few like me today and a few hundreds every year did not and would not survive those 63 seconds. A lifetime was nipped by a few seconds every day. My antipathy towards our animal-like existence only increases and how I wish no one would ever have to go through this trauma. The best thing about this tale is that I lived to tell it. And thank god for that. Without a doubt, those 63 seconds were the longest 63 seconds of my life.