Mumbai’s local trains are a constant source of entertainment and inspiration. When I first decided to get back to work and take the train instead of driving, MK was a little worried about the crowds and what they would do to my once paralyzed arm. Frankly, I was a little worried, too. But I was much too sick of the protected, comfortable world I was living in. Apart from zapping my confidence about small things, it was making me fat (er). In car, at work-in car, home; in car, supermarket-in car, home was how I functioned.
But the worst thing that the car did to me was take away from human contact. I don’t mean that I attribute the drop in meeting friends or relatives and general decline in social meetings to the car (for that, I am to blame entirely). I am referring to the mere act of watching people; knowing people and yet not knowing them. The closed world of the car makes one a loner, I think. Now that I have been taking the train to work for two weeks, I know this to be true.
The ladies’ first class compartment of the 7:50 ferries several kinds of women—young girls off to college, middle-aged teachers off to school, women like me off to work. And within that first class is a whole new world with its own class system of strata and sub-strata. The young, middle-class, zesty women in practical shoes and synthetic salwar kameezes, who can run and get on a train before it screeches to a halt; the slightly more “elite” types who’d rather stand the length of the entire journey than clamber into a moving train and balance themselves on ridiculously high heels and scowl at the leaking train roof; the novice out-of-stationers, who actually have a second class ticket but don’t know the difference—the works.
And in the middle of all this mess, she stands.
She must be about 35; and she is, most definitely, a single parent. Armed with a windcheater, a large handbag, another kiddy bag, and two sleepy kids, this woman gets on the 7:50 every morning, seemingly cussing the rain and the gods for the ordeal that the day is turning out to be. She shouts at the children to stay awake so they can balance themselves in rapid swings of the crowded train, reminds them of which tiffin box should be opened for which meal of the day, reacts in shock to homework that a sleepy child admits to not having done, and keeps an eye on the approaching station while mentally listing up the tasks she has to do at work.
One station before the train’s last stop, she gets off with all her baggage, her kids and their baggage, and starts on the long journey through the day. From her conversations with the children, I know she drops them to school first, from where they go directly to the babysitter’s. The children look undernourished, tired, and almost slow. Maybe she doesn’t have the time to cook full, nutritious meals for them. Maybe the babysitter she’s paying for the meals is just making do with carb-heavy junk food. Maybe that’s why they look so unhappy. With her? With how their lives are going?
And then, yesterday. I saw her in the 7:10 in the evening. And what a changed picture it was! She hopped on to the train, almost with a spring in her step, orchestrated with her children’s small steps and a united “aah!” The children’s faces, still weighed down by the water bottles around their necks, were brighter and happier. The train was still full, stinky with rain and tired sweat, and they had to stand at the entrance as they usually do. But yesterday, when the train pulled out of the station, she started singing her daughter’s favorite nursery rhyme. The daughter pitched in; and the son, by now squeezing himself through the sea of fat women’s legs in pursuit of window standing space, raced back to join his mother and sister. They sang right up to the last station, increasing the volume a few notches with every realization of new-found energy, unaware of the zillion faces watching them and enjoying their happiness.
Maybe something got solved yesterday. Maybe she got a pay raise, or fell in love. Maybe she just decided to be happy now on.
Maybe it really happened. Or maybe, I’m just weaving something around a face that I see on the train everyday.