Mumbai: Life Along the Railway Tracks

 A man tends to spinach growing alongside the railway tracks in Mumbai. Railway authorities lease out the land to farmers and the veggies grown here find their way to local markets. The farms are not without controversy– as you can see they grow alongside sewers and trash, raising questions about health and safety.

The local trains of Mumbai are as legendary and chaotic as the city itself. Each day they chug across a vast network of tracks, ferrying millions of passengers from far-flung suburbs to work and college and school or– best of all– home. But the tracks also play what might seem to an outsider an unlikely role: they are home to hundreds of thousands of residents of this hardscrabble city who live along the tracks, cook and eat here, sleep here, and even play here.

Take a ride in a local train and you will find some unexpected and even heartwarming surprises both outside and inside the trains which despite the bustle and noise tend to be a place where friendships are often struck between fellow travelers. Mind you, it’s not an easy experience catching the local in Mumbai. I was born and raised in this city and I was a seasoned traveler for all the time I lived here, but this time the very idea of getting into a local made me nervous because I felt so rusty with my technique. And as any Mumbaikar will tell you, there is a very specific technique. You need to know exactly where to position yourself on the platform, and at which stage– even before the train comes to a stop — you need to jump in and rush to find a seat. There’s absolutely no time for indecision or hesitation or, indeed, dignity. A second’s delay and you could be standing, pressed up against the sweaty arm of a fellow traveler, for the hour it takes to get to your destination. Getting out at your stop, before you get pushed back in by more passengers getting in, is also an art (one that involves a lot of elbowing and, sometimes, shouting).
But the locals of Bombay are efficient– they will get you to your destination on time and usually much faster than a ride in a car, despite the city’s brand-new network of freeways and flyovers. So when we needed to take a ride to meet some family in a suburb during our stay in Mumbai, Desi suggested the local train. After some hesitation I agreed only because it was a Sunday and he promised we’d get first-class tickets (yes, the local trains have a first class and a second class and a separate ladies’ compartment for each class. There even used to be a ladies’ special train, meant as the name implies only for women, during rush hour although I don’t know if that exists anymore.)
So into the train we got, after passing a row of metal detectors at Churchgate station (a grim reminder of the terrorist attacks in the city in 2008 which, among other places, targeted a busy Mumbai railway station). We found ourselves a seat pretty easily– no elbowing required– and sat back to watch life go by. Here are a few memories I wanted to share with you. The grill in the window was unavoidable and I was in a moving train which made it hard to always capture exactly the picture I wanted, but I hope you enjoy them despite these limitations for the life they depict.

A child stands outside a makeshift home along the railway tracks, oblivious to the noise made by the locals that zip by every few seconds. And below, the tracks serve as a playground for children who live in the slums lining the railway tracks. A scary sight for safety-minded visitors, but a normal one for anyone who travels these trains every day.

Construction is everywhere in Mumbai, including near the railway tracks where glossy skyscrapers rub shoulders with slums and smaller buildings.

Clothes dry outside a shelter along the railway tracks. And below, a man finds an unlikely spot to relax and enjoy the evening air.

Piles of trash like this one are a common sight along the railway tracks.

A long-distance train rides alongside the local. Note the men sitting and standing in the doors– a common sight in Indian trains. During rush hour you will often find riders standing on the parallel bars of the windows and on top of local trains to get home sooner.

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14 thoughts on “Mumbai: Life Along the Railway Tracks

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    October 1, 2013 at 4:19pm

    <3 wonderful pictures. Oh, India!! So much life and color and activity busting out of every square inch. Made me miss it! Though, I confess to never having tried to catch a train in Mumbai. Last time we were there, we saw a train heading out over the bridge - at rush hour - absolutely covered in people, just like you described. It was thrilling and crazy all at once!

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    October 1, 2013 at 6:19pm

    Although not nearly as crowded nor requiring women-only cars, marking out the exact spot to stand on platform sounds very reminiscent of what I used to do when commuting to WTC. Yeah, I miss the exacting drill.

    Your photos speak for themselves; the poverty is so much more glaring than the grids you shot through.

    Glad I happened upon your post via FB, Vaishali. Hope you and Desi are well.

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    October 1, 2013 at 6:41pm

    My immediate reaction to seeing the pictures was ‘Holy Cow!’. Gut wrenching, but real pictures of my city. Enjoy your trip.

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    October 1, 2013 at 7:01pm

    I love your essays and photos, Vaishali. You’re capturing a slice of everyday life in such a neat way. I used to be a seasoned local traveler too. Your post suddenly made me remember one time in college when a friend convinced me to go into the first class compartment with a second class ticket and we almost got caught!

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    October 1, 2013 at 10:15pm

    Loved your essay Vaishali and pictures by Desi too. Mumbai, and its local trains still amuse me, like a true non-Mumbaikar! I have travelled handful of times in the really crowded trains and counting my breaths throughout the journey!

    Looking forward to read more!

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    Manju @ Manjus Eating Delights

    October 2, 2013 at 3:06pm

    I bet a Mumbai train ride is a must for any traveller visiting the state :-) I still remember my first ever train ride while I was visiting cousins in Mumbai several years ago and I don’t think I had to ever try to get into the train, the crowd just dragged me in…hehe…That day I remember feeling horribly scared, but now I laugh my butts out thinking abt it!! Lovely post and so naturally pictured!

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    Vaishali Honawar

    October 2, 2013 at 6:16pm

    Joe, thank you!

    Amey, “Color and activity bursting out of every inch” — you nailed it, that’s India.

    Susan, I guess travel by public transport in any megalopolis is daunting. And thrilling, in a way!

    ET, thanks! I hope I did Mumbai justice. The poverty is glaring, but ironically it is also inspiring to see the smiling faces in the midst of that grim world. It always gives me a new perspective on my life and all that complaining I do everyday about things that are hardly worth complaining about in the larger picture.

    Nupur, you made me smile– who in Mumbai hasn’t been guilty of that little crime? I had a friend whose uncle was a retired railway officer and she had his pass that she would use to travel first class–she would just flash it at the TCs and they would let her go without actually checking the name on it. She would encourage me to go first-class with her at times, which I did against my better judgement.

    Mints, thanks! And I think I was counting my breaths this time. :)

    Manju, yes, makes one feel just a little special after having survived a train ride in Mumbai, doesn’t it? :)

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    October 3, 2013 at 8:45pm

    I have been reading your blog for some years now, but somehow did not get to it in the last few weeks.
    The wonderful pictures and your lively write-up made me all nostalgic.
    I too grew up in andheri (E), but had cousins who stayed in dhake colony, near Apna Bazar; I probably might have passed by your apartment , if not you, multiple times during the 80s and the 90s. If I recall correctly, Archana Joglekar, an Indian classical dancer who did a few films also used to live in dhake colony for some time.
    Decades ago, this Apna Bazar was probably the ONLY multi floor supermarket; and now it is DWARFED by the tall buildings all around it!
    I remember how crowded I used to find it in the 90s and when I visited in 2010 the crowd was at an altogether other level!
    I will be visiting again in November and am looking forward with anticipation/trepidation.
    Thank you so much for the posts.
    I hope you have a wonderful finish to your Mumbai visit.
    take care…

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    Vaishali Honawar

    October 3, 2013 at 8:53pm

    Hi Jay, what a coincidence! Yes, I remember Archana Joglekar. I had a friend who was learning dance from either her or her mom– I forget which one– and I would accompany her sometimes to their home for the class. And you’re so right about the Apna Bazar– it used to be this huge supermarket in the area and now you can barely find it in the chaos around it. I am sure you will find it hard to recognize anything when you go back, much as I did. It was very saddening in a way. We immigrants go back hoping to find the world we left the same and when we realize it has moved on without us it feels like a betrayal.

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    October 3, 2013 at 9:14pm

    Hello Vaishali, there are other things besides your residing in dhake colony. You see, my father is from Karwar too and I am a vegetarian who does not eat onion and garlic.
    As for going back, it reminds me of the opening line from LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’; The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
    It sounds a bit strange talking about the 80s and 90s as sometime way back in the past, but then Mumbai is changing rapidly.
    thanks for reviving some golden memories…

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    Vaishali Honawar

    October 3, 2013 at 10:04pm

    Jay, Yes, they do things differently indeed. :) Nice to know we have so much in common. The other day I heard someone refer to the Madhuri Dixit movie Saajan as an oldie and I felt so ancient!

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    October 4, 2013 at 11:31pm

    I’ve travelled the length and breadth of India, all by train, and although scared out of my wits, loved it. Your pics brought back wonderful memories of sitting by the window and just drinking in all that life going on, and the quick snapshot as the train rumbled past. My first experience of India was Mumbai’s Churchgate Station, trying to get into the station at early morning, with, it felt like, every person in India trying to come out. I learnt then about using elbows and a loud voice. I did sit and cry when I finally made it in, and a lovely man immediately came to me and asked if I was alright…when I explained I was just tired and overwhelmed, and trying to find a phone to ring around to get accommodation, he was very helpful. That experience didn’t stop me, I’ve returned 7 or 8 times since, for more. You certainly did Mumbai justice with your words and pictures.

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    October 7, 2013 at 4:26pm

    Wow..this brings back so many memories. I was born and raised in Ghatkopar. I have traveled by train all my student life. And you are right, every time I am back in Mumbai and board one of these trains, I feel confused and wonder how did I ever do it back then :) It does need real talent.
    I miss the Irani coffee in Matunga. No other coffee like that.
    Hope your trip was pleasant.

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