It’s just a little past 6.30pm. The sun’s setting, and I, after a 20-minute autorickshaw ride from my client’s plush office, have managed to make it to Vashi station. It’s been raining during the day, and the station is dark, muddy, and wet. Involuntarily, I find myself comparing it to the Metro stations, clean and uncrowded, in Delhi. This place looks, in comparison, horrendous. There are no signs to indicate which trains come and go from which platforms. There don’t seem to be any helpful employees I can ask. And all around me there’s a madly rushing crowd of people, racing towards the trains.
It’s rush hour.
And rush hour, on the Mumbai Local, isn’t a nice time. But my guardian angel is working overtime, and I find myself, without any trouble, at a platform where a train’s about to leave. An anorexic girl in jeans is blowing kisses to a young man on the platform, and she confirms that the train’s headed for CST. I hop in, relieved. Just getting into the right train has been a minor achievement in itself.
The compartment I’m in is the Ladies’ Compartment. Mere coincidence, but I’m not complaining. It isn’t terribly crowded: there’s no room for me to sit, but there’s plenty of standing space, enough for me to lean back against a rhythmically lurching metal wall and gaze out of the wide doors- which, by the way, are simply doorways; there are no leaves to these doors. One push, and out you go, hurtling on to the tracks.
The train moves on, first at high speed as it crosses the relatively uninhabited stretch between Vashi and Mumbai. This is a place of marshes—glittering expanses of water, reflecting the swollen grey monsoon clouds above. There are trees, shrubs, grasslands, wild flowers, and water birds. A pretty, tranquil non-city scene.
The scene inside the Ladies’ Compartment is equally absorbing. Sitting on the floor, just a few feet away from me, is a trio of young village girls, in bright ankle-length skirts and cotton blouses. Bright-eyed, dark-skinned, maybe about twelve or thirteen years old. They’re selling long, fibrous green pod-like vegetables known in India as drumsticks: not a personal favourite of mine, but much adored by those who find them deliciously chewy. The girls are soon joined by another hawker: a grey-haired woman, her sari draped knee-length in the traditional Maharastrian style, with a long, broad loop of cloth gathering up the sari between her legs. The wares in her basket are more appetising than the drumsticks: savoury crisps made of gram flour, rice flour, sesame seeds, and a light sprinkling of seasonings ranging from red chillies to sugar, tamarind, and fried curry leaves.
Behind me- and soon beside me, for I manage to find a place to sit- is seated a bunch of young women, laughing and talking in an easy blend of English, Hindi and Marathi. They’re obviously colleagues- some of them in jeans and shirts, some in salwar-kurtas. Cosmopolitan to the core.
The train crosses into Mumbai city and whizzes past stations: Kurla, Dadra, Reay Road, Cotton Green… the names are evocative enough- most typically Marathi, some a throwback to colonial days. Finally, about an hour and a half later, I’m there. I’ve arrived at my destination. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal, or as everybody seems to refer to it, VT- Victoria Terminal. It’s muggy, so crowded and stuffy and confusing that I just stand still for about ten seconds, trying desperately to figure out which side I should be headed.
By the end of ten seconds, that decision’s been wrenched out of my hands. I find myself pulled and pushed, willy-nilly, by the mob that’s surging all around me, rushing towards the main gate. Everybody’s walking as if their lives depended on it: old ladies, toddlers, people who look as if they barely get one square meal a day- all are swirling past, and I’m getting caught up and carried along on the wave of humanity.
Outside the station, I stop, move swiftly to the fence that blocks off the station from the main road, and look up at the bulk of VT. Grey stone, colonial in every line and column and arch. The buildings around, I notice, are also much the same. All beautifully lit up, enabling me to get some shots on my camera. In Delhi, a lone woman standing outside a mundane building like a railway station, taking photographs at night, would invite stares and quite possibly even questions. Here, everybody around is just too hurried to notice.
I shove my camera back into its bag and take a taxi to Gateway of India. Another thing I wouldn’t have attempted in Delhi, because taxi drivers in Delhi have a tendency to throw their weight around if you want to go a short distance. Here, the cabbie simply puts the meter down and takes me the couple of kilometres to the monument. It’s illuminated, too, and crowded. I make a leisurely circuit around the Gateway, fending off hawkers of ice cream and kulfi, brandishing my camera significantly at photographers offering to take pictures of me against the building.
It’s past 8, and the thought of the journey back to my hotel in Vashi- at least an hour and a half away- is already looming large in my mind. I’ve got to get back- but not before dinner at a place I remember fondly: Café Mondegar. I don’t, unfortunately, recall its location too well; all I remember is that it’s somewhere at the back of the Taj Mahal Hotel. But a little bit of slightly lost walking about, and I find it. Dinner’s quick, slightly awkward because I’m the only person sitting solo in a café occupied almost completely by couples, families, and groups of backpackers. Nobody pays much attention to me (except the wait staff, who have an almost protective air about them), and I’m out of Mondy’s by 9.
It doesn’t take brains to figure out that if I catch a Local back to Vashi I’m hardly likely to get to my hotel before around 11. And despite everything people may say about the Local being safe for women any hour of the day, I have my qualms. How safe? Really safe, or safe just in name? I give in to my cowardly urges, and take a taxi.
The ride back is long. Very, very long. I’d have thought there’d be less traffic on the roads, but Mumbai, I realise, is not Delhi. Traffic in Delhi is significantly thin after about 9; here in Mumbai, it’s bumper to bumper even at 10.30. The taxi crawls along, and every now and then, a sudden sharp downpour brings home to me the fact that the weather in Mumbai, especially during the monsoon, is thoroughly unpredictable.
We finally reach Vashi close to 11. I’m not the sharpest pencil in the pack when it comes to directions, and the cabbie doesn’t know Vashi too well. "Never mind, madam", he assures me- and hops out every couple of kilometres to check with passersby about the location of the Blue Diamond Hotel. We get there just at 11, and I see that the hotel’s restaurant, on the ground floor, is packed with diners. But I’m really too tired to dawdle; I pay off the taxi, grab my room key from the reception, and head upstairs to a cold bath, followed by bed. Outside, neon lights twinkle, cars vroom past, the seemingly incessant activity of Mumbai continues.
The city never sleeps at night.