A trailer truck and my car fell in love with each other for a brief moment. The result was a dented door and broken mirror. The fall out was that the car went to rest in the garage and I travelled by Mumbai’s famed local train for few days.
So I trudged to the railway station a bit earlier than my usual exit time. I was out of breath but pleased with the less than expected crowd. I stood at the same place where I used to, when I was studying in a College in this suburb thirty five years back. What has changed? The tea stall still serves the same type of food (Thane Station – Platform No. 2 made good Batata Vadas, but not this Station). The circular dial clock is replaced with a digital clock. The indicator is also digital- of the newer type. The sign board is clear and legible. The 7.59 local had left at 7.58 (as per digital clock). The next train was at 8.04. It came at 8.06. There was no mad rush to pounce into the train and rush inside. I got in early and stood between the seats and attempted to read the novel I had with me.
A person nudged me to keep his bag. I kept it. Then another one nudged. Totally there were four such requests. All the bags were satchels and not the briefcases. In fact I could not find any brief cases in the luggage rack of the First Class Compartment. Four out of ten persons were speaking intently on their cell phone. One was explaining in detail what he intended to do after reaching his office for trading in some share or commodity. There was an unauthorized occupant in ladies first class who was being berated and asked to leave- at the next station. I believe that women are more particular and vociferous about exercising their rights.
I got a place to sit after thirty minutes of a fifty five minutes journey. I got down at VT Station (CST now) and walked to office. It is a ten minute walk the oldest part of the town. All are stone buildings made several decades back. There is porch in the front of most buildings, which gives shade during this walk. The street vendors were just opening their wares for display. In my younger days, Keralite vendors used to display covers of “foreign goods” such as ‘two in ones’, tape recorders etc. Today it is odd items of low value – including colorful foreign condoms.
I passed the Fort Branch of Bank of India where I was posted on my promotion from clerk to officer. I worked there only for fifteen months and had no great memories associated with it. On reaching Office, one security chap hesitantly asked whether I was an employee. I felt crushed and reminded me of the famous tweet by a Minister on travelling cattle class.
The evening journey was even more pleasant. I could rush into an empty compartment and get a sitting place and read my novel without jerks and jumps. The next three days by train were uneventful. One day I even got down at Dadar, did some shopping, got into a Dadar starting train and could get down comfortably at Mulund. A young pair was sitting in front of me. The boy was convincing the girl that the earth is flat and he would take her to the other end of it. The girl was listening intently and wiped a tear drop- perhaps thinking that her parents had mislead her by informing that earth is round. Then she received a phone call and was vehemently conveying some message with actions and all. I wondered whether there would be enough substance in their tale for one TV Serial episode.
The train journey takes around 55 minutes to traverse 34 kilometers. The road journey takes 70 to 75 minutes in the morning and 100 to 150 minutes in the evening. It is not a pleasure to take 20 minutes to travel one or two kms. A colleague who lives in the next suburb told me that he and his wife initially travelled by car to Office, but found it boring and tiresome and gave it up soon. I could understand it well. A comfortable and reliable public transport is far superior to a private transport if the journey is from point to point with minimum walking in between. Lack of investment in infrastructure (most over used word today) in the early years of independence has lead to the present abysmal state. Even cattle are not transported in goods train the way human being travel in local trains and buses.
The underground trains in London are in existence from 1920s. Trams are found in most European countries. Metro rail is common in south Asian countries. India too could have had all these much earlier. All of it is a case of missed opportunities in India.
The car Dealer informed me that the car is repaired and I could pick it up. My driver, who was to go and pick up the car, rang up to inform me that he could not come due to an accident between Mulund and Thane. It was a freak accident in which a concrete slap fell on a running train. This hit a huge water pipe which burst and created a mini flood on the track. The motor man died as could be extracted only after four hours. One more person died after a day or so. The trains had to be stopped for a day for repair. Everybody now realized that the concrete slab was hanging precariously for quite some time and no one was really responsible for it. One political party threatened to tie the civic servant to the nearby tree till he assured that the entire pipe line and all would be repaired.
What are the lingering memories when compared to the past? The trains run at greater speed and do not stop abruptly in between stations for signals. The mega blocks for maintenance repairs have made a great difference to the time and speed of the journey. The 12 bogie train is a great blessing as it clears more crowds. The camaraderie of passengers travelling together every day is an enduring sight. Nobody plays cards now as it now may be banned. The ticket sellers sit in AC offices and give computer print outs for tickets- something quite common in South India. The foot over bridge seems cleaner and even.
I leave with the belief that in spite of all the drawbacks of a chaotic democracy, there is some movement forward- albeit a slow one.