[Reader-list] Local Trains Revisited

Zainab Bawa coolzanny at hotmail.com
Tue Nov 2 15:57:16 IST 2004

2nd November 2004
Byculla to Dombivali and back

Local Trains Revisited

TIME: This morning I had promised to meet Supriya at Dombivali station by 
8:00 AM. I was to board the 8:13 Ladies Special with her to be with her 
train group and talk to them. I woke up late. At Byculla Station, I was left 
only with the option of boarding the 7:14 Kasara local to make it in time to 
Dombivali. Yet, I was very unsure whether I would be able to make it on 
time. This morning, I was struggling with time. My appointment with Supriya 
could not be postponed or delayed because after all, it was about the 8:13 
Local Train which would not make any exceptions for me unless it was itself 
I calmed myself and decided that in the worst case, I would get off at some 
station in between and board the train from there. Along the way, I was 
imagining Supriya’s train group. For the last few months, I have been this 
‘outsider’ researcher who would watch life unfolding and being played out in 
the compartments. Now, I am stepping ‘inside’. I am a bit nervous while I 
step inside because it brings along with it too many elements. I am also 
beginning to imagine that once ‘inside’ with this group, perhaps news about 
me will spread along the Central Railway Train Networks and I might soon 
become a visible personality. I am a bit frightened with this prospect – do 
I wish to become visible? Or am I playing it safe by being this ‘outside 
watcher’? Though I have desired to be this ‘Everyday Heroine’, I find it 
might cost me too much in terms of my privacy and private world. Even though 
I take the position of a ‘researcher’, I become a representative because I 
am telling stories. Can I be a representative? Am I willing to be bold?

Supriya has been very excited about introducing me to her group. In fact, 
she has been waiting for me with her group since the last twenty days. I 
don’t know exactly why she is excited. Earlier, when I used to interview 
people for the research, I distinctly remember Shanta Nayak who had said to 
me, “My daughters insisted that I give you an interview. They said to me, 
‘mummy, tomorrow if she writes a book you will become famous!’” Perhaps 
that’s exactly it – I am giving a face to the everyday person who goes 
unnoticed. Maybe my writings will influence Laloo to do something about the 
condition of the local trains here. But frankly, I am not intending anything 
of these sorts – I am just attempting to understand my locality and on a 
more surreptitious agenda, I am trying to get inside people’s minds to 
understand them better because as Theodre Zeldin says in his book, 
“Toleration is not enough – you have to get inside people’s minds to 
understand them!”

TIME: - Through all these thoughts, anxieties and excitement, I made it to 
Dombivali railway station exactly at 8:11 AM, two precious minutes before 
the train arrived!

Supriya’s Train Group: There is a lot to say about them. But I am going to 
be very, very brief here. So briefly, there are about ten of them and now 
with Diwali around, some are on leave and vacation. It is a lively group, 
consisting of the young and the old. Yeshu mausi who is the oldest member of 
the group tells me that the group is ten years old! It is a Ladies Special 
group. I don’t remember everybody’s names today but I am going to be with 
them for a week or fortnight. Already, Supriya has spoken about me to 
another woman who in turn has invited me to be with ‘their’ group as well.

Train groups have their fixed territory. Supriya tells me that two groups 
are there in that segment of the compartment. Yet, the other group members 
will not come and sit in the area of Supriya’s group even if there is a 
vacant seat. They always prefer to sit around their group. Thus train groups 
change the character of the compartment which I believe is a transitory 
space. Perhaps these train groups introduce an element of regularity in the 
compartment space.

One of the members who is ill yet most talkative begins a discussion, 
“Western Railway is posh. In my lifetime, I wish that once I get to live in 
a Western Railway suburb.” Mrs. Kulkarni, the other elderly member of the 
group retorts, “It is just your fanciful desire, that’s it. The other day, I 
heard some Western railway commuter say in the train that Central Railway 
commuters are not civilized.” The talkative woman affirmed, “Of course,” she 
said, one hand towards the earth and the other towards the sky, “We central 
people are here (in the morass) while the Western crowd is up there.” There 
were disagreements flying around. A younger member of the group said that 
the talkative woman has her maiden home in the Western suburbs and hence the 
view that she holds! Later, another member joined in the group and she said 
to me, “We don’t like Western Railway people. They don’t accept us among 
themselves!” Her words struck me ‘they don’t accept us!’

Talkative woman then began telling me openly, ‘You see, there is lots of 
politics in the group. Eh Supriya,” she said turning towards Supriya, “she 
is your friend nah? You must tell all our codes and signs so she will 
understand! This Yeshu Mausi and Kulkarni are the biggest politicians around 
here. If I say something and there is a discussion, Yeshu Mausi will always 
nod her head in affirmation saying haan haan.” Yeshu Mausi laughed and said, 
“Well, if you have already got affirmations then why ask me. I am always 
going to yes everything.”

In the meanwhile, there is another political discussion going around. 
Kulkarni is telling the talkative lady, “Eh you, you should not twist my 
words, you should not ‘maniculate’ my words. When I said that Nanda is a 
surekh (cultured and decent) girl, I meant it. She may have negative points, 
but to me, everyone is surekh. Does not mean that I am siding with her or 
being political by saying nice things about her.” Kulkarni went on using the 
word ‘maniculate’ to everyone. It is her Marathi pronunciation for 

Supriya tells me that Avantika serial, a popular Marathi soap is frequently 
discussed in their group, especially when someone misses an episode on some 

Each one of them is curious and asking me what I do. Each one wants a clear 
understanding of my ‘job’. One of them wonders whether all I do is commute 
by trains each day and idle around the rest of the day! I have been facing 
this ‘problem’ of explaining my work to people, trying to de-link my 
personal identity from my ‘job’.

One by one, each member comes and talks to me, pointing out different facets 
of life in the compartment. “See, this lady sells Avon cosmetics everyday in 
the morning,” Supriya tells me. Kulkarni talks to me about Sujata who sells 
clothes in the train apart from her regular job, “We each support her by 
buying dresses from her. She has to pay off her dues on her flat, so she 
does this extra side income thing. Like that there are several women who 
this, belonging to the middle class, lower middle class. We don’t view them 
as inferior. Rather, we support them.”

I take out my digital camera to click photos. Everyone is excited. Kulkarni 
talks to me of her daughter who has a digital video camera worth 35,000 
rupees. “From Dubai,” she tells me. Supriya tells me that Kulkarni’s 
daughter lives in Dubai. I am curious. I asked Kulkarni if she has ever been 
to Dubai. “I have two daughters, one in Bahrain and one in Dubai. I have 
been to both places. To put it simply, Dubai is like Cuffe Parade, posh 
ekdum while Bahrain is like Badlapur, ekdum backward. Dubai you have all the 
facilities. A person born in Dubai is not going to be able to like living 
anywhere else. In Dubai, even when you have to go out to buy fruits and 
vegetables, you have to weak posh clothes and move out. It’s like that over 

Earlier in the journey, the women were discussing about their Diwali 
shopping trips. One was showing her saree purchases to the others. Another 
brought out an imitation jewellery set which she had purchased for the 
festivities. “Aree, these days the shop owners don’t bargain because it is 
festival time and everybody is on the shopping spree. But, you must go to 
Crawford market at 10 AM in the morning, just when the market is opening up. 
Then you can get good bargains.” Yeshu mausi added, “What dramas. The other 
day, a friend asked me to give her a missed call on her cell phone while she 
was bargaining with the shopkeeper. She wanted to get him to reduce the 
prices further by this tactic!”

Talkative woman said to others, “We should at least a house of our own in 
Mumbai city. That is when you feel secure.” There were discussions about 
vacation plans and how frequent outstation trips are an expense. Then there 
was a debate on spending versus saving, the usual present versus future 

Each of these conversations was very valuable to me. I am coming to believe 
that the conversations that people have on the local train have a very 
important impact on the city’s organization – where to shop, what to buy, 
housing, etc. I believe these local trains are like Jane Jacobs’ sidewalks 
where people meet, interact and ultimately, this has a bearing on the city 
as a whole!

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