My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

Sign up for my newsletter: The Internet Personified

18 January 2007

In which we Commute With A Capital C

(NB: I felt as though my daily commute deserved a post rather than just a passing mention, because I'm really just so fascinated by public transport here. I'm a born-again commuter. Don't you roll your eyes at me, yes, you, you know who I'm talking to.)

It was Monday morning, the 8th of January, about six days after I moved to Bombay and about five days since I had not been drinking. "Oh no," I said, furry-mouthed and pounding head(ed?), "I have to go to work today." Going to work wasn't my problem. Not even the raging hangover and the fact that I felt I was going to spew if I moved more than an inch a minute was a problem. The problem was, for the first time since I was nineteen and started to drive, I was going to have to take public transportation. And in a city that still felt very new and strange.

The DTC buses that plied to and from college were fairly easy. I had broken into them by first taking a chartered bus--for a slightly more expensive ticket, you were ensured a place to sit and gaze dreamily out the window till your stop came. But those didn't leave in time for my morning class, and so, I had to start catching the dreaded 534s, the ones that went from right outside my house in East Delhi all the way to Mehrauli, usually lilting to the side with the weight of passengers. There are about two seats reserved for women, if you were lucky, men were sitting on them and you could order them off, but more often than not, they were filled with hostile-eyed, sharp-elbowed ladies, who had fought tooth and nail for the privelege, and so you had to surrender your sheltered ass and the rest of your virginal body to the crowd of men packed tightly in the aisles, holding on to your backpack worn back to front to protect your chest, and submitting to the man behind you, who perhaps didn't have to stand quite so close to your jeans.

I learnt how to drive as fast as I could, spending my meagre allowance on auto fare just wasn't cutting it, and as soon as I was able I drove to college and then, yeah, I never looked back since. I've been forced to use my legs (which in the past I claimed laconically were "only for the accelerator or decoration.") ever since I moved here, been a pedestrian with slightly grumbling ease, and even learnt to carry a chunni for auto hair so I don't look completely dishevelled. But the trains! And the horror stories that went with them of the teeming crowds and the smell and the everything! All of me just balked.

I wanna go home now, my head whined as the auto dropped me off at the station. It was 9.30 in the morning and I had never seen so many people just moving, upwards and downwards, there's really no way to describe that kind of throng, until you've seen it for yourself, like lemmings, like rats, packed with all sorts of animal metaphors. I paid off the impatient auto guy and attached myself to the upward moving throng, feeling myself swept along till the ticket counter and then swept along to getting a month's pass made, at a friend's advice, so I wouldn't have to do this every day. (Minor edit: My command over the English language is going to the dogs, I have managed to write everyday for every day, misplaced an apostrophe in my notifylist alert and yesterday while referring to my hair I said, "They get really curly." Aaaaaaargh. Somebody shoot me NOW. I've become one of those people I hate.) And then, ohmygod, trying to figure out the code on the little red indicator boards, I pulled out all the research I had conducted and managed to get on a first class ladies compartment, empty except for three other passengers. "This is the train to _, right?" I asked, knees trembling, and the nine-year-old schoolgirls giggled at my fear and nodded.

When my stop came and I got off, I was all aglow with the Glory that was I. Look at me, all commuter-y! On the way home, I even daringly hopped on to a fast train, something they had told me not to do till I was a little more familiar with things. I rocked at this, even if my hands smelt of stale metal that trains do to you and my body was a little sore from dodging the incoming mass of women to get off.

It's been, what? A little over a week now? And the local trains still haven't gotten old. I've figured out where to stand for the compartment to stop right in front of me--the green and yellow striped pillars on each station. I've figured out what it means when someone taps you on the shoulder and makes question marks with her hands--they want to know when you're going to get off. ANNNNNNNNND, I even figured out how to get off without being bruised, by nimbly and ably, jumping off right before the train has pulled to a complete stop. Yay, me!

Anyway, so the social conscience story, also known as the Dude-I-Wish-I-Wasn't-Such-A-Wuss story. So, I'm on the train the other day, yeah? And lalalala, I'm minding my own business, as is everyone else, I've got my iPod on and Dave Mathews is whispering sweet nothings into my ears and then suddenly, this really large woman starts screaming. Naturally, we all turn and look at her, and I even turn down Dave. "Who let them in?" she screeches, "Who? Do they think it's their father's railroad? Look at how shameless they are, they even got on to the first class compartment!" The objects of her ire are two young women with their small children, chilling like the rest of us in the partition between the rows of seats. The college girls snicker, the other women roll their eyes.

At the next stop, the large woman gets up and makes them get off. "I should send you straight to the police station," she says, and then to the rest of us, "Girls nowadays have no shame! You should have stopped them from getting on! They only get on here to steal from us." My stomach has by this time twisted into knots, I'm so upset, but I have no balls to tell her to let it go--especially when the families do disembark and a couple of other women join in the chorus. "You're right, everyone should make sure these people don't get on to our compartments." I look out of the window, hating myself for being such a coward, and so, here I am confessing it all to you.

Melodrama, action, adventure, who would drive when you can see all that, eh?


  1. Delighted to see that your pieces are getting more frequent again --- been missing you since you "disappeared" to Mumbai.

  2. Would you believe I've been sitting around and re-reading your old pieces again ... At the risk of sounding gushy --- I am a fan !

  3. Zen and the art of Train Riding in Mumbai - Written by BOB... Try getting him to narate it.. But from the blog entry you sound like a pro on this.. Good job Tiger !!

  4. no one would! plus, driving would take like 2 hours to reach your destination. hah.

    sigh.. those words, those sweet words about my city. keep bringing them! i love this whole mumbai thing going on here!

    ps. hope u never have to suffer The Suffocated (almost) To Death experience while you enjoy these train journeys of yours. i had suffered TSTD thing on my first trip since i was in the damn SECOND class compartment which sucked totally. so make sure u never get on those by mistake. u'll be smushed before you know it.

  5. You have yet to travel in a Virar fast from Churchgate in the evening.

  6. You ain't been a commuter, no, no, no
    You ain't been a commuter
    Till you've been in the Virar Fast in the evening. :P

    Nice one there. Love to see such words about my city. But first class? Women's compartment? 9.30am? This just screams 'Me! Me! I'm a wuss!' :D

    Hope the romance with Mumbai Local continues, but it can end realllly fast if you alter any of the three conditions above!

    Oh, remembered a piece from Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. Here goes (long extract warning),
    "I ask Asad if he ever feels pessimistic about Bombay. 'Not at all,' he responded. 'Look at the hands from the trains.' If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you can reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you. You will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed close to the tracks. But consider what has happened. Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might well yell at you or cut your pay if you miss the train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or a Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you're from Malabar Hill or New York or Jogeshwari. All they know is that you're trying to get to the city of gold, and that's enough. Come on board, they say. We'll adjust"

    Enjoy Mumbai! ;) (and look me sometime if you're in Powai region, though I kinda doubt it, ehat with you being a fancy features reporter and all! :D)

  7. oh! God - the words Virar Fast from Churchgate made me shudder and forget what I was going to say in the first place - please may you never, ever have to do that....
    and oh yes, the trains will test your social conscience many, many times.

  8. I am going to visit Mumbai during the long weekend - jan 26th. Have heard so much about the local trains, wanna try that. Me a mal too. I know you are half mal :) We have a mutual friend but he refused to tell me your name :)I found out anyway. Curious mals always get their way huh?

  9. i have actually taken the virar fast from churchgate, she said smugly

  10. Listening to music while commuting was never so good until Bombay.

  11. I cannot believe how positively you are taking to this whole business of commuting. I HATED every minute of it till I could afford to buy a car. I'd rather spend double the time on the road in my air-conditioned car than try and brave a local train!

    Yes, I am a spoilt brat! And proud of it!

  12. look around yourself, you jusy don't have to travel into the train, fast or slow. Look beyond the obvious, conscience hits you everywhere. zindagi ek humari hi nahin!!

  13. Hmmm...

    But I still feel commuting in Mumbai is much better than what we face here in Bangalore.

    I might be looking towards the time you spend in covering a certain distance, availability of all means of transport, temprament of an average auto-wala or safety when you are returning back to home late night. Don't have experince with Delhi that much.

  14. You already have traveled in Virar fast at peak hours?!!! whoaaa.

    @Amit: nice extract. makes for a good representation of an ad for spirit of mumbai.

    @nags: 'mal' in bambaiyya slang means 'goods' and is used for a girl as well. There is a ladies special train betwn churchgate and virar whr all compartments are for ladies only. it is nicked - 'maal-gaadi'. Perhaps u can use 'mallu' aka (in bambaiyya) 'malabari'.

  15. I actually don't mind the trains - they're quick and pollution reduced travel. And first class is NOT bad at all. You ARE a wuss.

  16. I don't get it. Why would anyone want two women and their children to get off a ladies' compartment? Were they beggars?

  17. iz: You gotta be a Mumbai Rail commuter to know that.

    eM: Welcome to the madness of my city. I have to hand it to you for daring to brave the Mumbai local so soon into your Mumbai experience. Hope they don't put you off though.

  18. Its sooo cool to see Bombay from somebody else's eyes.Especially if that somebody is as eloquent and as good a raconteur as you are.

    The trains will grow on you.Oh!N so will the city.You won't realize when you'll find yourself cozying up to it and begin to consider yourself a mumbaiite.

    PS: ya Ghetto is cool.The advertising n media fraternity's 'sasta-sundar-tikaoo' hangout.

  19. Nice post...Glad to see that you are settling in... :)

  20. so what was up with the two young women? why did the "large woman" find them so offensive?

    Im really into your story, as u can obviously tell.

  21. @iz, @greek goddess: I do not understand either.

  22. eM, what can i say, i love reading your blog for posts just like this one!

    even though ive been bloggin for a while now, i can never write the day to day randomness that you do with such ease, always one of the more fun parts of the day i check out the blog circuit..

    im glad ur enjoyin mumbai so much, my xtra tall cuz would be most heartened to hear such praise of his beloved city!


  23. oh good, more migrant delhi rats jumping into our fascinating city after claiming to love their own.

  24. i know this going to sound totally 'ramu samose mien organic aloo hai kya' but is there a railway network map of mumbai. thing is whenever i've been there i;e always insisted on traveling by the local coz it's just so much more fun. however for the life of me i still haven't figured out how do people know which stations are where. here you get a tube map and helpful staff and everything! one thing that did impress me were the ticket offices, so methodical. even at victoria station. dilli mien aisi sabhyata dikhne ka chance kum hai.

    how about a post on street food. or the kooks who roam the streets. the mad people of mumbai as my friennds called that tour. we went from one little spot to another taking in all the touristy sites but also such things as the hunchback lady who cleans the mosque that lies smack bang in the middle of a busy intersection everyday. and the mad chap near flora fountain who bless his soul paces up and down the street in gradually increasing steps. i forget what was so special about the specific mad character we were observing at gateway.

    one must do is go atop jehangir art gallery and smoke a j j after having walked all over town. very fulfilling. :)

  25. i never use question marks do i. :)

    echo bricks' and iz's sentiments. why did they want those women off their compartment? beggars? buskers? elaborate no.

    and sorry for having abandoned you on msn. i hate using that medium these days. unless of course you have crisis in which case we coordinate a time. but if ever you wanna talk, skype or mail me.

  26. too lazy to respond to ALL the comments (though i love them! and thank you!) so today, just the ones that have asked me a question.

    basically, the objection to those women was that they weren't dressed a certain way (as far as i could tell) that qualified them on being in the first class compartment as opposed to travelling the general class one. it's like that time when the american diner refused to seat a maid because, well, she looked like a maid. i hope this makes it clearer, i realise the story was sort of vague. i just felt pissed off, because there is such a major dividing line between looking a certain way and being treated accordingly.

    right, onwards.

    nags: a common friend? who? who?

    hobo: no, no, it wasn't important, just long time no see etc. and no mad people of mumbai tour, sadly the pieces is either too lazy or too busy to venture townwards. BUT i have been doing some interesting bookshops. good fun :)

    dude: thanks, and no, it doesn't take much effort to record randomness, try doing what i do, and compose posts when you're stuck in traffic or waiting for someone, or something. :)

    anon-the-last: please to be fucking off.

    (i really don't get these anon commenters who heap abuse on you on your own blog. what do they get out of it? pleasure? vindication? hmph.)

  27. who were these women who werent allowed on the train? were they beggar kids? why were'nt they allowed? i believe the screaming is generally reserved for men who dare get on the womens compartmant.

  28. Every journey in a local train has a story to tell...
    Doesn't matter if you didn't say anything. At least you felt it. And maybe someday you'll be able to tell them off...

  29. what a painful story,
    If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you can reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you. You will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed close to the tracks. But consider what has happened.

  30. actually you've got the story wrong and it still pisses me off when people go to that fucking hell hole called the american diner. first of all it's a freaking diner, who the fuck dresses up for one?!? secondly they refused to serve her when they noticed she was a maid sitting with the family.

    breathe deep hobo. breathe deep.

  31. We had a long weekend in office... there was some network activity tht needed to be completed before the start of the next week (Monday). So we had worked all thru sat till sunday morning. The work involved crawling into the far dusty corners and climbing on ladders. the clothes were dirty and smelly when we left for home on sunday morning. The network mgr was not allowed to enter the 1st class train compartment because of our appearance. The passengers in the train were talking in English abt us being ticketless passengers. The 1st class quaterly pass had to be shown and we had a short discussion with the TC in English. The whispering passengers were shocked.
    Clothes maketh the man?!! Such a pity that it is true. *Sigh*

  32. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  33. eM, wwe really should raise a cheer for big brave 'Anonymous' here.

    Do us a favour, delete this wossisname loser's comments, he's beginning to impede my micturation.


  34. Ohhhh, that is SO tragic, some people have pissed off poor dimwitted JAP :( Tragic Tragic Tragic :( How will he write now? Where will his inspiration come from? Where will we go for more bad writing? Oh, wait, we can always come here! YAY :)

  35. 2nd class, fast churchgate to virar, rush hour. yeah, its as bad as people say. i did the fast churchgate to virar during non rush hours and it wasn't bad. rush hour was fucking dangerous esp if you wanted to get off at bandra. people could kill for that or just simply not let you off till waaaaaaay after boravilli. Bombay trains didn't get old for me till 3 months into the experience where I felt like I had to spend one more trip with my nose stuck in some else's armpit and my breasts squashed against some else's back and have my arms yanked from my sockets every which where i turned, i would throw up. but, i survived it. hope it doesn't get too old too quickly because then all the fun is sucked out of it.

  36. have been reading all your train posts to cheer myself up!! Iam so glad I dont have to catch the damn locals anymore!!I hated it... I would wake up and feel this shadow descend on me at the thought of going to work i a local... just discovered your blog and wish I had read you while you were still in Delhi.


Thanks for your feedback! It'll be published once I approve it. Inflammatory/abusive comments will not be posted. Please play nice.