Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The War Zone

The time is 0800 Hrs. I just climbed down the stairs of platform number 3 at Dombivli. Deep within my heart, I have this urge to get aboard the 8:12 semi fast local on its way to CST. My purpose of getting on it, my purpose of traveling, all remain unexcavated as I climb down the stairs. It was raining when I started my walk towards the station, from my home. Half wet or half dry, I still wanted to get on a train.

Random thoughts circulated my mind, I wasn’t aware at that moment. 45° is the angle of inclination of the stairs at Dombivli station. When I reached midway on the stairs, I could see reality peeking at me in the form of too many feet on the platform. Feet turned to legs, legs turned to waists, waists turned to torso & then the semi-angry heads showed up. The trains were late, people were anxious to get aboard anything that resembled a train going towards CST. Their anticipation was floating on their faces. The signals were all green, but no sign of the train & no crackling voice on the speakers either. I could see their frustration mount at the same rate as the fear within me. I had to board a train full of pissed off people in the second class compartment during peak hour. It so much resembled a war zone.

Getting down on the platform, I tried to judge the crowd myself. Planning my strategy of whether I would leap on the train’s door or wait for my turn to get in. Whether it would be safe to catch a stopping train or whether it’s safer to catch the train when it has come to a complete halt. Whether I would get 2 square feet of space in or whether my shoes would be the carpet. I calculated the odds, but nothing was making sense. The crowd kept building. They looked like Samurai’s ready to go on a war. The predators were waiting for their prey to arrive, so that they could pounce on it.

My thoughts were interrupted by the weird noise on the speakers. Some guy straight out of his bed, trying to convey one simple incomprehensible piece of message, that there was a technical failure on a line near Ambernath which was causing a delay & would be rectified as soon as possible. After narrating the whole situation in three different languages in his deep drunken voice, I managed to join the misunderstood pieces of his speech & reached a conclusion that today was going to be a tough ride.

I could hear people ranting about the mismanagement of the railways, I could hear them complain that this happens once every month; they ought to make the system better & so on. Afraid of the sudden realization of my journey’s comfort level, I peeked on to the crowd standing in front of the First class compartment. They were calm, not talking much, registering their anger by looking at their expensive watches once every 15 seconds. I remembered my first class days back during college.

I began comparing the crowd of the first class compartment with the crowd from the Second class. I found a monumental difference in the levels of stress & hostility amongst these crowds. The people traveling in the first class were less hostile & less aggressive than the people from the second. During my three years journey, I can count on my fingers the number of times I heard a fight in the first class compartment during peak hours or non peak hours, on people stepping over each other’s feet & pushing each other around the place. I traveled second class regularly after my college days & realized that every single trip I made, I heard people fighting over square inch of space in that claustrophobic atmosphere. They looked pissed off already & they used this form of aggression to release them of their anger. What made them hostile? I thought. Why did people behave differently in the same train? I bet education wasn’t the answer, neither was stress. Everyone has to go to work, so it’s an inevitable journey, so why fight all the way & ruin a beautiful morning?

Does everyone have problems in their lives? Duh, who doesn’t? Even an 8 year old has problems in his life at school. He can’t talk to the girl he likes, he is being bullied by a macho from his class & that doesn’t make him look hunky in front of his first love. That’s just one of the problems though. A college kid has problems in his life as well, he still isn’t sure if he is wearing the right shirt, or if his professor will notice that he hasn’t written two whole questions in his assignment & he is still submitting it & so on. A working man also has his levels of problems about work, his boss, his family & his 8 year old kid who likes a girl from his class, there’s quite a wide a range. But this doesn’t mean you have to be hostile every second of your journey. I strongly believe in the concept of people having different levels of anger & patience. But I also believe that the levels are the same. It’s just the trigger that sets people off. When people are hanging on the train doors a few inches away from the nearest signal post that passes by, every day of their life seems worthless. But they want the wind on their face & cheat death every day. Moreover they don’t want to stand in the crowd that has built up inside & still want their freedom. Yes, that’s it. Freedom, I thought was the only problem that people have. Mumbai has bloated due to migrating people from all over India. This has put additional pressure on the present infrastructure. It’s a miracle how the infrastructure sustains so much crowd inspite of the damaging growth in the population.

I gave a thought of what I ought to feel ideally during a train journey. One of the thoughts that I always carry along with me on a train is to feel free from all the tensions of the world. Maybe it is a half hour journey or a full 2 hour ride, all I see is that I stop thinking about the world for a second & begin my thought process. My body becomes my mind’s sanctum. So does every other person’s body who boards the over crowded train. They appreciate this freedom more than anything else & constantly want to keep it for themselves. In the midst of the pushing, pressing & yelling, if they get disturbed from this sacred thought process, they turn into a ball of fire. Why aren’t people in the first class compartment a victim of this same process? I suppose they have a sense of proportion of where they are standing. They want to feel good & at the same time look good in the eyes of the people who travel along with them every morning on the same train. As Dalton Russell says in the movie “The Inside Man”, “Respect is the ultimate currency”. It also helps to think that people traveling in the first class have a different level of satisfaction about themselves than the crowd in the second class.

So when does this animosity end?

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