By Mahesh Vijapurkar
Do people shape their cities, giving it a character, or cities shape their residents’ behavior? It is possible that one influences the other. But in Mumbai, where people have little choices on plans enforced by venal powers, they learn to adjust. Especially, when Mumbai is not a choice for residence but livelihood.
That means having to bear with a whole lot of man-made crisis, by politicians and conniving officialdom to whom time is not a factor of efficiency but only budgets are. People don’t queue up at bus stands any more for buses don’t keep to a schedule as have slowed down them to about 12 kmph. They’ve to board the one that come along first, never mind the jostle and push.
But the jostle and push are common when entering any commuter train. Commuters wait for others to get off only because that creates space within for the new ones to occupy. And this process has to take place usually in 20 seconds, unless they are at bigger stations. In such cases, it is between 30 to 45 seconds. It shows that a second can be long, for hardly any are left behind on platforms.
Half a coach empties out, another half or more enters within that short span. Throngs disgorge and throngs rush into it in a moment or two before the last steps off. This is a sort of controlled chaos seen every minute across a system which sees about eight million people travel on it each weekday, the crowds diminishing only on Sundays and holidays.
This adjustment is a major characteristic of a Mumbai citizen who has borne the hardship of standing and travelling in overcrowded coaches, body bumping into bodies, for he has no alternative. They are close to asphyxiation, but they have to get from one place of residence to work and back. Work is all, so all compromises are in order.
The three-seaters within the 2nd class coaches are where a passenger can request an ‘adjustment’ and invariably allowed to sit as a fourth, perched precariously on only one buttock. It is a huge relief despite what is actually a torture. This, however, is a strict no-no in a 1st class coach. The latter being like residents of a gated community amid the slums.
The trains are a microcosm of the larger Mumbai, which includes the entire metropolitan area, not just the municipal limits between Colaba in South, and Mulund, Dahisar, and Mankhurd to its north.
Two-thirds of population is in Mumbai and one-third in the metro region, spread across eight city corporations and 23 councils, they all have the same attitude.
It is evident that the population size determines the several characteristics of the people, and some are forced on them. It is not limited to only making-do with smaller apartments which continue to shrink while prices go up but devising ways to minimise its impact. It requires adjustments, and it is visible also when they use the foot-overbridges.
Walking on the right marks out an occasional commuter not familiar with the ways, or a stranger to the city. People walk always on the left, to ease movement, but you can count on lax authorities to impede the passage by letting hawkers pitch their bases on it. The other occasional commuter is he who tries to sit, one leg crossed over the other.
That posture is comfortable to the individual, but the dangling foot away from where the knee but when the trains lurch, they hit the shin of the guy in the opposite seat. These are the ‘train manners’ of Mumbaikars, long oppressed by crowds which detract from facilities though each individual is adding to its burden but remains uncomplaining. This is famously misunderstood to be the Mumbai Spirit.