Thursday, August 21, 2014

8 Rupees

This is the second blog post by Diogo Bernardo Lemos, PhD candidate in Political Science at GWU, recipient of the 2014 Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research:

Mario Miranda's interpretation of Mumbai's trains.

I'd heard about Mumbai suburban railways' enviable reputation for crowds, accidents and thefts. To be sure, an estimated 7.5 million people ride its trains everyday, making this the world's second busiest rapid transit system. A quick survey online revealed a bifurcated appraisal: foreigners were advised either to entirely avoid it or to vigilantly embrace it. And so, for a moment, I too hesitated in jumping on its wagons to commute between South and North Mumbai. After all, the combination of cheap taxi fares and the fast route via the new 'Sea Link' viaduct ('shhhlik' according to one driver) made for an enticing alternative: why bother? But then again, I came to Mumbai to study its politics and few experiences provide better grasp of a city than its public transportation system.

So, there I was, one Mumbai morning in Grant Road station, negotiating my way across the gelatinous crowd towards a ticket booth. Seizing my precious audience with the seller, I inquired the fare to Bandra station. '8 rupees,' he said. I hopped on a train and, easily enough, arrived at my destination.

Emboldened by this experience, I then attempted to reenact it on the way back. Only, this time, the ride took place at rush hour. People, people all around me, people coming and going, people streaming by me as a tidal wave through the last standing tree. The thing about Mumbai's railways is that there are many lines and these change tracks frequently. So, unless you understand Marathi, you are in for a vigorous few hours of lapping in a human pool. After several failed requests for help, a lady (an 'auntie') pointed towards a train and said: 'It's that one. Quick - it's leaving!' As I flew across stairs and elbows, I heard her yell one last piece of advice: 'Take first class!' I would have forgotten this were it not for the coincidence that I plunged into a first class wagon. Or so I thought considering the much quieter and roomier car, which obviously led me to the conclusion that first class was the way to go with Mumbai trains.

The next morning, I planned to repeat the journey wearing the placid vest of experience. I returned to Grant Road station, validated coupons in the amount of 8 rupees, waited for the correct train to arrive, calmly searched for a first class wagon, and then proceeded to find a cushy seat inside. As the train began its slow march north, I remember vividly opening that morning's copy of 'The Times of India' and thinking to myself: 'I've become a Mumbaikar in a day.' The phone rang. It was my wife. 'Oh, what a perfect picture: I'm riding a Mumbai train, daily newspaper spread across my lap, and speaking with the wife on the phone.'

Few minutes later, I noticed for the first time a commotion on the other side of the wagon. Certainly, nothing too serious to drive my attention away from this cross continental phone call. The train pulled in the next station, commuters got off, commuters came in and I remained seated, conversing on the phone. The train jerked again into motion and only then I realized the reason for the commotion: a ticket inspector was steadily advancing towards me. A thought of doubt and disquiet burst into mind: was 8 rupees the fare for a second-class journey only? It was now too late to escape. I turned off the phone and prepared for impact.

I handed him the coupons. His deliberation took barely a second: 'You must pay a fine.' It's not possible. Yes, it is, he said. In fact, I was guilty of a double offense: I was not only riding first-class with a second-class ticket, but I also had less than the required 8 rupees. Somehow - believe it or not - I mixed-up the previous day's coupons with that day's and forgot to validate a new 5-rupee coupon. All in all, I was traveling first-class on a 3-rupees ticket. 'This is very serious. You must pay 500 rupees.' While I recognized I was in the wrong, I wondered whether the inspector was trying to take advantage of the situation. Lacking any better excuse, I apologize and said it was mistake. 'Yes, I know,' he smiled and punched, 'That's what I do: I catch mistakes.' Round 1 was his.

As with any incident involving a foreigner in India, this exchange was kindle for the curiosity of my fellow passengers. The inspector said we should get off at the following station to discuss the matter. I conceded the partial defeat. There, we found ourselves at the police station. This turned out to be an orderly, albeit spartan, chamber. We both made effusive display of our diplomatic skills: he repeated his indictment; I reiterated my defense (centered, at this stage, around my evident inexperience with the Mumbai suburban train system). We eventually drifted outside to the platform and I began to realize that I was winning through persistence. He had somewhere else to be. Finally, he uttered the magic words: 'This time, I'll let you go. But...' The condition involved validating a 5-rupee coupon and riding the rest of the journey on a second-class car. Moments later, I was back on a train holding the 8-rupee coupons on the way to Bandra. The taxi would have been more serene but it surely wouldn't have been this much fun.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mario de Miranda (1926-2011).

Diogo Lemos
PhD candidate 
Department of Political Science 

No comments:

Post a Comment