As I reflect on my experiences in India so far, one daily pain I have to endure is my commute to work. That is, four hours a day spent travelling to and from work. This is normal, of course; plenty of people spend a sizeable part of their day just commuting to work as in a developed, modern society, often we live further away from our work than we desire. This was the case for me. I had just arrived in Bombay and within a day I was being instructed my train route to work. My home was at the first stop and my location of work was at the final stop. This is somewhat comparable to a commute from Stanmore to Stratford, where in theory you are lucky to enter an empty train and leave it just as empty. So I was thinking that my journey in India would be straightforward. How naive I was. How awful my journeys have been that I have lost the right to complain about Boris Johnson's transport system. In fact, travelling on Indian trains has made me appreciate that London has a train network which other countries should aspire to have.
I was excited when my family told me that I would be travelling by first class train to work. In India there are separate male and female carriages, so alongside the quality of the trains being good, I could also avoid the unwanted attention that I may receive from men had there been mixed carriages. When I was shown the first class female carriage my face could not have dropped any further. Where were the comfy seats, the curtained windows, the packed food and pillows for a cheeky nap before work? My assumptions were based on the Virgin trains I have travelled on in the UK and not the Indian trains that I was going to be using for the next month. The first class carriage was no different to its second class counterpart. The seats were benches, there was no air conditioning and the only difference, which were the kind of women who travelled via first class, would later prove to be a negative aspect of this carriage.
My naivety about Indian train travel was a shock to my extended family in Bombay who were throwing advice at me and worrying about my safety. Across the borders, my parents also called me a fair few times; my mother even wished me luck for this "big adventure" - it certainly was by the end of the commute! When everyone asked if I understood how to get to work, I nodded and then replied with "I suppose we'll find out tomorrow after my first day." I very quickly realised that this was the wrong answer to give when tensions were running high.
So Monday morning arrived and I was ready to travel to work on an Indian train. I really did not imagine it to be as tough as it actually was. Minutes before my 9.09 train was due to arrive, an army of women positioned themselves ready to pounce onto the train. I felt that I was too sophisticated to do this. I would get on the train after everyone else had. This was a big mistake. As the train arrived, it was overflowing with passengers, some of who had already started to jump off and begin the next part of their commute. There was a reason why everyday hundreds of passengers injured themselves, or even lost their lives, at train stations. They attempted the risky 'jumping-off' a moving train. A few weeks later I was to discover that an elderly lady lost her life by trying to climb onto a moving train. Whilst this shocked me, it was a harsh reality on trains in India. My decision to let the train empty before I entered was, in hindsight, a poor call. In London, common etiquette is to allow passengers to step off the train before you climb on. Not only is this good manners, but it is more logical. In India, however, there is no logic. Passengers are fighting their way off the train as dozens of women are barging their way onto the carriage. These women, some of who have never exercised in their lives, suddenly endure the strength of an Olympic champion. They carry their rucksacks on the front and use them as armour to thrust ahead past people. It is a recipe for chaos and daily this charade occurs and is unlikely to change in the near future.
The trouble does not stop there though. Once I successfully make it onto the train - not without a few bruises and mud marks on my feet where women have trodden on - I witness a "scramble for the seats". The benches typically can seat only three women, comfortably, but a fourth will ask the others to "shift" so she can squeeze on at the end. Then there are people standing in front of you, their stomachs in your faces and when you turn to get some space, that place is also occupied by more passengers. Just as there are no manners when entering the train, there is equally none when sitting inside the train. People don't offer each other seats, not even to pregnant or elderly women! This would be disgraceful on London transport. There are women who put their feet on the seats opposite them, in-between where people are sitting, exposing their untidy and unhygienic toenails. If the over-crowdedness isn't bad enough, the Indian climate adds to a horrible journey. Monsoon season means rain, heat and sweat all combined in one and in very close proximity, particularly on a 90minute train journey. The trains lack air conditioning, and have outdated fans, which work at the best of times. The windows, covered in mould, have stiffened due to the monsoon weather, so they don't close when you want to stay dry from the rain - ohh the irony.
The overground train means that I can see Bombay-life on my journey - I see slums, thousands of shoebox-sized makeshift cabins lying on top of one another. The poverty is heartbreaking as I watch small malnourished children run on the train tracks, unaware that as they play Superheroes, a step too far and they will be gone. From hero to zero in a blink of an eye. The stench at each station is unbearable at times. Fresh human waste fills the opened trains and I kick myself for forgetting my handkerchief - again. I suppose these things can't be helped to a certain extent - I am aware of the fact that as India becomes more developed, the quality of the trains will (hopefully) improve, meaning a more pleasant commute. It is rather the impoliteness, the ill-mannered women which shock me. India, a country where people treat cows like God, treat their own-kind like dirt on their feet.
As the weeks go on, I too, dare I admit, have adopted a ruthless stance to climb onto the train. I'm not bothered about getting a seat, it is stressful enough trying to get on the train. Yet on the rare occasion that I do get a seat, I sit with a smug look on my face at how I have accomplished this major hurdle. As ridiculous as it sounds I dread my daily commute. I cannot relax until I am on the train because only then do I know that I will arrive to work on time. My journey is filled with negative perceptions about Bombay. On my first day, on arriving at the last station I was doubtful that people would be helpful. Thus it came as a shock when some fellow commuters gave me the directions to my place of work. They even managed a smile for me. After an atrocious train journey, maybe there is hope in this Indian city of dreams. When I return to London, I don't think I can ever complain about a commute on a peak-train from Stanmore to Stratford, as my daily commute in Bombay peaks the journeys from hell.