The Healing Power of Overcrowded Trains (and Other Urban Ills)

It has been almost a month since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and three weeks since I wrote about my return to a terror-tinted cityscape in "My Mumbai". By now, the attacks have completely disappeared from the international media spotlight. Although the aftermath still makes the front page in India, the main story under the headline "More 26/11 Aftershocks" in the December 19 edition of Mumbai's Hindustan Times was tellingly about India canceling its cricket tour in Pakistan. To be fair, this fact may do almost as much damage to the national psyche. Still, with the Taj and Oberoi hotels reopening today, Mumbai is virtually back to normal — albeit with some extra bag checks and a tempered night life.

When I wrote last, I marveled at the speed with which Mumbaikers reclaimed the city's spaces, which the terrorists sought to transform into sites of fear. Since then, Mumbaikers have taken back the streets not only by diving into the daily grind, but with a surge of activism. The weeks after the attack have seen a number of peace marches and rallies take place near affected sites with an energy uncharacteristic for a culture known for its resignation to fate. Although some of the demonstrations were less than peaceful (more platforms for venting anger against the government), these events were a visible sign of Mumbaikers taking back the city streets.

In my last report, I wondered how long it would take me to reclaim Mumbai for myself, as most residents had quickly done. How have I been doing? A lot better. In the first few days, I ducked when airplanes flew a bit lower than usual. It felt like a shadow had come over the landscape, and I felt an extreme sense of vulnerability, in Mumbai and in the world. For the next week, I avoided sites that were marked as danger zones on my mental map: train stations, night clubs, cinemas, restaurants frequented by foreigners. Not long after that, though, my routine was pretty much back to normal. The biggest change was that I stopped taking the train, which was my daily mode of transport to and from work. However, I took the train twice last week — and that's a start.

My progress has nothing to do with an increased sense of safety. Speculation that more terrorists had been on the boat and remain at large has still neither been definitively affirmed nor denied. Some political heads have rolled, and there are more police on the streets and bag and vehicle checks at high-profile spots, but I am not convinced that this has had a meaningful effect on security. Just a few days after the attacks, to prove a point, someone successfully got a gun through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), Mumbai's biggest station and the one in which terrorists fired in November. Unexploded bombs were found in the same station a week after the attack, whereas authorities declared the station safe and reopened it just a few hours after the shooting. It is well known that police do not have the capacity to fully secure vulnerable sites. Many officers haven't had a practice shot in a decade; in fact, a cop whose gun accidentally went off at CST set off a panic a few days after the attacks. Metal detectors and heightened police presence at stations appear to be mostly for show. I personally attempted to alert officers at a train station about some unidentified baggage last week; I might as well have told them I had a stomachache.

Although I don't actually feel more secure, I have realized that it's not really I who am reclaiming Mumbai, but Mumbai that is reclaiming me.

There are already so many homemade messes to deal with in Mumbai — poverty, inequality, communal riots, domestic bomb blasts by both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, gangsters, deadly flooding — that there is hardly time to fear external threats. The plague even made an appearance recently.

In particular, the purported ills of urbanization for which Mumbai is berated and that both frustrate and dazzle visitors seem to be a large part of what makes residents so resilient. Getting from one place to another, you are constantly stuck in traffic jams, narrowly avoiding being hit by a moving vehicle and navigating an obstacle course of sewage puddles, hawkers and pavement dwellers. You take in an overwhelming barrage of smells, sounds and sights: garbage and incense, temple bells and car horns, wandering cows and densely packed slums. Everyone and their mother is carrying around an over-sized package. Fireworks that sound like bombs explode on a daily basis (nothing gets in the way of marriage season). Part of the ability to bounce back may come from habituation to moving on no matter what comes at you throughout the day. In such a chaotic and taxing environment, there is no time or energy to be afraid.

There's no better example of this than the city's crowded trains — the main site of my personal struggle with fear. In the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai (the cover of which was a picture of a giant screw with the words, "Our message for terrorists...Screw you!"), Reason #7 that Mumbaikers bounce back quickly from crises is local train journeys: "Every day, just under half of the city's population boards the local train, 5,000 of us jammed into carriages designed to hold 1,800 people... When we board the train, we make an unspoken pact with our fellow citizens: we know we're in for a horrid time for a little while, but in the end, we'll all get to our destination. Those daily negotiations give us a sense of empathy and solidarity with our fellow citizens that's unique to Mumbai... We're just showing the city the same tough love that it bestows upon us every day." Sometimes it feels like solidarity, other times like survival of the fittest, but when you are busy trying to keep from getting physically crushed in a stampede of saris while avoiding elbowing the newborn cradled behind you, it's pretty hard to worry about anything else. Besides, as 4000 people die every year in accidents on Mumbai's trains, the journey poses more pressing safety issues.

As seems to happen so often, it appears that my greatest hope for recovery lies in the same place as my biggest fear: in this case, on the local train.

(Photo of station from Times of India. Photo of peace march from E-Talk India. Photo of train from the Mumbai Insomniac blog. Photo of flood from the Delhi Greens blog.)


Anonymous said...

nice post

Katia Savchuk said...

Thanks! Riding Mumbai's trains is really an experience everyone should have at some point.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice post.