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Inclusivity, Kindness and Grit: Life Lessons From Mumbai’s Overcrowded Trains

Local trains in India
(c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

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Inclusivity, Kindness and Grit: Life Lessons From Mumbai’s Overcrowded Trains

From welcoming women from diverse backgrounds to singing songs together, the local trains are a vibrant space.

Six years ago, I was in the ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai when I saw women huddled together. A fellow passenger had just had an accident as she struggled to get off at her stop. Her co-passengers, including me, were worried about her condition, hoping her injuries weren’t severe.

Strangers often bond in Mumbai’s local trains, sticking together in difficult times. The Mumbai local is the lifeline of the city. I was a part of this system for five years as a college student. Till date, I remain partial to the coaches reserved for the ladies. Here’s a glimpse of my experiences.

Women have your back

As a 16-year-old fresh out of school, I wasn’t quite ready to commute on an overcrowded local train. I often felt overwhelmed at rush hour, standing for nearly an hour on bad days. 

The trains in Mumbai are usually full of thousands of people, especially during the rush hours. There’s barely any free space. People even end up hanging onto the pole next to the open doorway in desperation, which has proven to be dangerous.  

There is comfort in knowing that you may be a solo traveler but you’re not alone.

I’ve always been claustrophobic. More than once, I nearly fainted as I struggled to stay on my feet. I explained to a lady nearby that I was feeling dizzy. My fellow travelers rushed to my aid, clearing up a seat for me and offering me candy. Another time, something similar happened to another girl and it was déjà vu as several passengers, including me, helped her. There is comfort in knowing that you may be a solo traveler but you’re not alone. Because of the trains, I learned to take care of myself at an early age, overcoming crowded compartments through support from strangers.

There’s room for everybody

If you’re a regular on the local train, you’ll see everything. Women will walk past you with huge baskets, holding their toddlers with the help of a makeshift baby carrier while they make a living. They sell handkerchiefs, jewelry, and knick-knacks in small packets. These women are often the breadwinners in their families. Passengers buy their products in generous amounts, surveying their wares with enthusiasm.  

Everyone is welcome: women with babies who need to breastfeed safely without judgment, elderly women praying quietly as their fingers navigate the rosary beads or flight attendants on their way to work. The trains have always been a great equalizer. The local trains’ general compartments have space for all kinds of travelers. I’ve witnessed performers with special needs on several occasions in the trains. Many passengers often pitch in, supporting them with handfuls of coins.

The trains taught me to be more considerate. I learned to look beyond my own problems even on a bad day.

You’ll find friends

Many people who commute daily end up finding new friends. Sometimes, it’s almost therapeutic as women discuss their lives with each other. For many of the women who juggle work with household chores and raising children, their commute is the only downtime they get with someone lending them an ear.

Many people who commute daily end up finding new friends.

In the evenings, it’s not uncommon to see women sharing snacks on their way home, exchanging animated stories. If you get on a train in the morning, it’s likely you’ll be surrounded by passengers, singing songs together. They may not be familiar with each other, but they’re united in spirit.

The Mumbai local trains have been unforgiving in teaching me life lessons and have taught me the art of hustling. I’ve learned to appreciate diversity, spoken to kind strangers and become stronger in adversity — an experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything else in the world.

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