Last month, I rode a local train after a very long time. I had a health appointment but one I set of my own volition, picking up the strands of my earlier precautionary self. Yet, I’m different in an irrecoverable way. I’ve realised how futile my organisational abilities are when confronted by life’s chaos. I’m also finding myself peeling off the pasted structures of my life.
My self is some kind of amorphous, cloudy vapour (not unlike the pollution in the city now). It doesn’t stay contained inside wallpaper & words. I feel like several layers of shells, shields & skin have been peeled away. I feel the way I felt when I first started travelling by myself at 14. But in a 44-year-old body.
I look at the pristine station awash in noontime sunlight and I’m reminded of the 90s Bollywood fetish for turning up the brightness setting to rival detergent ads. Karishma Kapoor & Govinda in blindingly white garb dancing to Lalitajee saying
“Bhala aisi safedi kahan?”.
Not rush hour, I tell myself. I have lived through the 90s. I must have to remember that precise detail. In the moment, I don’t even remember that this station didn’t exist at that time and is named for the thing that the ’90s fought over.
The train approaches at great speed. I’m pulled instantly to 2000 and my 20-year-old self. I stare at the tracks, willing myself not to act on the thought running through my head. How easy it would be to slide down onto the tracks. I wouldn’t feel a thing. There wouldn’t be any time for anyone else to do or say anything. It could be so easy to end the pain. I shake my head. Life is so fragile. That’s the thought that underlines my every trip by train. It has been overlaid by many thousands of memories & conversations. But like the sure steel tracks under my bogey, all my living runs on that thought.
Twice unknown men have looked at me for a minute longer than usual. They don’t seem predatory. The look in their eyes & the merest of slumps as they exhale reads more like charmed. As if my amateur status at the station shows. Or have I just lost the ability to sniff out predators on public transport? I am an amateur now though, but with the morass of decades hanging around my neck like hand-me-down experiences from someone else. I don’t feel inside the body of that person who braved rush hour crowds daily, navigated class tangles & survived being claustrophobic in a packed Mumbai train. I’m something else but with a finger inside a bible of somebody else’s life.
Then, I was in deep heartbreak and also grief. I am not sad or grieving now. But I am depressed. I see the distinction so clearly now between sadness & mental illness. There doesn’t seem a Me to fight against these thoughts. There is just habit. The habit of standing far away from the tracks. Near enough to not be scattered by the fray. But with just enough bodies & needs between me and the tracks. I wear the city like a shield before the inevitable.
Then there are habits of time. Of staying still in the seconds before the train stops, aligned exactly with where I’m standing. The habit of instinctively knowing where the carriage door will be even before the train enters the station. The ennui of not breaking a habit. Ennui saves me. That’s also why it feels scary to say I’m healed. Healing means to be free of anything that could be an addiction and what else is a habit but the child version of that? I’m not sure I’m solid enough to be free.
I find myself inside a compartment, seated tidily on the fourth seat, anticipating crowd flow directions. It’s not quite that have forgotten how I got inside here. It’s more like this body and all these thoughts are a big brood of beings that I’m supposed to be in charge of. I can’t possibly watch everyone and everything at the same time.
So, like learning how to be a leader for the first time, I have to let go of the reins a bit and trust. And now, I’m doing my first check-in to see all accounted for and present. Yes. What does it feel like to have such a fragmented sense of self? At least I don’t have to hunt down any wayward feelings. The brood is tired and overwhelmed so behaves.
For the first time since 2012, I didn’t feel a pang like a chokehold around my neck when I passed Mahim. The place where I tried to build a relationship before my life imploded. My first thought when entering Mahim station was not of my life with my ex. It was memories of the train blasts. Dad used to work in a building close by. One of his colleagues got to the station a few seconds late & missed the train. Saw it explode at the end of the platform.
It’s strange. Watching a place pass through a window, like a film that was hard to sit through. Reminding myself that I also saw some other movies at the same place. Were they good ones? I can’t tell if it’s preservation instinct or this comfortable brood fatigue that lets me drop that line of self-inquiry.
There’s something beyond trauma. It bonds you to that with which you’ve experienced it. The ’90s riots, train blasts, terror attacks, overhead bridge collapses, train lines failing, floods are mixed in with memories of people who helped, and who shared their pain & hope. My city. I’m glad I did this today. I was feeling like I no longer liked this city. It has been such an integral part of my identity. But taking a train ride and one that wasn’t too crowded or jarring reminded me of the years, good, bad and more.
I remember when train windows didn’t have grills. We saw a curious disturbing trend – a rise in plastic bags filled with chilli water thrown at trains. I remember worrying about getting the coveted window seats. And the grills that came on outside soon after. They made it impossible for violence balloons to enter. They also made it harder to throw trash out onto the tracks.
I remember when a drunk or a mentally ill man stumbled into the ladies’ compartment just as it picked up speed. A cop was already in the compartment – another testament to Mumbai train history. Was it a terrible incident after which we began seeing a cop every now and then in the ladies’ compartment? It was so long ago. I’ve probably seen more cops in trains than ticket collectors. Though it was so long ago, they’re assumed to just be using the uniform privilege to travel in a less crowded compartment.
But this cop turned and shouted at the man. The man yelled something back. And then the cop lifted his rifle and aimed. My friend screamed my name and clutched my arm. My left arm. All the other women bent down cowering. I still remember it. Noticing the waves of fear around me. Choosing not to grab for it. A total and complete sense of calm when I turned and told her, “He is not going to shoot. Sit up, it’s okay.” It wasn’t even a train line that I was that familiar with.
The girl at my elbow coughs. Quietly, discreetly. She’s the same one who has had her face buried in a handkerchief in addition to a mask. That’s two reasons I noticed her. I thought I was the last one to wear a mask on a Mumbai train. Unlike me though, her discreet illness isn’t solitary. A voice calls out and through the noise, I just know it is her name. And it asks, “Still coughing?” The girl nods & in a low voice speaks about what the doctor said. And then she dissolves from attention.
Everything looks very bright now. Of course, it is an October afternoon in Mumbai so that’s logical. I stare at people, things, ceilings, worn-out patches on staircases, the railings. I gaze out where there are views and there are so many! Not a thing is unfamiliar. And yet, everything feels like I’m walking into a painting I’ve known my whole life, for the first time.
I feel the sensations of wood, plastic, metal, skin, hair, and dust in my fingers as I move. Or I imagine them when I look at them. Is this how a child learns for the first time, what a word, or an idea really means? Dadar is a name and then a sound, then many and sights, smells too.
On my way back, I stare and stare at the blinding gilt-gold of bangles and I feel their heft, their coolness on my hand. But the seller doesn’t so much as glance my way. He knows perhaps, that I won’t buy. The train recognises me even if I don’t recognise myself.