This photograph came up on my Facebook memories. I remember this moment. I was on my way back from town though I don’t remember where I had gone and why. I also remember being in a train that was unusually empty for that hour.
I remember the feeling of uneasy relief and thinking how odd that was. Isn’t relief supposed to be peaceful, something akin to contentment? And it was but it also felt bittersweet, like something that was hard-won and felt not quite worth the struggles that came before.
It has to do with living in this city. Mumbai demands everything from you. You cannot be of anyone or anything or any dream else. All you can do is surrender to it unconditionally and trust that it will hold you.
The Mumbai train is a perfect illustration of this. You battle mind-killing traffic, deafening sounds, lung-stopping pollution. Then you make it to a station thronging with people ten deep, straining to hear an inaudible announcement, read an illegible signboard to try and figure out which train you need to take. And then you look around at the crowd on the platform, waiting for the same thing. In that moment, Mumbai asks you to decide.
Will you die a little at the thought of fighting (yet again)? Will you strain and struggle and risk falling through the gap between the footboard and the platform? Will you push and shove and add a little more chaos to the desperate millions?
Or will you surrender to the city and be one with its messiness? If you choose this, when the train arrives, the crowd will pull you in with them. If you’re still a little outside the compartment, magically, there will be hands, strangers’ hands that will hold on to you. As they curse and frown, the others in the compartment will bend and twist to make some uncharitable room for you. Mumbai will rescue you and it will hold you.