Welcome To The Real Mumbai Metro
Joyride on Yellow Line 2A & Red Line 7 – what it tells me about my city
I hopped on the newly inaugurated Mumbai metro stretch last weekend, for a joyride. It was the Saturday afternoon after the Thursday inauguration and I fully assumed there would be others like me – curious souls keen to try out the latest thing in our city. To my surprise, I may have been the only one exhibiting open enthusiasm. The other commuters flowed into stations, through turnstiles and in and out of the metro as they do in every station of Mumbai. But I did notice a few people self-consciously hold up their phones when the metro was in transit before going back to poker-face solemnity. 😄 I love how my city is economical about everything.
I didn’t start at a terminus point but decided to hop on at Lower Oshiwara. This is the signal on Link Road with Infiniti Mall, Lotus Petrol Pump and the road to Lokhandwala market. This junction used to be a random turn after ‘Laxmi Industrial Estate’ (most people today probably don’t even know where this is ) en route to the glam market. Andheri dwellers sniffed with pride at the aesthetic wonder of Lotus Petrol Pump. It wasn’t like the ubiquitous box-style petrol pumps but reminiscent of Sydney Opera House. An ugly blue-and-yellow (presumably for branding reasons) paint job ended our pride. It’s back to white now but you’re unlikely to notice it anymore, since it’s right below the metro station. Cities evolve and nothing says Mumbai more than function over form.
I proudly pored over the detailed map. Mumbai’s defining railway network is over a century old and doesn’t depict well on maps, photographs or popular narratives. We’re the last of the Indian metros to get a contemporary public transit system which tells you something about the way politics trumps money. As I stood in line for a ticket, I practised saying the name of the station. 30 years of public transport and I still can’t shake the feeling that the person at the counter will say, “No such place on Earth” and yell for the guards to arrest me for being an alien. This metro has been touted as connecting Dahisar to Andheri. I’ve seen construction happen on both sides of the railway track. I’m a Mumbaiker, the only city geometry I know is up-down or perpendicular. Circular paths are as mindboggling as distance measurements like ’20 meters away’. Huh? Woh kitna hota hain? I can only visualise space in terms of time & fixed spots connected by straight lines. I asked for ‘Gunadavali single’ which is Mumbai railway speak for ‘going one way’, fingers crossed that was the right thing to say. The ticket seller looked at me quizzically and said, “That’ll take very long. Better to take DN Nagar’s other line.”
Yellow Line 2A, Lower Oshiwara metro station on Link Road, Andheri West
This makes me happy to note. Line 1 has been around for nearly a decade now and in my experience, their staff ranges from rude to indifferent. That’s always jarring in a city where public behaviour (not the bade log in cars) especially in transit points is efficient, brusque but helpful. The Ghatkopar-Versova route seems staffed by people who’ve never taken a Mumbai bus or train and are annoyed when you ask, much less willing to advise you on what might be better. It’s good to see Line 7 take a more Mumbaiker approach to their work. I explained to the nice man that I wanted to ride the whole route to see. ‘Naya hain na isliye‘. I got a ticket that let me ride the length of Line 7 (DN Nagar to Dahisar West) and then Line 2A (Dahisar West to Gundavali) without having to change trains. The only such experience I’ve had before in Mumbai was catching that one train that ran from Andheri to Wadala, then reversed direction (and track) and ran over to Panvel without needing to get down to change trains. I don’t know if that train runs anymore but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a frequent occurrence in the day. Props to the metro planning and keeping these two lines connected. That should eliminate a lot of crossover thoroughfare at Dahisar and make it easier for distance commuters. On the other hand, this might also give us the Virar train phenomenon, where commuters going that distance make it impossible for anyone wanting to get down earlier, to even board the train.
I’m going to detour here to explain the title of this post. Everything in Mumbai revolves around access. Mumbai grew into a city around a railway track built by the British to transport labour from far-flung areas into their textile mills in the southern island. Since then, property prices have been disproportionately skewed towards South Bombay. At the same time, the majority of the labour force and indeed citizenry of Mumbai has lived in its suburbs for a century. Entire generations (till even mine) would talk about ‘going to Bombay’ about traveling to South Bombay, the implication being that was the true Bombay. In the last 20 years, I’ve seen my dingy, congested suburb of Andheri grow from the boondocks to a sky-high priced destination for residence, office and public gathering spaces. And I’ve learnt that even in the century old social hierarchy, the western suburbs skewed higher than the other parts of the city. We’re all on a precarious, rickety ladder and everyone has angst about someone having it better.
It’s clear that the real Bombay has never been Marine Drive or the British created buildings housing High Court and other important buildings. Not even Versova & Madh which moved from the smuggling dens of 70s Bollywood to the film industry’s narcissism, not even these are the real Mumbai (as it’s called now). The real Mumbai has been thousands of anonymous dwellings clustered together for safety and identity in numbers. Just before the pandemic, I walked into Worli-Koliwada village, which is one of the city’s oldest fishing communities still in existence. I saw a view of the Bandra-Worli sealink (another much touted, excessively delayed corridor of transport that is confined to the glitzy non-anonymous who can afford it) that I’ve never seen before, from atop a garbage dump at the edge of the sea. The place is not rich enough to merit basic sanitation facilities and not divisive enough for politicians to radicalise it for a votebank. It was one of the first and worst affected hotspots in Mumbai during the pandemic. That is the real Mumbai, that you don’t see in movies, in the media reportage or in political speeches.
Coming back to the metro, when Line 1 opened, I was among the lakhs of Andheri dwellers that heaved a sigh of relief. Ghatkopar to Versova in 21 minutes?! Miracle! I was blown away by how green everything looked from that height on my first ride. I’ve lived on both sides of Andheri and in multiple locations as well as worked and studied here. I had no idea Andheri had so many trees. This weekend’s joyride forced me to face the extent of my own privilege within the Mumbai social (and political & economic) hierarchy. The west side is full of ‘posh’ buildings to a point. Every one of the famous malls – Infiniti, InOrbit, Infiniti 2 has a metro station right at its doorstep. Each of these is going to become a nightmare bottleneck because commercial establishments in Mumbai never consider what they’ll do to traffic, parking, pedestrian transits. The hope is that a lot more people will use the metro instead of cars but when has that ever happened? Maximum City’s allure is greed and show and it’s very Indian to measure one’s importance by how much damage one can get away with causing the environment around one.
All these years later, people still turn up their nose at me for using public transport. They assume it’s because I’m too poor to afford a car of my own (which possibly I am). But a big part of my love for public transport is because it’s where I get to experience my city the best. Mumbai isn’t made for strolls and rambles. There are too many people, with things to do that are too critical. But we all have to travel. When it’s not closed away in a box, you really get to see what makes us, us – in how we negotiate the crunched space, our personal & collective anxieties and get to our respective destinations. Mumbai works like a well-oiled machine, not because of its governments or its infrastructure but because of its people prioritising getting things done over immediate ego gratification.
Yellow Line 2A from DN Nagar to Dahisar West
I find myself concerned at this point. Past Infiniti 2, is where the newly posh (as of the last 20 years) suburbs end. I suddenly started to notice a lot more buildings. These are taller than most you see in Andheri but also crammed in really close together. Some of them look undeniably ‘posh’ with elevated garden patches & walking tracks. They abut SRA style buildings designed to cram in as many human beings into as little space as possible. There were entire stretches where I couldn’t see beyond a building right at the edge of the metro and the sky wasn’t visible at all. Contrast this to Line 1, where you see greenery, erraces of buildings, flights taking off (near the airport) and even hills in a distance (albeit covered with the slums/village houses that were set on fire during the 90s rioting – Asalpha gaon). It looks like even Andheri is not the real Mumbai. All these massive buildings in the Northern suburbs mean thousands, maybe millions of people. This metro promises to connect them faster to the haven of Andheri. But is it big enough to accommodate the sheer volume that has struggled with this need for decades? I am not sure. This means the already choked roads are going to be even more congested while property prices close to the metro line inflate with the bubble of that promise.
I posted a Twitter thread recapping this journey. The only responses I got were trolls & haters, suggesting that I was being unrealistic to expect metro trains to be clean. Why? Doesn’t that tell you something about elitism? Does Kandivali deserve a dirtier, more grueling commute than Andheri in addition to being longer? A Borivali dweller pays the same taxes as a Bandra citizen; why do they get a worse quality of public infrastructure?
I was charmed to note the names of the stations along the line. There’s Lower Oshiwara & Oshiwara, Pahadi Goregaon (no hill in sight though), Lower Malad & Malad which made me think these stretches were just open spaces close to the coast line without specific names for a long time. Valnai, Dahanukarwadi & Eksar gave me the idea that these might the original names borne by homes to the fishing communities which were the original inhabitants of the Bombay islands. I don’t know how long these names will stay before being Hindi-ised/Anglicised (Sion, Versova anybody?) or highjacked by capitalism (a la “next station XYZ Brand Corporation presents buzzbuzz stationname not important” like Line 1). It was nice to ride through name boards on a modern amenity through places that have seen centuries of history.
Crossing the railway track at Dahisar on the Mumbai metro, transitioning from Yellow Line 2A to Red Line 7
I had another awakening when the metro transitioned to Line 2A. For the first time in my Mumbai life, I find the east looks better that west! While the Borivali-Dahisar stretch on the west was mostly neglected slums and crammed buildings, the east was a broad, well-made road (from what I could tell at the height). This is a national express highway so you wouldn’t expect anything less – unless you’d grown up in the east which I have. I remember when there weren’t easy ways to cross from east to west – dangerous railway phataks, filthy subways, badly lit service roads. I remember the potholes on the highway. I remember walking the highway during the 2005 deluge in pitch darkness and feeling the neglect this city has endured – realising the only thing keeping me going that night as well as in life, was other Mumbaikers. Mumbai spirit saved my life more than once. How long are the powers-that-be going to rely on this (blaming pedestrians when bridges fall)?
The other side of the highway was sobering too. Slums perched on the edge as if at a precarious cliff face, possibly even more dangerous as here they’d fall right into heavy traffic. Long patches of green land, a reminder of the diminishing Aarey, Mumbai’s vanishing green cover & tribal identity. Then spanking new towers, ancient apartment blocks valiently trying to keep up with fresh coats of paint. A petrol pump surrounded by trees. A mall with a broad road leading away from the highway (and surprise, surprise, no metro station on its doorstep). East and west are such different Mumbais and I’m yet only on the western line.
Red Line 7 running along Dahisar to Andheri east mostly on the western express highway
These two lines upgrade from Line 1 with a plastic wall along the track and doors that open in tandem with the metro doors. But I noticed ramshackle ceilings, tangled wires crammed into spaces & no easy way to clean. What good is an emergency precautions notice pasted on the inside of that plastic barrier, when it’s too filthy to read? Now consider the ways this metro differs from the railway train. An airconditioned box as opposed to an open train compartment means stale air (haven’t we just survived an airborne pandemic?). It’s very dusty given the long stretches of congestion, all the construction debris of the last decade still in the air and no way or process to have it cleaned. As a regular train traveller, I could count the times a train compartment has been too filthy to travel in. Just once, when a dog had run in, shit on seats and run away. I’m not saying you could eat off Mumbai train floors but there’s a certain order in its chaos – from people making their living wielding a makeshift broom in exchange for a few coins to daily travellers following a system of not littering in the train. None of that exists on the metro line.
Will it evolve? Maybe. It depends on the cultural trajectory of the city. A century from the late 1800s onwards in this place created a culture of stoic cooperation. But we’ve moved into a millennium of selfishness, short-term gain over vision, progress measured as personal agenda for the privileged at the cost of exploiting a larger majority. I don’t know where Mumbai culture goes from here. But one thing is for sure. These metro lines are changing the precarious balance of power in many ways already. Places that were inaccessible will be more in public view now. This means the people of those places will impact the narrative. Newer high traffic places will come up for real estate developers to price, new needs for infrastructure & public spaces will emerge too. There will be pushback from the hitherto power centers. This might mean the price rates escalate beyond affordable. How many people will be able to afford to live in a tiny matchbox flat, travel for hours for a job that pays very little, have no access to proper healthcare, let alone social & cultural facilities? Will Mumbai even seem like a worthwhile prospect when that happens? Only time will tell.
There’s a lot of insight and foresigh in your pieces, one learns from these readings. Reading this itself has been a journey, thank you for taking me with you.
@Tom: Thank you for riding with me! This comment made me so happy. I miss the days when I built a whole world of friendships in conversations on blogs. The comments section of each of those posts is like a scrapbook of treasured memories.