The manager of Bombay’s suburban railway system was recently asked when the system would improve to a point where it could carry its 6 million daily passengers in comfort.
“Not in my lifetime,” he answered.
Certainly, if you commute into Bombay, you are made aware of the precise temperature of the human body as it curls around you on all sides, adjusting itself to every curve of your own. A lover’s embrace was never so close.
Asad bin Saif works in an institute for secularism, moving tirelessly among the slums, cataloging numberless communal flare-ups and riots, seeing firsthand the slow destruction of the social fabric of the city. Asad is from Bhagalpur, in Bihar, site not only of some of the worst communal rioting in the nation but also of a gory incident where the police blinded a group of petty criminals with knitting needles and acid. Asad, of all people, has seen humanity at its worst. I asked him if he feels pessimistic about the human race.
“Not at all,” he responded. “Look at all the hands from the trains.”
If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run-up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outward from the train like petals.
As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway.
The rest is up to you. You will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks.
However, take a second to consider what has happened. Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle, their shirts drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain empathy for you, they know that your boss might fire you or cut down your pay if you miss this train, they will make space where none exists, to take one more person along with them.
And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning on a train from the north or whether you’re from Bombay, Bihar or Boston.
All they know is that you’re trying to get to someplace to earn your slice of gold for the day, and that’s enough.
“Come on board”, they say.