Monday, March 16, 2009

The Virar Local- A scary preview

"An urban legend, urban myth, or urban tale is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used to mean something akin to an "apocryphal story." Like all folklore, urban legends are not necessarily false, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time."

Mumbai, like all large cities, has its fair share of these. The beer man. The hammer man. Leopards picking up children and nonchalantly crossing the streets at Borivili. Parsi ghosts of south mumbai. All these stories have at various points in time gained in prominance, spooked citizens, and have helped sell a lot of copies of Mid-days and Mumbai Mirrors. But like all things uniquely Mumbai, its most popular, long standing, and spookiest of urban legends has to be one involving local trains and lots of people. Its called the Virar Local.

Like any other visitor or new immigrant to this island city, i too received my instructions about surviving in this city from many sources. Some were perhaps immaterial guides about things such as interpreting auto meters(one needs to pay rupee 1 less than the display). Some were practical- about lift queues and bus routes. And then there were some which always seemed like hyperbole at first. Floods and rains, for example.

I'd luckily landed in 2006, the year following the worst monsoon disaster. When on the road in some of the low lying areas, colleagues would suddenly point towards an impossible looking height on some landmark, and say "the water reached up there", sounding very prophet like. To a cynical me, at that point in time, they all looked as real as the biblical Noah. Having come from the north-east, which i knew faced rains much more than any other part in the country, i assumed monsoons here would be a walk in the park.

It turned out to be a swim instead. Of perhaps all the cities in the world, its only in Mumbai where a person leaving home in the morning for work/college/school has to fear drowning on his normal route as a distinct possibility. The rate at which water rises on the streets resembles bathtub getting filled up. A humongous bathtub filling fast, and with no plug in sight to pull.
But i think I've digressed a bit here. Natural disasters(though some people might have a challenge with classifying the Mumbai floods in the same category) hardly do make for an exciting read nor can they become urban legends. Let me come back to the story I started with earlier. The Virar local. "Never board a Virar Local unless you are travelling right up till Virar" is a piece of advice which every Mumbaikar would have heard of. "They would not let you get alight otherwise." When i first heard this, i immediately scoffed at it. The thought that the very same Mumbaikar, who legendarily would extend his hand and pull you inside an already crowded local(a la Diwala Dulhaniya), could turn into a prison warden and not let you alight was too filmy a twist to accept as being true. I'd always assumed it to be one of those "apocryphal stories" , which are good to hear but always seem to happen to no one but a friend of a friend. Of course, as a daily traveller in Mumbai locals, i am no stranger to crowded compartments. Distinctively crowds in this city have always been sensitive to the comfort of their co-passengers. Whenever possible, they will make it a point to try and create room for others as well as respect other's private space. Therefore, i always assumed the Virar story to be an exaggeration.
Till the day i boarded one, of course. Or rather till the day my train turned into a Virar Local, to be more exact. Let me explain.

The local system in Mumbai is acknowledged to be one of the most complex functional networks in the world. Trains start, pass-through, and end at a bewildering number of stations and junctions on a tight schedule. Though there only exist two directions of travel (north-south), start and end points of trains vary. On my way back from work at Malad, I typically travel till Andheri and it was on one such journey that my train on reaching Andheri was designated to ply on the opposite direction as a "Virar Local". That meant the platform at which i would alight in would be teeming with passengers rushing in to board the train.

My compartment was crowded and I tried to make room and head towards the exit. Surprisingly, i noticed no one else bothered to move from their places and head towards the exit even though the last platform was approaching. In fact, after some time i noticed people standing closer to the doors were hurriedly shifting and trying to fit themselves in towards the inner reaches of the compartment. This was decidedly eerie. Till an elderly gentleman gently put his hands on my shoulders and explained- "yeh train Virar local banega -Aap baith jao". I was still quite perplexed and right about then the train gently rolled into the platform. The crowd, as i peeped through the windows seemed to be spilling out into the tracks. I sat down, mesmerized because i had never in my life seen a platform so crowded. And then the train came to a halt and the noise began. Of people rushing into the compartment. It was loud and sounded almost like an invading army. People flowed in, but very unlike a tide. It was more of a tsunami. These people rushing on board looking for seats had the look of famished animals searching for meat. Within seconds the whole bogie was crowded. If any unsuspecting soul had been standing near the doors, he would have been crushed. I had a tough time alighting from that stationary train, even when it was waiting in its station of origin. I could completely agree that these people would not allow me to alight from the train in anywhere on route. The legend was true.

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