India: Train etiquette no laughing matter

Updated:

MUMBAI, India — There are rules to Mumbai’s trains, and rule No. 1 is don’t take a Virar Fast train if you’re not going to Virar.

The women on Virar trains have long commutes and they hate it when other people try to invade their space. If you do manage to cram yourself in, and then get off at an earlier stop, the Virar women might block the door and not let you off. Or so I heard. They are tough, these women.

But when a Virar Fast train pulled into the station on a recent afternoon, I told myself it wouldn't be so bad. It had been a really long day, and I was soaking wet from the rain. All I wanted to do was get home quickly and put on some dry socks. The platform looked relatively empty and, well, I went for it.

On board, it wasn't so bad. I had to secure standing room, but the car wasn't packed — by Mumbai standards at least. There was some pushing and shoving, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Heading north, though, out of South Mumbai, the train filled quickly. As we got closer to my stop, Andheri, I realized there were about 20 women between me and the door, squished together bosom to back.

I began squirming toward the door. One woman, sensing I was a fish out of water, ordered me to push her. “Push me,” she said, “push me.” Others watched, debating whether or not I'd make it.

The train slowed and stopped. The pushing frenzy began. I pushed too, and clenched the straps of my shoulder bag. Sticking my elbows out to the side, I somehow, just barely, managed to slip through the mass of saris and nose rings, elbows and flowing black hair. Off the train and onto the cement platform. Miraculously, I had survived.

I had also learned my lesson: if you want to ride, you must follow the rules.

Carrying more than 6 million people a day, Mumbai’s trains are sticky and smelly and packed so full at times that they ooze people. More importantly, they make this city run.

Some rules are a matter of safety. Others are for a successful journey. Most fall somewhere in between.

Waiting in line

When you stand in line at the ticket counter, for instance, you must stay as close to the person in front of you as possible, or someone will cut in front of you and you will lose your place in line. If you want to buy a first-class ticket, you can skip to the front of the line. No one will give you a dirty look, it's an accepted, cardinal rule.

When you stand at the platform waiting for your train, if you want a first-class compartment, you must go to the poles with black and yellow crossings.

If you are a woman, most people will say the rule is that you must line up with the ladies and ride with them. Ladies’ compartments are less crowded, they say, and you're less likely to get groped or “Eve teased,” as it’s called in India.

But, as a foreign woman, I beg to differ. If it’s rush hour, you probably won’t even fit in the men’s compartment. But at other times, when the train is merely packed and not overflowing, I find it  better to ride with the men.

Most of the women are coming off a long day of work and need to get home in time to make dinner and take care of their children. They’re in a rush, you’re in their way and they will not hesitate to throw an elbow.

The men, on the other hand, may stare at you — particularly if you are a Westerner. They may tell you to leave, but they will keep their distance and at least you'll have some breathing room.

All aboard

When you are on the train, the rules depend on what class you're riding in.

In second-class compartments, you can talk loudly and jump into strangers’ conversations at any point. Boys will walk around selling fried snacks in the men’s cars and hair scrunchies and bangles in the women’s. In the seating areas, a fourth person will push his way onto the bench, even if there is no visible room. “Sarco, sarco,” (move, move) he will say.

In the first-class compartments, the rules revolve around maintaining a semblance of calm and respectability. Everyone knows that only three people are allowed per bench. People chat on their mobiles, but there is no loud, boisterous conversation like there is on the other cars. And kids trying to sell cheap, plastic knick-knacks are against the first-class rules.

Exit time

In general, the goal is to make it out the door. One option is to stand close to the door, ready to jump as soon as the train pulls into the station. This proves difficult because people on the platform will be simultaneously trying to jump onto the train once it arrives. If you are too slow, they will pull you off.

Your other option is to hug the side of the entrance, allowing those to jump on before you try to escape.

And finally, if you ever take a train south to Churchgate, the last stop on the Western line, make sure to stay seated. Crowds of commuters will be waiting at the platform, ready to fly into the compartment as soon as it approaches so they can grab a seat for their long, sometimes two-hour journey home.

If you wait for them to secure their places, calm will return. Then, you can slowly get up, exit the compartment and enjoy Mumbai.