American anthropologist Edward Hall Jr. pioneered the social science of proxemics – the study of physical proximity between people and their reactions at various distances from each other. He defined four personal reaction bubbles based on distance. There is the intimate space (<6 inches to 1.5 feet for hugs, kisses, tickles et al). There is the personal space (1.5 to 4 feet) for interactions among family and buddies. There is the social space (4 to 12 feet) for acquaintances, and there is the public space (12 to 25 feet) for strangers and public speaking. And then there is the train ride on a Mumbai local – which proves that Prof. Hall’s work was incomplete. I will explain why. Deep breaths people…very deep breaths.

Edward T. Hall’s personal reaction bubbles, 1966

Imagine the one person you love with all your being. That person in turn should be emotionally, spiritually, and most importantly, physically attracted to you. Even that person would die of jealousy at the intimacy you will be forced to have with a random commuter on a Mumbai local at rush hour. I had heard that the locals were frighteningly crowded, and had resolved to avoid it during the two months of my internship. However the alternatives to the train cost you a bomb in time and patience. As an intern working in the field, reaching on time is paramount. So I found myself waiting at Dadar station for a local to Thane at 10:30 AM. The platform was crowded, and the air was heavy with collective anticipation. We were like troops waiting for the command to charge. Then, the train rolled into view exactly on time, and a cry went up across the station. No one was saying anything in particular to anyone, yet everybody was making some noise or the other to create a rising cacophony. The train drew closer, and people were hanging out of the doors, perched on precarious toe holds. A few jumped off before the train stopped. Then the crowd on the platform extended the courtesy of five seconds to allow some of the people to get off. And then this living organism started contorting itself into the compartments, heaving people, bags, sacks and briefcases into the dark space inside. I was carried on board with next to no effort by my own legs. No sooner had some 30 people been squashed in, than the train was off. I had made it onto a local at rush hour – a tiny victory in itself.

Now begins the more intimate phase of the experience. After the crowd oozes into the available nooks and crannies, a temporary calm descends. People wriggle and squirm and shove into some contorted position, and finally turn their faces towards any available pockets of air. This process of settling down goes via an understandable route of grunts, squabbles, compromises and finally peace. Tempers are frail all around, but somehow a shared sense of suffering keeps people calm. There is a certain resignation to the fact that physical intimacy is unavoidable and non-negotiable. I for one was sandwiched between an elderly man’s rotund belly in front and a mystery someone behind.

The heat is viciously unhelpful inside the compartments. You are devoutly thankful for the powerful ceiling fans. Still, the sheer physicality of contact between strangers is oppressive. You are forced to feel the contours of the other’s body. The swinging hand holders overhead (I don’t know what else to call them) are often shared between two moist hands. Of course hands outnumber hand-holders by a large margin, so many people are holding on to nothing at all. They are safely suspended between the bodies of others, acutely aware of the thinness of the shirts separating skin from skin. With every jolt of the train, there comes additional contact with people who helplessly bump into you. With every station, a mass of exiting commuters grind past you, to be followed by another grinding by an aggressive incoming party. In the brief interlude between the two grindings, you draw a few deep breaths, because there is that little bit of space and time for the chest to expand fully. And once again everyone settles down, waiting for their destinations, still pressed up against perfect strangers. This is the fifth and innermost bubble which Prof. Hall overlooked – the super intimate space of the Mumbai local train.

In all this discomfort, there are little acts of kindness that play out. Some of the men offer their seats to ladies; people seat others’ children on their laps; co-passengers help push bags onto luggage racks. If you look around, you will see the real people of Mumbai jointly fighting the battle of claustrophobic urban life that’s so typical of India. The good old punctual local is no doubt the artery of this thriving city. In a cheeky way it’s an enormous metaphorical middle finger at the people stuck in the traffic jams of Mumbai roads. What amazed me most was the sheer life force of the millions who travel by the locals. They possess a certain collective willpower to endure, to soldier on, to survive – the hallmarks of a determined people. For all its failings, perils, and disregard for space, the Mumbai local defines this city. Too bad Edward Hall Jr. never took a ride.

Ratnendu is a member of LSD. He is joining the legion of people figuring out how WordPress works.


One thought on “The Mumbai local – a lesson in intimacy

  1. Wow! I’ve read numerous blog posts on Mumbai and the local trains of Mumbai but none was as good and accurate as this one. I’m going to make my friends read this only to make them go through a ride in the Mumbai local train even when they’re not literally in the Mumbai local train. Keep blogging. I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts.


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