I first moved to Mumbai circa 2005, barely a teenager. Six cities and seventeen years later, I find myself back in the city. My memory from that first time is peculiar. I remember superficial things with distinct clarity - the view from a bedroom window, from where I saw local trains flying past Seawoods station, or the tiles in the park on the way to my friend’s building where I played football in the evenings. But I don’t remember how I felt those days, what I thought about when I was alone, or what kind of a person I was. That kid and I feel like strangers who happened to inhabit the same body at different times. Just like passengers on the same train who get on and off at different stations, never meeting. However, I do remember the instant I first saw and became aware of the phenomenon of a local train. And it broke my brain.

Before this, a train was a somewhat mythical vessel that transported you to worlds so far away, that you didn’t bother to find out the distance, just how many days it would take to get there. These worlds were so different from your own, that you would still be making sense of them weeks after you had returned. Tickets were reserved months in advance and were confirmed if the gods were willing. You told everyone you knew about this adventurous undertaking. Preparation started weeks in advance. Nervous energies built up as the day of departure arrived and you scrambled to figure out how to pack a miniature version of your world into ugly VIP suitcases with metallic latches. We went over the checklist over and over. Inform the neighbors, and give them contact information in case they need to reach you while you are away(no mobile phones yet). The milkman was told to stop until further notice. On days leading up to departure, recipes for meals were tailored to empty every last perishable item from the refrigerator. This made for some interesting, and often surprisingly good culinary outcomes.

Come D-day, hours from departure, time accelerated as you took a taxi to the city’s train station - crossed long footbridges to your platform with your luggage, which almost equaled your weight, and finally climbed onto your compartment. The compartment that would be your home, along with seventy others, for the foreseeable future.

After everyone had eased into their berths in the compartment - new friends were made, meals were shared, and games were played while the vessel warped through open fields of nothingness - much like a spaceship would - at a speed that was hard to grasp since there was nothing to measure it against, apart from the occasional other train that whizzed past in the opposite direction - an event that brought all conversations to a standstill and jolted hundreds out of peaceful slumber.

When the journey neared its conclusion, one got attached to the compartment - its people, the berths, the food. People started disappearing one by one - onto platforms at their destination. Some exchanged numbers and made empty promises to stay in touch. As we got down to our destination, we felt satisfied, tired, and homesick - everything that one would feel at the end of an adventure although ours had just begun.

It was this romanticism - for which my childhood experiences are to be blamed - that was shattered by the brutally practical and sacrilegious local train. How could there be more than one train station in one city? It was as absurd as a person having more than one address. Aren’t stations just named after the cities they are in? There should have been one Mumbai station. How could there then be more than 1 in the same city?

I saw people wander into the train station, buy a ticket from the platform(if they felt like it), and within 5 minutes be in a running train, hanging by what looked like the shorter and fatter cousin of the hangers in our wardrobe. Trains were smaller, had no berths, and came every few minutes. People climbed on them even before they made their brief two-minute stoppage.

I would take the train with my parents every Saturday from Seawoods to Vashi to shop at BigBazaar for groceries before a ceremonious lunch at McDonald’s - which I looked forward to the whole week. At school, I heard kids took the train by themselves without their parents. I also overheard that they frequently changed lines. I had no idea what changing lines meant but for some reason, it was made out to be an act of valor and defiance, something I would never think to attempt. It was crushing that kids my age were capable of such feats. I was jealous and curious. It was the early days of the internet and I was able to obtain this image at 56kbps through my modem.


This might have been the most downloaded image at some point in time. I have personally looked at it enough to memorize the paper folds at Panvel and Belapur because it was my phone wallpaper for a few years

This image intimidated me into submission. I made peace with shuttling between Seawoods and Vashi, which did not need a change of lines, under the protection of my parents.

Three years went by, it was 2008, and it was time to leave Mumbai. We packed our stuff and got on a REAL train. We traveled eighteen hours to get to a faraway place. We got down at our destination station. It was the only train station in the city. This move away from Mumbai was devastating for me because, for the first time, I had felt that I belonged. I wanted to be back badly but I was still a kid - a victim of my circumstances. I promised myself I’d be back.

I kept my promise and was back four years later for college. But I was foolish to assume I’d be coming back to the same people, the same place, the same feeling. I realized I was yearning for a place and time that only existed in my memory. It did not take me a long time to come to terms with this realization because half of my mind knew this to be true even before I came back. So it was only half the pain.

The local trains were still there though. Untouched by the hands of time. It wasn’t until I was forced to commute daily from Jogeshwari to Churchgate that I truly embraced the local trains as a part of my life. With time, I memorized almost all major stations on all 3 lines, changed lines hundreds of times, and could recommend the best train route for anywhere in Mumbai without looking at the map. I found myself no longer intimidated by conversations about train routes and the relative quality of trains on different lines(western > harbor>central). Trains became for me the default way to get around Mumbai. I loved eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, standing by the open door when the train was less crowded, and walking through busy markets that led to the stations.

Compared to the half dozen other cities I’ve lived in, on balance Mumbai fits me the best, despite the initial disillusionment I felt when I came back. But I wasn’t born here. So I can’t tell people I’m from here when the question is asked - although this is the city I feel the most from. The closest I can come to being recognized as a Mumbaikar is when I share my local train stories and struggles. The moment they realize you’ve hung by the same hangers as them, squeezed out of breath by flesh and bones on all sides, you’ll see that subtle but unmissable nod of approval from your fellow Mumbaikar. The one that says - “Aah, he’s okay. He’s one of us.“