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Will you be my train friend?

This contribution is a follow-up to my post about commuting by rail in Mumbai. Let's talk about community, networks, communication—and specifically, let's talk about "train friends."

Photo of Karolle Rabarison
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This contribution is a follow-up to my post about commuting by rail in Mumbai: Mumbai Local, Ladies' Special. 

Haven't yet had a chance to dedicate a block of time for structured interviews. So far I've enlisted a translator willing to spend an afternoon with me in the Mumbai Local's second-class ladies' car and major stations, chatting with and learning from frequent travelers. Hopefully the two of us can coordinate a time soon!

Meanwhile, I'm still commuting by train daily, which gives me at least 40 minutes a day to strike up a conversation with fellow commuters and to learn something new, even if not within a formal interview capacity. And sometimes, I learn a lot not by discussing but by simply taking out my earphones and listening to those around me. And so the train stories continue.

In response to my previous post, Eugenia Lee asked:  What other aspects of the train appeal to them past the immediate obvious ones, and how does it possibly tie into the greater concept of what safety means?

Here's the beginning of an answer.

The obvious answer is that trains are convenient (time-wise, not comfort-wise) and affordable. But "getting there" is only part of the story. A bonus appeal of commuting by the Mumbai Local is the community you fall into, what Mumbaikars call "train friends." Like with any city, Mumbai offers many ways to make friends. Here you can have your work friends, school friends, neighbor friends, bar friends, etc. –  and train friends. 

What I've learned about train friends:
 
  • Strangers become train friends by commuting in the same compartment of the same train at the same time each day. For example, you'd find a train friendgroup on the slow train to Churchgate that picks up at Andheri at 8:18am, or the Thane-bound 7:21pm slow from CST. The times are that specific. During rush hour(s), a train arrives at the platform approx. every three minutes.
  • These friendships form organically. When you're sitting/standing/squished by the same person several days a week, one of you will eventually say hello and small talk. 
  • The Indian work day is Mon-Sat. So each week train friends may hang out six times, each way.
  • "Hang out" means small talk about office life and what's new with family, sharing a snack like an orange or bag of chips, reading the morning paper together, etc.
  • In India no topic is off limits, and train friends get to know intimate details of each other's lives. This not-so-small-talk atmosphere contrasts my experience riding the metro/subway/tube in DC, NYC, and London – there, everyone minds their own business.
  • The most interesting bit: With the proliferation of mobile phones, train friends (and strangers) can interact even if they end up on opposite sides of the car. For smartphone users, there are now Whatsapp groups for train friends  e.g. for the 8th compartment of the 9:07am fast from Bandra.

Let that last info sink in, marinate, for a minute.

Now let's revisit the latter part of Eugenia's question. How might train friends tie into the greater concept of safety in the city, especially for women and girls? 

And what other unique, organically-formed, community networks exist that might promote safety in a city?

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Photo of Meena Kadri

Great insights on connections formed on transport, Karolle. Looking forward to finding out what else you learn.

(and you're making me miss Mumbai trains. I also made many train friends when working at Dharavi. Mostly Dabbawallas due to the fact that the first time I took a train out there, I accidentally jumped on the carriage for folks with large pieces of luggage. Ended up being so insightful that I often snuck onto that carriage to discover more. Amazing what you can learn from people during the temporary confinement of transit)

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Meena, I can only imagine the great stories the dabbawallas must have shared with you!

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