Have you ever lived in a city that has a local train system? If you have, you would have witnessed what I write. If you haven't, close your eyes and imagine it.
Every morning, during what Mumbaikars refer to as peak-time, there is a great spectacle to be witnessed. For this, you need to identify a busy local station - say Andheri. Then you hunt for the foot over-bridge that ferries thousands ( and this I say conservatively) across the railway lines that bisect Mumabi into East and West. On either sides are railings that allow you to crane your neck to check whether you can still manage to scramble on to the 8.35 Churchgate slow or the 8.40 Virar fast with just seconds to spare before it pulls out of the platform. Find a comfortable spot, where you are least likely to be jostled hard.( Psst, it is kind of impossible to avoid being cursed or rudely glared at for appearing immovable when the whole over-bridge seems to be in a permanent state of fluid motion). However,once you have found that sweet spot, wait. It won't be long. Trains move in and out of platforms in Andheri every other minute. When the next train pulls in, hold your breath.
There is usually a reverent, almost automatic hush that lasts barely a second or two as the local slows down in its approach towards the platform. Ignore those that I shall call as 'Leapers', they who have no patience for the train to come to a halt, but jump out while it is still in motion.
As the train grinds to a halt, it will appear like a worm freshly trampled upon- its innards, black, impossibly thick and sluggish mass oozing out on to the platform. A bird's eye view is highly recommended. Every day, Mumbai's trains unloads its burden of humanity and you feel you heard the train heaving a sigh of relief...Oh wait, that was you, releasing that breath you'd held in, all this while.
The choke that you feel as you wait to leap on to a train or off it, with a waiting crowd already three-person deep is something most detest...but stay away from it and you long to do it just one more time - for there is a sense of camaraderie even while people compete to sit on the curving edge of a bench-seat which has already seated its maximum of three. And then there's the rare faint smile or nod of recognition to look forward to, though you have never exchanged a word with the Elphinstone lady or Churchgate teacher ( so named because she always gets down at that station).
Those who call Mumbai home spend the better part of their day and therefore in sum total, their lives travelling - to study, to work, to meet friends and family. That's how life in the city becomes a set of repetitive acts, performed with strangers every day, in a manner that leaves you just another black head that formed the thick ooze of humanity on the railway platform.
In under a minute, that choking platform turns vacant, few stragglers hang around, the black dots dispersed. And from my perch on the foot over-bridge, the wait for the next train begins..I want to witness that sight again, I want to revel in that feeling that I have the leisure to stand and stare while Mumbai breathes around me.
(Photographs by Gregor Thomeczek, 2011)