The Lokmanya Tilak Express lurched into Kalyan Junction thirty minutes late, an hour short of its terminus in Mumbai. However, I had opted to alight at Kalyan as
a) As its name implies, the Lokmanya Tilak Express terminates at the obscure, and by all accounts slightly unpleasant station of that name, which is far from downtown Mumbai;
b) You can’t really arrive in Mumbai by rail and not do it at the erstwhile Victoria Terminus, now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (or just CST). Especially not if you think that its little sister, St Pancras, is London’s finest building.
c) You can’t really arrive in Mumbai and not use its famously over-crowded but efficient suburban railway.
So I left my cosy half coach on the express after 29 hours, to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find where to buy a ticket for the suburban railway; it turned out to be a hall full of useless automated machines, none of whose customers had the requisite bank card to use, so the company had to employ a ‘facilitator’ to sit by each of the machines, take cash, and then buy the ticket on a company credit card. I somewhat negated point c) above by travelling outside the infamous Super Dense Crush Load period, when up to 16 passengers are squeezed into every square meter of space aboard the trains, and also by, er, travelling first class. In my defence, all a first class ticket buys you is room to breathe, not massage and peppermint tea. And hey, I had a large bag. It was only fair on my fellow travellers.
I hopped aboard the CST Fast, probably the widest train I have ever been on, built for capacity, not comfort. It then proceeded to be not very fast at all for a bit, being overtaken by several CST Slows, but eventually we picked up speed and raced, stopping but occasionally, towards Mumbai. At first, the towns were interspersed with scruffy countryside and horribly grey watercourses, but then we dived under one last range of hills and the greenery ended, barring the lovingly-tended allotments that employees set up in every spare inch of railway land, including between abandoned rails. Where there wasn’t formal building, there were shacks built of corrugated iron, plastic and reclaimed wood.And where there weren’t houses, apartments, shacks or allotments, there was rubbish.
At times, the train seemed to glide over a sea of plastic bags, the detritus of a metropolis growing by five hundred people a day and with no serious waste disposal options. Some of it smouldered gently, other portions were picked through by people working methodically along the tracks, seeking recyclable nuggets. Seeing this made me feel a tiny bit better about the fact that every scrap of rubbish from the mainline trains ended up on the tracks. What wasn’t chucked straight from the windows and was placed conscience-salvingly in the bin, was emptied en masse out of the door by the travelling carriage cleaner at an opportune moment.
While not too crowded at this time of day, the suburban railway was certainly super dense in terms of service. Trains on the slow and fast lines heading out of town passed every few seconds, while trains on other routes converged for a few moments before peeling off again. From one of these a young lady, also leaning from the door, blew me a kiss. I record this not as a boast – it isn’t a frequent occurrence – but as a sign that Mumbai (or ‘Bombay’, as a middle class passenger on the space had angrily corrected me) was a little different from many other parts of India, where unaccompanied women averted their eyes from an equally unaccompanied man. Personally, I blame my ultra-trendy Boots sunglasses for the incident. Soon enough, we were slowing for the terminus. I was ready to dip my toe, however briefly, in the mega-metropolis.
CST was worth it. Its towers and domes loomed dustily through the electric catenary long before we arrived. The terminus’ suburban trainshed was vast, light streaming in through stained glass windows in the side walls, illuminating the constant coming-and-going of blunt-faced electric trains, the crowds surging forward to jump aboard arriving trains before they had even stopped, to secure a space for the outward journey. The suburban booking counters sat beneath soaring vaults while outside, amid the gothic tracery, the Indian tiger and British lion stood guard over the entrance, while ageing double decker red buses puttered by.
It was polling day in Mumbai; in the station taxi rank, the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party (an ally of the BJP, who do not contest Congress-held Mumbai South), was paying a campaign call. He stepped down graciously from his chariot (a blue-and-silver draped cart pulled by a fine white horse) which also contained a stern bronze bust of himself and a harmonium player.
Urged on by some the waiting crowd and all of the accompanying drummers, the candidate began to dance, in a less reserved manner than his bust suggested, his almost entirely male entourage joining in, with raised arms, clapping and broad smiles, until it was deemed time for the charabanc to move on. Votes were won in the CST taxi rank that afternoon. For which party remains unclear.
For the afternoon and evening I was there, I really liked Mumbai. I hadn’t really expected to. Maybe it needed more time and exploration for me to dislike it. My time there ended with my sharing beer and vegetable naans on Oval Maidan with Richard, a student who had somehow spent seven years studying in Mumbai and who was now pining for his imminent return to his native Goa. The Maidans are a long stretch of tree-lined fields that run down the centre of downtown, peninsular Mumbai. Lined on one side by the colonial ornaments of the Raj, including a gothic High Court with attached Big Ben imitation (the real Big Ben would never perform the Westminster Chimes two minutes early), and on the other by fine 1930s apartment blocks, dating from when the marshland was drained, the Maidans are in intensive use as cricket pitches, ranging from the very amateur, school-satchels-for-wickets, to the full whites, shin pads and half-timbered pavilion version. Oval Maidan is rectangular; I suspect its nomenclature relates to Lambeth. Richard, who I met while admiring the cool interior of St Thomas’ Cathedral, preferred football to cricket. I questioned his nationality. As dusk turned to dark, the tens of swirling kites above the Maidan were replaced by hundreds of swooping pipistrelle bats. Despite the lights of traffic streaming along the boulevards behind the palm trees on either side, and the associated horns, it was a remarkably peaceful spot for the heart of a great city.
Central Mumbai’s attractions were plain enough to see – broad streets which, while buzzing with traffic (especially the signature black-and-yellow Ambassador taxis), were not overwhelmed by it, lined by colonial buildings of every architectural style, from Venetian to classical via gothic. Some, like the portico-ed, white-washed municipal library were preserved to within an inch of their lives. Others, like many of the Italianate commercial and residential blocks, were in states of picturesque decay. As well as the Maidans, other green spaces were dotted about, including shaded, sub-tropical Horniman Circus, named after the same Horniman of Lewisham-based walrus fame. St Thomas’ Cathedral held monumental plaques to hundreds of servants of the Raj, who either met their ends on the North West Frontier or perished at sea while being posted home sick. The latter seemed to happen an awful lot.
At the end of the peninsula’s roads stood the Gateway of India, once a mark of colonial domination, built for emperors, viceroys and major-generals to step ashore from the P&O steamer through, now firmly adopted by Indians who stood in a semblance of a line to be photographed in front of it.
The half-hearted security checks to get into the arch’s vicinity were a grim reminder of the last decade’s events in the Taj Hotel across the square, but as the setting sun turned the Gateway’s sandstone pink, black-hulled freighters steamed across the maritime horizon and the Mumbai Police Band began murdering popular classics under the echoing Gateway, it was hard not to fall into a strictly holiday mood.
I should have spent longer in Mumbai, accepting the urging of so many who I met to visit the mega-slums and see the other side of the faded, planned, colonial grandeur; to sail out from the Gateway to Elephanta Island. Another one for next time. Next time, I promise to be ambivalent about Mumbai, at best. But today it was relaxed, friendly and evocative, everything the guidebooks promised it wouldn’t be.