A recent short video on Mumbai’s local trains has been doing the rounds, with people sharing and re-sharing the video to celebrate the “spirit” of Mumbai. The video shows people running, pushing, pulling, shoving, hitting to get on local trains. It goes on to portray several emotions of people traveling by train, and finally ends with a catchy alliteration of a tagline – Struggle. Survive. Succeed. The aesthetic train beats and spurts of Indian music render the video a sleek cinematic quality, and manages to make the viewer feel upbeat about local train travel. If you’re wondering what to make of it, this blurb on storypick.com helps you decode the message:
“This short film … beautifully captures the spirit of Mumbai & provokes us to wonder, What can the city of Mumbai teach us? The answer is eloquently portrayed that without struggle there is no success. What an amazing thought to start each day with!”
Awwww. Heart warming indeed! The #100happydays people now have something new to put up when they’re struggling with being happy on #Day61. But that aside, let’s look at this “spirit” of Mumbai that keeps coming up time and again. Movies, both Indian and foreign, have celebrated it. Films such as Slumdog Millionaire have made the slums of Mumbai a household topic. Much has also been written about it. Suketu Mehta and Gregory David Roberts added to the hype with their bestselling books that have created a perception of Mumbai being an incorrigibly enigmatic megapolis where millions of people are simultaneously fulfilling their aspirations and moving upward while in Brownian motion, like in a hot air balloon. The media too has filled in with stories from time to time. For example, right after the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2008, reports featured how the citizens went back to work the day after, thereby being true to the “spirit” of Mumbai.
Some of this is definitely not untrue. Mumbai is a bustling metropolis, home to 20 million people on a narrow strip of land. Some areas of Mumbai are said to have the highest density of human beings in the world. It is a 24*7 city, with public transport available throughout the night (a rarity in other Indian cities). It is also a much more business-oriented city than any other in India. Shops are open till late seven days a week, just about anything can be delivered at your doorstep, and the extreme weather conditions have never had any negative impact on services. Mumbai is also super accommodative. A large proportion of Mumbai’s population comes from outside the city, and in spite of the several hiccups, they survive and continue to live in Mumbai for years, if not for generations. It is also true that the local trains are the lifeline of Mumbai, ferrying more than 7 million people every day. It is among the busiest mass rapid transit systems in the world, and life without local trains is pretty much unimaginable.
What, then, seems to be the problem with this cutesy little video that verges on the inspirational?
Well, firstly, anyone who has traveled by local trains will agree to the fact that much of the pushing and pulling and shoving and elbowing is as much done for entertainment as it is for need. During peak hours, I agree that pushing your way in is the only way you can get on the train. In this case, I would rather feel sorry for the passengers to have go through this, than make cute videos about it. That said, I have had enough experiences during off-peak hours when people have pushed their way through, not allowing passengers on the train to get off, or pushed passengers out of the train. These surges are usually accompanied by cheering noises. I’ve seen pregnant women and old people struggling to get off moving trains. These are symptomatic of crowd behavior in India. It is not always driven by need or reason. It is the same as pilgrims pushing their way into a temple and causing a stampede, or drivers flouting traffic rules and forcing themselves past red signals. There is no struggle, no ambition, no grace, no success, no survival involved. It’s just unruly behavior that needs to be penalized.
Secondly, the more we celebrate Mumbai’s lack of infrastructure, squalor, over-population and struggle, the more we give a clean chit to our administrators. We make beautiful stories and movies out of our potholed roads, dirty slums, migrant worker struggles, garbage heaps, overcrowded trains, homeless people, and so on. But glorifying these only absolve our governments and municipal bodies of their non-performance and incompetence. This video, instead of celebrating the madness of local trains, should instead ask WHY this transport system has not been made better for so many years. It took us 7 years to construct a metro line of 12 kilometers. The next two phases of the metro is probably going to see the light of day in 2035, or even later. Leave alone other projects, just the Mumbai local trains have registered more than 36,000 deaths and 38,000 injured people in the 2002-2012 period. Why did the video not feel the need to highlight this?
The most disturbing part though, is the last bit of the tagline – “Success”. Yes, one needs to struggle to succeed (duh!), but I’m not sure riding a local train in despicably grimy conditions everyday is going to improve the probability of success. If anything, it will exhaust the passenger so much that he/she will have very little energy to go beyond their daily grind. Also, does this video imply that people living in cities with more civilized forms of public transport are less successful? Is this not a pointless attempt at romanticizing success (all those stories we hear of filmstars who came to Bombay and slept on railway platforms before going on to become hugely successful)? Is this not a blatantly escapist and overly simplistic attempt at promising “success” at the end of these train journeys?
Let’s face it, people! There is no glory in being poor. There is no glory in grime. There is no glory in pushing people to get on a train. There is no glory in being stuck in traffic jams for hours. There is no glory in waterlogged streets. There is no glory in being home to Asia’s largest slum. There is no glory in this struggle. The abysmal state of Mumbai’s local trains brings up serious issues of health, safety, corruption, civic behavior, cleanliness, and much more. These issues need solving, and urgently. It needs government, civil society, companies and citizens to come together and debunk exactly what this video seems to preach.