*Khali hai, khali hai!* Imaging: Tapasri Saha
*Khali hai, khali hai!* were the sounds travelling through the shrill, almost incomprehensible, railway announcement every three minutes, as I waited on platform number 1 at Dadar Station. The khali train, much like Godot, never came.
"The one after this is a ladies special," said a woman dressed in business formals to her friend dressed similarly.
"Yes, that one will be empty," the friend beamed in hope.
"Why do we even need ladies specials? Anyway, each train has reserved compartments for women," a tired voice from behind me made it to my ears. He was alone, talking on the phone, sipping on a glass of nimbu paani.
I... I couldn't help but agree with him.
What is that sound? Is someone trying to get my attention? Is that how eve-teasing goes on in the city? In Dadar station, during rush hour in Mumbai? That guy must really hate himself, I thought. And then the sound drew closer.
"Oh, no thank you. I don't wear formal shoes," I said to myself a bit embarrassed.
"Why is the train late?" The woman in her business formals had spoken again. Right, the train. That's why I'm here, too. I almost forgot."
"...Your inconvenience is deeply regretted..."
"Arrey deva! Bhindi kaise chhilungi?" (Oh god. Now how will I chop okras?) This was a new voice, fairly mature, yet had a certain zing to it. I look around to finally spot her sitting on one of those benches, with just about her right bum cheek to support her body weight. The amount of workout her calf muscles were getting at the moment was equivalent to a week's leg workout a model in Lokhandwala gets. But, okra?
"I finished all my cooking in the morning today. Phew! Such a relief," her friend, similar in every aspect, except that she had enough space to fit both her bum cheeks on the bench, primed.
"Ya I would have. But then I spotted these lush okras right outside the station. And he loves okras, naa. So... But if I don't get a place to sit how will I chop?" she brought the conversation back to herself.
"You will get a seat in Borivali or Bhayander. You can chop then," her friend was clearly giving her the false hope she was hoping to receive.
Wait, Borivali or Bhayander? Does that mean this is a Virar local? WAS. Yes, it was a Virar local. It got cancelled. Phew! Crisis averted.
No, I am not a SoBo chick scared of Virar locals. I've lived in Bhayander for over five years. Which is why I know (the hard way) never to attempt getting off one in Santacruz. I live in Santacruz now.
*5 number, 5 number* The sudden murmur jolted me from my stupor.
"Where is everyone going?" I asked a fellow female bystander.
"There's a Borivali train starting from platform number 5 right now. Run, or you will miss it!" Was her advice solely about the train or the metaphorical train of life I seemed to have already missed? How did she know?
"Yeah, maybe I should!"
For some reason, the next few minutes seemed to be running in slow motion. Me, chasing a train, teasingly waiting on the platform, but just as I get close, she jitters, like the leaves of the Touch-Me-Not. I give up. Hindi films have taught me never to chase buses, trains and women. I'm pretty sure the last one doesn't apply to me. And then the train stops about 10 steps away. What a tease. But I'm cool, I won't run. I'd rather strut. Almost there...Got it. I got the train!
"Move in, move in," three women paunched their way in, squishing me like a fresh box of play dough. If elbowing is a verb, in Mumbai locals paunching serves the same purpose.
"Khali hai," she said. Where? Is Godot here? All I could see were black heads stacked up like matchsticks in matchbox. And all I could smell was jasmine-induced sweat.
"Where is the space to move?" I am usually very outspoken. I even look a bit intimidating. But I know never to speak in trains. Especially something like the words that just spilled out of my mouth.
"If you want more space, why don't you ask your father to buy you a plane?" was the comeback. Shut up, just shut up and swallow this up. I literally shrunk my demeanour and coiled up in a corner. Yes, you can often find shapeshifters in local trains. Some shrink, like yours truly, others expand, especially when sitting on the third seat.
*Stomp* One of those expanding shapeshifters had just landed on my foot, the only one I was using to anchor myself. There was no space for the other one.
"Ouch!" I squealed.
"Such things happen. Get over it." Why does anyone ever see a shrink? All you need is a train ride.
"Earrings? Bangles? Neckpiece?" A giant Christmas tree-like structure now hung between me and the stomp-trooper. Ooo, jewellery! I was distracted.
"100 for whatever you pick." Maybe not as exotic as Amrapali jewellers, but these were pretty good. Is she seriously selling them that cheap? I want all!
"This, this, and this. That's it. Nothing else, please. Thank you." Aah, that's what they mean when they say retail therapy!
*Next station, Santacruz*
"Oh, excuse me. Let me through, please. I need to get off next." I try to swim across a sea of people, but why am I not moving?
"Oh hello. Take your bag with you, be careful," said a woman, boisterous, but sweet enough to untangle my bag which was caught in that giant Christmas tree-like structure. It almost tore, almost.
"Kya didi, dekh ke jaane ka naa?" (Look where you're going, sistah!) The disappointment in the voice of the jewellery/happiness vendor was just heartbreaking. I knew I could never look her in the eye for almost destroying her livelihood.
"Were you sleepng? You knew you had to get down, right?" Wham! The voice of reason, disguised as friendly advice, slaps you across the face.
"No, I was stuck." In a rut. In a directionless life. In a relationship with my past. In a thankless job. But walls have ears, trains don't.
"Are you getting off?" asked a voice from behind.
Yes, my friend. This is as far as we shall walk together. I am done (for the day).
"C'mon, hurry up. Get off fast!" yelled the same mob who had thought Brutus is an honourable man.
I whirl on to the platform and onto my feet.
*Khali hai, khali hai!* I could hear 'em again.