Commuting in Mumbai is poetry in motion
Mumbai: Dhondiram Pujari doesn't show the grumpiness expected of a typical Mumbaikar (Mumbai resident) on his way to work. He jokes and indulges in loud banter, actually looking forward to the oppressive hour-long journey in a Mumbai local train.
And it's not just him. Around 30 of his fellow travellers in compartment No. 2 of the 5.52am Thane-Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) Slow [train] are set for the trip between Thane station, 34 km from CST.
As the train enters Mulund [station] two minutes after leaving Thane, the chatter and repartee grow louder as a stream of office goers gushes in and occupies the few vacant seats and small empty spaces.
And then it begins.A venerable man with milky white hair, a little stoop and a vermillion mark on his forehead, breaks into an incantation, quickly joined by a chorus.
What follows is a chain of devotional songs — mostly in Marathi (the state language) — sung till the destination is reached. The troupe, officially called the Om Sai Navatarun Railway Pravasi Bhajan Mandali, is complete with a daf (a kind of percussion instrument), a pair of bongos and several hand-held small cymbals, usually used for devotional songs.
"We have been travelling and singing for around 15 years. We are around 50, of which 25-30 are regular travellers and around 12 are regular singers," Pujari, an employee with an engineering firm in south Mumbai's Mahalaxmi locality, said.
"Life finds a way." This is a pivotal line repeated a couple of times in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Jurassic Park.
Average Mumbaikars, crammed for space and time, would not disagree that living and working in this megalopolis of over 17 million often tests one's endurance. Yet, life does find a way here. The instinct to survive and thrive is at its best in this city.
The 600-odd singing groups on the Mumbai suburban railway system — carrying around seven million people every day — are the best example of Mumbaikars' tenacity, need to belong, craving for affordable recreation and remarkable ability to ‘adjust'. "Some people play cards. Some sleep. Some play mischief standing at the exit. We do something better. We sing [devotional] songs," Pujari said.
His fellow team member Dattaram Sawant has a more philosophical take.
"We spend a lot of time together — an average 2.5 hours a day. We forget our grief, problems and frustrations and share our joys and sorrows through this kind of singing," Sawant said.
The stock of songs usually depends on the day. For instance, on a Monday they sing Shiva bhajans (hymns). On Tuesdays it is Ganpati. Wednesdays are for Panduranga Vitthala (a form of Krishna) and so on.
According to historian and social observer Aroon Tikekar, president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, this phenomenon has been in existence at least since the 1970s. It has now begun to mutate.
"It was most prominent in the Deccan Queen (train connecting Mumbai to city of Pune). I believe it is a tension-reducing activity. People are looking for ways to escape the tedium, their frustrations and the stress of travelling in Mumbai," Tikekar said.
"Earlier it was just bhajans. Even that is changing now. There are groups singing vintage Bollywood songs, pop songs and even Marathi bhaavgeet (light songs)," he added.
During peak hours, the penultimate compartment of 12-car Badlapur Fast train, starting from CST at 5.55pm, is as maddeningly crowded as any Mumbai train. For eight years, a group of around 15 people has been regularly occupying the same seats, singing peppy, light-hearted Hindi film classics.
"The moment our lead drummer and interlude-specialist Ashok gets in from Byculla station (around five minutes from CST), our session begins. We have great fun and often get requests from fellow travellers," said Mumbai Police official Shivaaji (surname withheld on request).
"We celebrate the birth and death anniversaries of [Bollywood] singers like Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar with their songs. We celebrate the birthdays or our fellow travellers too. We distribute sweets when our children score well in Class 10 or 12," he added.
Of course not everything is hunky dory. These groups face complaints and have to tackle unsavoury situations too as such activities are illegal and can land them in trouble.
Sawant recounts how they had to shift compartments to the current one after a lady complained that she was unable to listen to her music.
"After all when there is so much we gain from the mandali [group], we will have to face smaller issues," he said before bidding goodbye and disappearing into the milling crowd at CST.
With the best part of a weekday screeching to a halt, it is time for him to begin yet another strenuous day.