Rhea had never traveled by train before. And why would she? Coming from a rich family, though she had traveled a lot, it was always by a private, luxury car or an airplane. But this time was different. This time, she had accepted a challenge from her friends who always teased her about her pampered life. They said that train journey was something Rhea would never be able to handle, and Rhea readily took on the challenge. She had agreed to travel from Mumbai, where she was studying, to Bangalore, her hometown, in a train. But as much as she was curious about her upcoming journey, she was not excited about it.
“Are long distance trains really very filthy?” she asked her hostel roommate, Neelam.
“Depends.” replied Neelam in a sarcastic tone.
“Depends on what?” asked Rhea.
“Umm … you’ll see!” said Neelam, thus feeding more fodder to Rhea’s growing curiosity.
Somehow, Rhea couldn’t bring her mind to rest regarding this train journey, but she tried to keep calm in front of her friends. Why would she expose her inner fear after accepting such a big challenge? And then there was the light at the end of the tunnel too! After all, she was traveling home after spending two long years in Mumbai.
Rhea had bought a lot of gifts for her family and friends back in Bangalore, which had made her baggage very heavy and bulky. In a normal situation, she wouldn’t have bothered about it as she would have been traveling by air. But train journey worried her. She had heard a lot of stories about the theft of luggage and pickpockets in long distance trains. Since she was traveling alone with so much luggage, this was a big cause of concern for her. While she couldn’t get rid of her fears, the day of her journey was fast arriving within two days.
And there it was! On the rainy monsoon morning of 26th July, Rhea was all set for her first ever train journey. Her seat was reserved in the Udyan Express, which left the Dadar Central Railway Station in Mumbai at 8:25 am and reached Bangalore City Junction at 8:50 am the next day. So it was going to be a long journey. Rhea had kept calm so far, but now her tension was mounting.
She had obviously not seen a train station before, but Dadar Central was far more than she had expected. She had heard about crowded foot over bridges and platforms on Indian train stations before, but what she was seeing right that moment was not a crowd; it was a riot! It was like the worst nightmare of a claustrophobic coming true, almost a stampede situation. On top of that, it was pouring as if even the gods had joined her friends and were daring her to complete the challenge.
“God … this is overwhelming and scary!” thought Rhea. But she had to keep going. She had never lost a challenge before, and she was not willing to start now.
Cautiously and carefully, she made her way through the crowd towards the platform where her train had almost arrived. Udyan Express stopped at Dadar Central only for five minutes, so Rhea had to speed through the sea of people along with her heavy luggage. Somehow, she made it to her coach, squeezing and pushing her way through the chaos and heaved a sigh of relief.
It was a second class coach and surprisingly, it was not as filthy as she had imagined. She dragged her luggage through the aisle and found her seat in the middle of the compartment. Thankfully it was a window seat. There were supposed to be five other people seated around her. But that morning, only two of them turned up – an old couple in their 70s. Rhea was glad she had the window seat.
Slowly, the train started moving and gradually, it picked up speed. It was still raining cats and dogs, and Rhea had to pull down the window pane to prevent the water from coming in. But through the glass, she could still see the water logged into the railway tracks. Within next 15 minutes, the train had stopped moving completely and it was announced that it couldn’t go any further due to waterlogging in the tracks.
“And there it is” thought Rhea. “The first ever train journey of my life comes to an end before it even begins!” She pulled out a book from her handbag and started reading. Soon, the entire compartment was buzzing with various sounds – tea & snack vendors, fruit sellers, newspaper & magazine sellers, fellow travelers chatting & laughing, ladies gossiping, and children screaming & crying out of boredom. Rhea was a Bollywood buff and she had seen such scenes in many movies, but had never experienced it first-hand. Her current surrounding fascinated her very much, but she was also pretty sure that she didn’t belong there.
“What’s your name, kid?” asked the old lady sitting opposite Rhea in a silvery voice.
“Rhea” she replied, sounding uninterested.
“I am Parvati Naidu.” said the old lady. “Everyone calls me Parvati Amma.”
While Rhea was thinking why she had to know all this, Parvati Amma asked, “Where are you going?”
“Bangalore”, Rhea responded.
“Why?” asked Parvati Amma. Rhea gave her a suspicious look as she was not used to such casual conversations while traveling. “Why is she so much interested in me?” She didn’t answer and looked away. But Parvati Amma continued talking. “I’m going to Bangalore too. It’s my hometown.” she said.
Rhea was still not interested. Just then, “Chai/Coffee madam?” asked a man in a flat, monotonous voice.
She felt like having tea, but wasn’t sure about the quality, so she skipped it. She continued reading and was so lost that she didn’t realize until 1 o’ clock in the afternoon, when the train’s pantry started selling lunch boxes. Rhea was very hungry, but she thought skipping lunch was better than falling sick.
It was still pouring outside as if the gods were really angry on mankind. There was no sign of the train moving any time soon. It was 4:15 pm and now, Rhea was extremely hungry and couldn’t take it anymore. She made her way through the hustling train to the pantry car to check what they had. To her disappointment, the pantry had ran out of food and milk, and there was nothing they could help Rhea with.
“I should have bought food at lunch time!” she thought. “God knows when I will get something to eat! I never should have accepted this challenge. All this is one great disaster.” Hungry and angry, she came back to her seat and continued reading.
A few more hours had passed and the train was still where it was. By 7:30 pm, she had ran out of drinking water too. Just then, Parvati Amma sensed Rhea’s restlessness.
“Have some idlis”, she said, offering her the homemade snack she was carrying. This time, Rhea didn’t hesitate for a moment. She just took the snack box from Parvati Amma;s hands and, in no time, it was empty. Parvati Amma smiled and asked if Rhea would like to have some fruit. Embarrassed this time, Rhea refused with a grateful grin. Actually, Rhea had just realized that by eating all the idlis, she had finished up all the food that Parvati Amma was carrying, and it won’t be long that they would need something to eat.
After a couple of hours, something happened – a miracle of sorts. Something that completely changed the way Rhea saw the world. Suddenly, the entire train was filled with people distributing free food packets to all passengers and hot milk for children. They certainly didn’t look like the normal vendors who had stalls on train stations.
Curious, Rhea asked one of them, “Who are you people?”
“We stay nearby”, said the man. “We knew that so many people have been stuck here since morning and figured that you all would need food as the train’s pantry always carries a limited stock. So this was the least we could do.”
Surprised and filled with gratitude on hearing that, she asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Because we are Mumbaikars, and that’s what we do! In the time of need, no matter how bad the conditions are, this city always stands up for its own. Whenever there is an adverse situation, the spirit of this city always keeps it alive and lively, because Mumbai is not just a city; it is us, the people staying here. I am Mumbai, and so are you. And it is up to all of us to help keep this city going. That’s exactly what we are doing”, replied the man with a broad smile. Rhea was not expecting this answer, and she had certainly not thought about the whole situation in such a way.
After sometime, at about 9 o’ clock in the night, the train started moving slowly and Rhea realized that the challenge had actually been a blessing in disguise. That day, she had seen the world that she had never imagined existed. She had been living in Mumbai all this time without actually being part of the “city of dreams”, as they call it. That day, she had become one with the spirit of the city. This was actually a journey to remember for Rhea for she had decided that she would go back to Mumbai, and this time, she was going to call it home … forever!