Monisha Rajesh had a complex relationship with her parents’ homeland, until she saw all of Indian life played out on the country’s railway
Six-people deep, and growing by the second, the crowd tensed. A single knuckle pressed into my back and betel-nut breath filled my nostrils as a steady beat rose above the din. Against the peach pink of Mumbai’s evening skies, the commuter service curled into view, passengers hanging from the sides like moving livery. Braking with a wail and grind of metal, the train slowed into the station and I braced against the surge of bodies from behind. Like relay runners, they began to move before the train had stopped, reaching over my head at the same time as a torrent of polyester shirts and satchels thundered down from the open doorways.
A slice of papaya in one hand my bag gripped with the other, I battled through elbows, meaty shoulders and thick plaits slicked with coconut oil. In the crush the papaya was knocked to the ground and my sandal came off, but I made it on board and fell sideways into a seat as the train jerked away from the platform. Wiping someone else’s sweat from my arm, I watched fellow travellers scrabble for handholds, adjust saris and pull out phones before relaxing into the ride with a mix of relief and pride. I’d survived my first experience on the infamous Mumbai “locals”.