Saturday, 1 March 2014

Reading Habits #6: Reading on the railway

8.20 am: I miss the 8.15 local by a few minutes. I am on platform No.2 at Andheri station waiting to board the 8.23 local to Churchgate in the south. I remove my earphones and my tablet from my bag—do I listen to music or do I read? As I make up my mind the loudspeaker crackles to life and I hear a familiar but depressing voice: “The slow train arriving on platform No.2 at 23 minutes past eight has been cancelled. Inconvenience caused to passengers is highly regretted.”

The lifeline of Mumbai.
© Prashant C. Trikannad
8.25 am: The next local is at 8.36 am. Will it be on time? Is it even scheduled today? My fingers are crossed. I put away the earphones and open the tablet and tap on the book reader, to page 42 of A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams. I read about 19-year old rebel gunman Talbert ‘Tall’ Cameron's daring takeover of a band of outlaws in Ocotillo, a shady town in Arizona, and his plan to ambush a train smuggling silver across the Mexican border. The loudspeaker crackles again, this time with a repetitive public warning—“Overhead wires are charged at 25,000 volts. Travelling on rooftop is highly dangerous. Passengers are requested not to travel on rooftop.”

8.41 am: The 8.36 enters the platform. Even as it comes to a halt, commuters rush into the train and occupy all the seats. When the dust settles the arriving passengers get off the local and rush to the staircase. I enter the coach and stand in the aisle with my back to the stainless steel partition. As the train pulls out at 8.45, nine minutes late but early for once, I hear the loudspeaker intone, "The slow train arriving on platform No.2 at 57 minutes past eight has been cancelled. Inconvenience caused to passengers is highly regretted."

8.48: I look around the compartment. I spot a couple of known faces and we nod at each other. A few commuters are dozing off. Some are reading newspapers. Still others are fiddling with their mobile phones. Two people are reading books, one Dan Brown's Inferno and the other the Indian epic Ramayana. I put away my tab and listen to music; I plug into Elvis Presley. It will be some other singer on the return journey in the evening.


Inside the first-class coach of the 9 am Bandra-Churchgate local.
© Prashant C. Trikannad 

8.57 am: Three stations later, the train pulls into Bandra. I alight and walk across to the other side of the same platform and hop into the 9 am Bandra local. It is almost empty. I find a window seat. I open a book, AN.AL – The Origins, by Indian writer Athul Demarco and read the last chapter so I can review it. Some people get in and I look up and acknowledge their greetings. Only two men are reading anything at all; the rest are doing nothing, looking nowhere, in particular.

9.09 am: At Dadar, a major station, scores of transit commuters with haversacks and shoulder bags crash into the first-class coach and stand in the aisle so they can get off at the next two stations, the city's new business districts. After just two pages of Demarco’s novel, I lose interest, not in the book but in reading further. I reopen the tab and play a game of chess with alien software; I lose badly. 


The local leaves Marines Lines.
© Prashant C. Trikannad
9.35 am: Marine Lines, the last station before Churchgate. Before I alight I put away my book and my tab safely. I step on to the platform, walk out of the station, and proceed to my office a few blocks away, with Losing My Religion by REM playing in my ears.

And I wonder why I don’t read enough books every month.

16 comments:

  1. I go through periods like that. Maybe I'm just extra distractable. But gradually I make progress and get through the books.

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    1. Charles, there are periods when I read a lot and actually manage to finish books. So far this year I have lagged behind in reading as I'd planned. It's more than just distractions; sometimes I just don't feel like reading. Hopefully, March will be a better reading month.

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  2. Prashant: I really enjoyed reading of your morning time on the trains. It gave me some insight into your life and your reading. Your travel to work is so different from my daily experience. I live just over 3 blocks from my office in a community of a few thousand people. When I walk to work it takes but a few minutes and I usually do not encounter anyone.

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    1. Bill, the average day of the train commuter in Mumbai is more adventurous than I have let on. Most commuters don't look forward to the daily travel to their offices or wherever they go. This is because of the crowds at the railway stations and on the platforms and overcrowding inside the coaches. Things are getting better, though, with new extra-coach trains and offices shifting to new business districts, often closer home. However. commuting by train, bus, taxi or autorickshaw is still stressful.

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  3. This is a lovely piece, and I enjoyed reading it.

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    1. Kelly, thank you. Mumbai's, or Bombay's, famous suburban railway is described as the lifeline of the city or, equally aptly, as hell on wheels as some 4,000 people die each year, either due to crossing tracks, falling off the foot-board, or travelling on rooftops. It's still one of the most dependable public transport in the world.

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  4. Nice piece. I take the train every day. My journey's just long and uneventful :-(

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    1. Sarah, thank you. The suburban train network, "locals" as we call them, is a social and cultural cauldron with commuters belonging to various religions and communities and castes and sub-castes, hailing from all parts of India, and speaking a number of different languages and dialects. In a local train, everyone, rich or poor, is equal.

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  5. Prashant I really enjoyed this slice of your life. I can empathise with the stop/start nature of your reading at the minute. If my current book isn't compelling it can seem too much like a chore and I end up using my reading time surfing blogs instead.

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    1. Col, thank you. The suburban train network is a major slice of nearly every citizen of Mumbai. It is the fastest mode of transport. For instance, the 20-km trip from the northern suburbs where I live to south Mumbai (downtown) where I work takes only 45 minutes by a "slow" train and 35 minutes by a "fast" train. In contrast, it takes over an hour by road. Surfing and blogging is eating into my reading hours too. I'm trying to balance the two activities.

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  6. This is a great post, Prashant. I have often wished that I had a commute that would allow extra reading, but I would probably get involved in people watching and I get easily distracted. So, I don't think it would help me.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. The best reading I've ever done is on these trains. I spend 45 minutes in a "local" during which I usually read between 15 and 20 pages of a book and likewise on the return journey, provided there are no self-induced distractions. It's a good place to read books, newspapers or magazines, and not very noisy either. As far as fellow-commuters are concerned, one comes across people from all parts of the country, India on Rail, so to speak.

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  7. Thanks for this Prashant, fascinating. I usually listen to music while reading, but nothing with lyics as I usually find that too distracting!

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    1. Sergio, you're welcome. As a way of life, it is stressful but fascinating. I can read comics while listening to music at the same time, but not books. As it is I'm a slow reader.

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  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this, even as it brought back memories of commuting on Metro North from Connecticut into Manhattan (Grand Central). It was a trip that did not involve changing trains. I could read without interruption. Most commuters had newspapers. On the return trip I'd pick up a discarded NY Times and read most of it.

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    1. Ron, thank you for the appreciation and sharing your experience of rail travel. People in Mumbai spend at least three to four hours commuting by suburban trains every day. It is the most reliable mode of public transport with a high safety record. Sometimes I change trains mid-journey only because I'm assured of a seat, as I do at the station I mentioned above. People often leave behind newspapers but no one picks them up or reads them. I attribute this to reading on smart phones and tablets.

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