DIE ANOTHER DAY: Leadership cues from Mumbai Trains

Local train travel to outsiders is dreadful but not to people in Mumbai. Some look at it with agony, some as a challenge and two-thirds of them take out their day’s repression while boarding it. It’s easy in Mumbai to differentiate a train traveller from others. The train traveller would have rippling arm muscles and wings due to a majestic arm-and-body block rendered to fellow travellers who force an entry. He would also have great calf muscles, developed while leaping to his seat from the door of the train after entering it. On the whole a very healthy and agile body in contrast to other travellers who depend on alternate modes of conveyance.


A few years back a colleague of mine and I reached Victoria Terminus (VT) station (Mumbai) at 7 p.m. to board a train for Kurla. It was concert crowd there with a definite goal, which was to board the train under any circumstance. The beauty of VT station is one never feels lonely and depressed at 7 p.m. on a working day, rather, you just feel stifled and sickened at the thought that one has to combat the huge crowd to get into a train. Upon reaching the station we went to the booking counter and gave companionship to a stranger who was standing ahead of us in a long queue. He turned back, acknowledged our presence and continued to stare dolefully at the queue ahead of him. He was also making some mental calculations using Vedic mathematics as to the progress made by other queue’s adjacent to his, thus threatening to jump to any one of those to get a competitive advantage. After finding no apparent welfare in that exercise, he settled to his original position.

At the far end, a few coupon-swiping machines attracted a lot of crowd and people were mercilessly swiping the living daylights out of the machine.   After a wait of 10 long minutes the queue was crawling with six ahead of us and some glorious 25 behind us. Suddenly, a man came to us and stuck a 10-rupee note in my colleague’s hand and makes a request ‘Brother can you buy me a ticket to Dombivli’.


My colleague, without reciprocating the fraternal affection, advanced towards the Dombivli resident’s neck but timely retreat by the latter saved both from a calamitous ending. After reproaching the interloper closely followed by a counselling session, my colleague impressed upon the Dombivli dweller the benefits of purchasing tickets by using an effective and time-tested mode called “standing in a queue”.Though appreciative of the merits of this mode, he quietly skunked away to the back of the queue with displeasure  at being thwarted from the possibility of almost getting a ticket effortlessly.   For the remaining part of his approach to the ticket counter his eyes were transfixed on my colleague who meanwhile was busy gathering acclaim for his performance from others in the queue.

Finally we got the tickets from the counter and from the dreary expressions of the railway official sitting there; it was difficult to differentiate him from the machine from which he ejected the tickets, such was his listless facial expression in having to dispense the tickets. Perhaps some background music would help ease such repetitive tasks, thereby expediting the delivery and drawing the crowds faster to him.   We made our way to the platform after rubbing shoulders with many. Some of them were realigning their dislocated collar bones in respective sockets on their way to the platform. On the way we saw a man who paid Rs 5 for a normal shoe polish, turned left and immediately got stamped on the shoe by another unpolished man who advanced his way, looking upwards at the indicator. After looking at his own shoes with empathy, the victim proceeded further by which time the advancing man after a repeat performance on the shoes of other travellers dissolved into the crowd behind us. We positioned ourselves under the indicator of the platform awaiting our train. It was an ‘Ambernath Fast.’ We broke into a light conversation on the bursting infrastructure in developing countries. In the very next minute we had people all around us akin to a ‘body touch convention’   forcing us to abandon our discussions. As a preparatory phase to board the train, some were rubbing their forearms, a few of them rotating their neck muscles and the balance rubbing their thighs akin to the physiotherapy administered after a 90 minute football match stretching to extra time.

The overcrowded trains meanwhile were plying to various destinations from different platforms. The rush was progressively increasing and I was sandwiched between people from all sides including a man next to me who was breathing using my nose. From a distance we could see a train entering our platform and I could feel the muscles of the people around me tightening.


A very crucial expanding effort from my lungs coupled with body inflation made my sandwiched comrades take notice of my assertive self and they in unison did the same with more fervour, thus reducing my overall entropy and latent heat which resulted in a strange pain in my body. As the train entered the platform, some 30 people were booted out within 5 seconds in a remarkable display of speed and strength. As soon as the train stopped, one man got down rather came out like a missile on the platform and 7  others were on his shoulders, legs and hands apportioned in the ratio 80 %: 15 %: 5 % respectively. The 2nd person on the shoulder of the 1st man handed over the bag of the 4th passenger who was standing on the 2nd  persons leg and the 7th person who participated in this ‘en masse egress’ collected his chappals from a few feet away from where I was watching this ‘Kumbh-Mela’ sponsored by Pepsi.

The man collected himself with equanimity along with the other 29 unruffled passengers leaving us   in utter disbelief with nothing to mutter. My colleague notified me that on Mumbai trains, this is a common scene. In the next second, about 25 people rushed inside the compartment, thus manually closing the entrance. The opening was sealed with people. Another 5 came and started throwing themselves at the backside of the persons who were already hanging outside the train. All my comrades who had enveloped me with affection had deserted me, thus allowing my stomach, liver and pancreas to return back to their original positions after saying hello to a choking lung on their way.  The man whom I assisted in breathing by lending him my nose was comfortably seated by the window seat and was looking at me expressionless. The entry of this whole mass inside the train was too fast for my eye. As Bedetto Croece puts it ‘Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture‘. The folks sitting inside the train had a clear vision of their goal when they were standing next to me half a second back and the remarkable action plan using armed combat such as ‘face pushing’ with the left hand accompanied by some splendid ‘elbowing’ with the right was worthy of a ‘strategy case study’.

A few passengers were already perched on top of the train and I have reason to believe that a few of them could also be clinging on to the undercarriage of the compartment, close to the tracks. The “Handicapped” section was also full. I believe the casualties of the ongoing journey must be accommodated here. The motorman himself had civilians assisting him in his job. In short, absolute utilisation of installed capacity. My colleague told me that we would take the next train and let this one pass. In the next 5 minutes the train left the platform with half the population of New Zealand leaving us with some space to expand. Passage of 2 more minutes witnessed yet another congregation of strong muscular passengers but this time we got more resolute besides we had seen how people entered the previous train. Our intention was firm, which was to just maraud into the compartment regardless of civilisation around us, and my friend being more robust in architecture, volunteered to execute this strategy.

Mumbai Trains 1

Another train cruised into the platform. This time it was a ‘Khopoli Fast’ and we, without waiting for the train to completely stop, leapt into it. A few passengers who were about to alight, were taken aback and stuck to the sides of the door, holding their breath and trying to make themselves thinner, thus allowing the gush to flow in smoothly. Due to the force of our charge, we overshot and almost got into the train at the parallel track (Mumbai trains having a strict ‘no door’ policy) however we made a swerve at the last-minute and got a seat. I was a tad amazed that already 2 people were seated next to the window in spite of our aggression. Deeper enquiry about their skill and competency levels revealed that they had anticipated the   entry-level problems at VT, used an entrepreneurial decision process matrix and had boarded the train at the previous station Masjid. They applauded our efforts and gave us some soft cues such as using our vocal chords to the extreme while charging inside the train.

After an exponential rise in respect for them we sat down. There was half a seat left next to me and ideally in Mumbai trains this belongs to a fourth guy. I shrunk a bit to the right and allowed another gusher that half seat. After graciously occupying the seat he concentrates on dynamically balancing the overhanging portion of his rear and was assisted by the pouring crowd who kept him jammed to me. He looked at me and gave me a ‘6 crore Rupee’ smile which tantamount to a million US dollars, given the then prevailing exchange rate.  I returned the smile to him and he surreptitiously tried to get his shoulders behind mine to gain more territorial control, which allowed him total backrest. I withdrew my smile and immediately jabbed my body against the woodwork and remained there for the entire journey, which resulted in a very stiff neck later. Bereft of hope after finding me of the same frequency and body language as his own, he immediately locked his counterpart on the opposite bench in conversation.

In the next 5 minutes we were on our journey and without any warning or expression of interest, an assorted group of people behind our seat suddenly broke into a predetermined and devout song and bhajan.


A man just behind my ears was the lead vocalist attempting to establish contact with the almighty by singing as loudly as possible. In that crowded atmosphere all the besieged passengers were relieved to hear this and a few of them occasionally kept checking with me the lyrics of the bhajan, I being closest to the vocalist.

The songs were very well composed, executed and supplemented by the body of the train, which was used as a tabla. I requested the clamorous vocalist to reduce his voice by one octave so that I could hear him with my ears and not using my entire body like a serpent. After taking a ‘time out’ between one of the bhajans he explained to me (in hindi) that due to limited bandwidth and spectrum regulations he has to keep his pitch high to maintain contact with the almighty and it would be through the same channel that God, if appeased by his sonic devotion, would bestow the blessings on him. He also covertly leaned over to me and said ” between you and I ” in the adjacent cubicle another team of people are cranking themselves to establish similar wavelength with the ‘supreme being’ using a different language and he has to beat them to gain wavelength monopoly hence would be unable to service my request which was ‘reduction in sound levels.’

Since it was a fast train, the next stop was Byculla followed by Dadar. People advised us that if we had to alight at Kurla we got to get up and stand near the gate as soon as the train reached Dadar. That came as a discomforting cue as I was just getting settled and used to the body heat of the fourth seater who was constantly probing with his body for the slightest weakness in my positioning. After another  minute we got up and my fourth seater neighbour upgraded himself forthwith to ‘second seater ‘ like a sodium atom jumping to provide the extra electron for a chlorine atom to form sodium chloride.   The vocalist looked morose on our departure. We waded through the unyielding crowd who were least inclined to give us right of way initially however became very affable after we stood on their legs on our drag to the door. Men of outstanding character, no complaints, just pure concurrence thereon, great leadership. A momentous struggle gave us the necessary escape velocity at Kurla station and finally we were chucked out. My shoelace had come off and I sat at one of the seats at Kurla Station to tie them. After the frustration of maintaining a ‘Vipasana silence’ for the whole journey, I held on to my temper and tolerance levels after kicking the butt of a passenger who strayed to my seat as he lost his balance whilst  alighting from the train.


Sir Issac Newton (who in technical circles is also affectionately defined as the amount of force required to give a 1-kg mass an acceleration of 1 meter per square second), when his peers were busy partying till wee hours of the morning, conceptualised the 2nd Law of motion i.e. Force = Mass x Acceleration. Assuming that the mass of one traveller is around 60 kg and the acceleration attained during the displacement from platform to the compartment after pulverizing fellow travellers is approximately 6 meters per square second, the force exerted per traveller is around 360 Newtons. The above numerical apart from demonstrating the important qualitative relationships between force, mass, and acceleration also manifests the deteriorating human relationships in Mumbai trains. With this kind of rush and proportional force exerted, the people are only going to get more predatory to survive and there is absolutely no way you can accuse your co-traveller of being aggressive as his travel depends on you missing the train. I understand that Mumbai Monorail project has been instituted to assuage travellers and provide some relief but till its frequency and coverage improves, I wish all of us the very best in exerting those 360 Newtons just to enter the normal local train and around 400 Newtons to those ambitious types amongst us who crave for a window seat.

On the whole, a memorable journey indeed. I learnt a lot that day, principal amongst them; keeping the body fit, remaining impervious to the scenario inside the train   and travel in packs like hyenas. I also feel there are leadership cues that can be gleaned from this experience.


mumbai trains

  • Risk Taking: Risk taking is not optional on Mumbai trains, it is mandatory if one believes in taking one’s body from A to B. Mumbai trains are a breeding ground for nurturing risk taking behaviour.
  • Aggression: Assertiveness and winning as a philosophy may be fad in leadership circles but on   Mumbai local trains it is debased and frowned upon by fellow strugglers.       Basal requisite to survive is aggression but advanced formats such as encroachment, onslaught, invasion and slaughter is venerated and may have followership.
  • Teamwork: This is paramount. A ‘4-people’ team has a better chance of using coordinated ‘muscle edging out strategy’ and various formations to repel the crowd than a solitary venture.
  • Self-awareness: Without robust arms and leg muscles to inflict pain upon others and strong abdominal muscles to absorb and endure pain, journey cannot begin. Awareness about one’s muscular dispositional stance helps in knowing whether one ought to take an aggressive or conciliatory stance.
  • Altered States: Meditation, mindfulness and self-preservation helps. Right from queuing anomalies to letting one-off the train, if one gets incensed at the apparent violations, one can become severely repressed. Anyway the journey is compartmentalized; why not use the time to attain a meditative state. Collectively altering states with group meditation could perhaps bring some compassion amongst fellow travellers.
  • Regularity: Taking the train at the same time daily is advantageous, as one doesn’t have to prove one’s aggression each day. Due to previous day’s aggression, the followers around you will take you seriously and will make it easy for you to board. Once petrified, they stay petrified even if you don’t periodically exert to manifest your strength and competitive position.
  • Positioning: For those unable to adapt to the above rudimentary requisites to board the train, alternate positioning strategies are available as represented in the picture which is to stand on the outer window grills of the compartment and converse with their peer sufferer, perhaps on the topic ‘Creating a bucket list’ i.e. experiences or achievements that a person hopes to have or accomplish during their remaining life if this mode of travelling is sustained.


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