How the Mumbai spirit turned our monsoon nightmare into an adventure

Smitha Campbell
young couple enjoying rain

In July 2005, I made my first trip to Mumbai as a married woman. When I married M, I had to accept that marrying an Englishman would mean I’d forever have to contextualise and explain intuitive things that make me Indian. It remained important to me that he experience a bit of my home, Mumbai. The city will always be a part of me, wherever I go.

Couple in England

England, 2007

He loved almost everything about it – people, spirit, noise, vibrancy. I was happy as a child again. The night we landed, it started raining. Here was the monsoon I wanted my love to experience! We woke up the next day to Mumbai on its knees, flooded.

From our fourth floor flat we scanned the news in horror and fascination, waiting for electricity and milk supply, checking on neighbours. When the city started its slow grind to recovery, we found ourselves restless and feeling trapped indoors. Transport had still not returned to normalcy but we felt young and reckless and decided to venture out.

At CST we boarded a local train to Ghatkopar. For an authentic experience, we decided to board separate ‘General’ and ‘Ladies’ compartments. What could possibly go wrong?

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A press of people

Hindsight teaches us a lot. It was rush hour, I wasn’t paying attention to the announcements and minutes before our train was due to leave, another was cancelled. Everyone boarded ours. I was pushed to the back of the heaving compartment. I could barely stand, pinned like a notice on a board.

Movement was impossible. Each stop was just a few short minutes. I needed to start moving forward now to get off at Ghatkopar.

M must have been in the same situation, but he wouldn’t have known he needed to move. We didn’t have mobile phones. He didn’t know any Hindi. He had found place names and addresses incomprehensible.

No way out

I had been away for some years now and had never been the travel hardened warrior-commuter like those around me. They were annoyed by my attempts to move. Everyone else seemed calm about their exit plans.

My gentle pushing and shoving made zero progress, nor did saying “So sorry” constantly (I had become English that way). The woman next to me firmly put me in my place, “Dhakka mat mar. What do you think you’re doing?” I felt like a naughty child in front of Mrs Hegde again.

“My station is Ghatkopar,” I explained nervously.

“You are too far behind for that. You won’t make it.” Case dismissed.

I stood there, apologetically, panic and confusion mingled on my face.

Pathetic enough to draw her attention again.

“Are you from outside?”

As I explained, her expression grew progressively more disapproving. I finished with “My husband is a gora.”

How foolish!

There were incredulous expressions and murmurs around me. Others were involved now. The woman wasted no time in berating me for my irresponsibility in putting my poor husband in such a situation.

Once she realised I was completely in agreement with her assessment that I was a naïve idiot, she did a remarkable thing. She took charge and helped us. A random stranger. A random Mumbaikar.

A chain reaction

She called out, “This girl is from outside Mumbai. She needs help.” She told me to think of it as a special Mumbai massage. Strength, empathy, humour. Soon a human chain of Mumbaikar women was pushing and pulling me, contorting so I could pass. On my way, many reiterated that I had been irresponsible. This was the spirit of Mumbai; I received their love and concern gratefully.

The first woman next turned to helping M and shouted towards the general compartment, detailing instructions to ‘rescue the white man’.

The message was taken up and passed with urgency. A second human chain had been set in motion. I could hear the message being shortened, women’s voices exchanged for men’s, until I heard it in the distance distilled to, “Pick up the gora. Put him down at Ghatkopar.”

First class spirit

The train pulled into my station and like a mythical beast, the ladies’ compartment birthed me out with a heave. Seconds later, M was ejected in a similar fashion. We ran into each other’s arms in relief on the platform. Applause broke out for a moment in the story of an Indian girl and her English love. The train had started moving again and people were hanging out of it, cheering. Random strangers, Mumbaikars. No obstacle stops the First Class spirit of Mumbai, not floods, fools or firangis.

Mumbai, 2005

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