Report from India: From Mumbai to Kernala via Third Class Coach

Mumbai's Terminus

Mumbai’s Terminus

By Robert Israel

At Mumbai’s central railroad station, known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, I purchase a ticket for first class service to Kernala, a nearby suburb. But the place is awash in confusion. There are no signs, or at least not adequate signage, so, instead, I climb aboard third class coach.

There’s room enough for everyone, at first. But then just before the whistle blows thirty or forty men crowd in and I am pushed to the very edge of an open boxcar. The train jerks into motion. I watch the rails just below my feet. Everything that at first seems distinguishable becomes a blur as we pick up speed just outside the train yard.

I am sweating. I am carrying a backpack, a camera, I am the only white face among the throng. The men jockey for more room. I am at teetering at the edge of the open boxcar.

We are far beyond the city limits now. The trees and dung fires are blurring in a miasma of lime green and smoky gauze, other trains pass close by, I am losing hold of the edge of the open boxcar door. There is nowhere to lean, nowhere else to go except out. There are many that wind up on the tracks, dismembered, killed by falling from the open boxcar doors. I know this because I read it in the Times of India, just two days before my journey to Kernala. I am trying to rid my mind of this news story, but it won’t leave my thoughts. And then, out of the din of chattering voices, I disctinctly hear one voice above the others.

“Don’t worry, sahib,” a toothless man says to me.

“No need to worry, sahib,” says another man, grinning, who stands on the other side of me.

“We will take care of you, sahib,” says a third, unseen, his voice is in my ear, behind me.

They remove my backpack and rest it by my feet. The man on the left, the man on the right, the man from behind, they encircle me, their arms surround me, their hands gripping my belt, my shoulders, my waist.

When I finally arrive at Kernala, I am exhausted, but safe.

Robert Israel can be reached at A version of this story first appeared in the Rhode Island Herald.


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