I commuted from home to work and for a year in Bombay before moving to Bangalore. That included a five-minute walk to the station, a wait of anywhere between two and ten minutes for the fast train, an 18 to 30-minute travel thereafter, if all went well, and anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes in an auto rickshaw from my stop to the office.
As you can imagine, a white guy in a compartment of a local train will draw attention. I won't go into the gory details of what it was like on a packed evening, or the foul stuff I would hear from the obligatory loafers, but there were some funny incidents during that year of traveling on the Bombay trains.
I was coming home one evening, from Andheri to Bombay Central, and met a friendly sardarji. Now I’m totally used to being gawked at when I step – or leap, as often the case was – into a first-class compartment and this time was no different. Except that said paape, in designer jeans and snazzy white and black t-shirt and carrying a couple large shopping bags with salwar-kameezes and silk, was looking over quizzically at me. He was standing against the wall and I made my way past him and took a seat on one of the corner benches.
He watched for a few minutes and then sidled up and plunked himself down next to me. I’ve often cranked up the volume on my trusty iPod to avoid random conversation, and I attempted the same this time, looking out the paan-stained window.
I heard him, but didn’t acknowledge.
“Hello…” and a tap on the shoulder.
I put on my best annoyed face and remove my earphones, asking him to repeat the question. He does, all too eagerly, and I go with India.
He makes a face. “No, which country you from?”
Again, India, I say.
He’s not buying it. “Where do you live?”
Now he smiles. “Oh ho, but which country your family from?”
I tell him I was born in India and I work in Bombay.
“Very good, very good.”
I look back at suburban Bombay whizzing past. I can feel his eyes on me.
After a few minutes he chirps up again. “I’m from Canada.”
It sounds like Kan-e-daa. I smile.
“I am here on holiday.”
‘That’s nice,” I say. He’s not going to let me get away that easily.
“You from America?”
I decide to go wide. “No, I’m from France. But have lived in India for many years.”
“Oh good, good.” Pause. “I live in Canada.” Now he’s slipped seamlessly into an American accent.
I smile, again.
“I have business there. Been there 18 years.”
“Wow, that’s good.” All I want to do is listen to my music and try an unwind after a busy day. Now everyone sitting near us has tuned in. Some enthu-cutlets have leaned forward to hear what I have to say. I don’t want to be rude. Where is the next stop?
He looks at me and continues smiling, fascinated by this creature sitting next to him. Have I suddenly sprung antlers, I wonder?
“I live near Niagara Falls. You’ve been there?”
“Never heard of it.”
Now he’s stunned. But it works. Up he gets, grasping the sidebar and making his way near the exit. Within seconds the train reaches Dadar station and he alights.
A few people continue to stare, but its back to me and my iPod again.