The Seat Mafia of Mumbai Locals


The Seat Mafia of Mumbai Locals

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Getting into the 7.24 am Churchgate-bound local at Nallasopara is like getting a deep tissue massage from a bunch of sweaty men, instead of the usual hot (Asian) masseuse. Inside, everybody seems fused into one homogenous mass that doesn’t want you in it. Your options are limited to either cramming yourself into any available space, or hanging on for dear life on the footboard of the train.

I wanted neither, so following friendly advice, I used the “ulta chado” system. Literally translated, it means climbing on backwards. Sounds crazy, right? What it actually means is taking a train going in the opposite direction, and riding on it back to your destination. This way, the trains are less crowded and you stand a fair chance of actually getting a seat. This quest for achieving 100 per cent ass-to-seat contact rather than the usual 50 per cent or lesser might seem daft. But hey, welcome to Mumbai.

Anyway, I climbed on without any hassle, and entered the belly of the beast. I was greeted by the sight of a few scruffy-looking men, obviously night shift workers heading home, Gujarati businessmen, all set for work, college students, and the usual token beggar.

Despite the availability of vacant seats, people were standing around, as if some invisible entities occupied them, replete with bags, handkerchiefs, and newspapers. It was a scene straight out of The Twilight Zone. Heading toward an empty seat, I removed the newspaper occupying it and plonked my ass down, hoping the seat wasn’t already occupied by Kevin Bacon from Hollow Man. I had achieved contact when I was tapped on the shoulder by someone behind me.


The calm before the storm on a Mumbai local.

Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty images

On turning around, I was asked whether I was headed to Virar. “I wasn’t,” I said, and then came the words, “Seat reserved hai, tumko uthna padega.” Reserved seat? On a local train? I said, “Nahi.” The same words again, this time in a slightly higher pitch. I replied with an equally high pitched, “Jaa, nahi uthega.”

Here I was, a massive 140-kilogramme fine male specimen, being told to vacate my seat by a scrawny, dark five-foot something I’ll call Kalpes.

Kalpes was now joined by an older, pudgier companion who I’ll call Shrek (same bulbous nose). Shrek took a different approach, trying to explain that this seat was “reserved for members of his group”, and that I could sit anywhere else, except there. I politely told him that I wouldn’t vacate this seat and if the newspapers, bags, and handkerchiefs were an indicator, there weren’t a whole lot of places I could relocate to. Shrek went on to say that they were regular commuters and this was how it worked.

In this dog-eat-dog world, you either claim your territory or have it claimed by someone else.

Finding the right words and keeping a level head, I told Shrek, Kalpes, and everyone else who was now looking in our direction, intently waiting for a fight to begin, that they could go fuck themselves. My ass wasn’t leaving this seat. Now, things began to get interesting. As the train was pulling into the station, this duo was joined by a more muscular, meaner-looking companion. Let’s call him No Neck because his face began where his shoulders ended.

The train stopped and it was as if flood gates were opened, and a torrent of bodies gushed in. The men, mostly Gujaratis, Marwaris, and Jains, occupying the previously reserved seats, exchanged pleasantries with others from their gang; another group huddled at the doors, making it difficult for commuters to get on. Meanwhile, No Neck and I were engaged in a verbal duel, which was basically him telling me to vacate the seat, and me telling him to fuck off without actually using the words fuck and off.

I prepared for a throw down. The stand-off came to a head, when about five men from this group got on, and I found myself in a verbal exchange of swears and slurs with a gang of eight. I remember asking No Neck in Hindi whether I was interrupting their daily circle jerk, which seemed to wind him up a bit more. Suddenly, everyone fell silent and a bespectacled middle-aged man, most probably an accountant or a money man, and obviously the leader, walked up to me, and said in broken English, “This our place. You sit here, your journey is not comfortable. I find place for you, you don’t sit here.”

My plan of action, inspired by Bruce Lee, was to push Shrek out of the way, slap Kalpes, punch the accountant, and then fight No Neck, in an epic one-on-one battle. But, what after No Neck? How many more would I have to take on? Common sense prevailed, I swallowed some of my pride and said to the accountant, “Okay, then find me a seat.” Immediately, a seat occupied, no doubt by one of the accountant’s underlings, was vacated and offered to me.

No Neck and Shrek, said out loud, “Acche se bola to nahin samjha.” Now, I’d usually fall back on my upbringing in a rough neighbourhood and get ready to throw down, but I was somewhere between Mira Road and Dahisar, alone, and pretty outnumbered. Swallowing the words,“maa ch**a”, I moved to my new seat, saying I would go to the railway cops to lodge a complaint. Laughing, the accountant shot back, “Go. Lots of people have tried it before.”

After that, all was well with the accountant’s ragtag bunch. They settled into a game of rummy. No Neck and Shrek would occasionally shoot nasty glances at me; Kalpes would make a joke in Gujarati, undoubtedly at my expense, and everyone would sneer. The group melted into the crowd alighting at Andheri as did most others. Only two more groups remained, one of middle-aged kakas and another comprised shopkeepers from Lamington Road. (You could tell from the loving way they spoke about the prices of motherboards and graphics cards.)

I alighted at my stop, determined to complain to the police. The plan was to scream bloody murder. After all, I had paid for my ticket; I had the rights. I knew, of course, that with 7.5 million passengers, pickpockets, druggies, and, serial molesters freely roaming the trains, this could come off sounding something like, “Help, someone stole all of my monopoly money,” but I plodded on.

I reached the door, only to be greeted by the sight of an empty police station, its occupants probably out role-playing CSI or CID. I think that’s when it struck me – sure the trains have a seat mafia, but so does my favourite bar, and this evening some idiot would probably be occupying my favourite seat.

In this dog-eat-dog world, you either claim your territory or have it claimed by someone else. Here’s looking at you seat stealer, the seat next to the mirror at Yatch is mine.

Move or be moved.