Read an Excerpt
Mumbai: The city’s cattle class train commute has put a big question mark over the future of a brilliant sixteen-year-old girl. Raushan
Jawwad, who scored over 92 percent in her class X examination a few months ago, lost both legs after being pushed out of a crowded local train near Andheri on Tuesday.
—Times of India, October 17, 2008
The 290th Victim
“Everything in that book is true,” said Nasirbhai. It was almost
100 degrees, the humidity of the Bay of Bengal pressing down, and he was wearing a white dress shirt over a sleeveless undershirt, pleated black slacks, and black oxford shoes. Small scars were etched around brown eyes that studied me from a wide, inscrutable face; a big stone of lapis studded one finger,
and a silver bracelet dangled from his wrist. He had a barrel chest and his hands hung at his sides, ready, waiting— never in his pockets. He looked immovable, like a pitbull, like a character from another time and place, and in a way he was. “That book” was Shantaram, the international best-selling novel written by Australian Gregory David Roberts, who’d escaped from prison in Oz and found his way to Bombay two decades ago,
where he’d become deeply involved with its criminal gangs and
Nasir— who always carried the honorific bhai, “uncle.”
“We met in the 1980s,” Nasirbhai said, standing on a corner in Colaba, one of Mumbai’s oldest neighborhoods and its tourist epicenter, the streets lined with vendors selling tobacco and sandals and newspapers and bangles, pedestrians as thick on the sidewalks as attendees at a rock concert. Roberts was famous now, a Mumbai legend, and through a friend of a friend had connected me to Nasirbhai, who agreed to take me deep onto the commuter trains of the most crowded city on earth, where the day’s simple commute was a matter of life and death. “Traveling on these trains is very risky because they are so full,” Nasirbhai said. “But people must be at work, they must not be late or their boss will fire them. They must get to their destination, so they lean out of the doors, hang on to the windows, climb on top of the train. They risk their life to get to work every day.”
By population, the city— just nineteen miles across, with 19
million souls— was bigger than 173 countries. The population density of America was thirty-one people per square kilometer;
Singapore 2,535 and Bombay island 17,550; some neighborhoods had nearly one million people per square kilometer. A
never-ending stream of Indians was migrating to Mumbai,
which was swelling, groaning, barely able to keep pace. In 1990
an average of 3,408 people were packing a nine-car train; ten years later that number had grown to more than 4,500. Seven million people a day rode the trains, fourteen times the whole population of Washington, D.C. But it was the death rate that shocked the most; Nasirbhai was no exaggerating alarmist. In
April 2008 Mumbai’s Central and Western railway released the official numbers: 20,706 Mumbaikers killed on the trains in the last five years. They were the most dangerous conveyances on earth.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Carl Hoffman.
From the Hardcover edition.