The C Compartment by Amit Vaidya
It’s 10.43am. A mass exodus of students, businessmen and others get down from the Churchgate-bound local train here at Ville Parle station. The carefree walk down I started at the top of the staircase from the sky bridge suddenly feels impossible to manage so I wait till the majority of people have made their way up and towards the exits. I finally get my chance to make it to the platform as I try to squeeze my way through the seemingly endless pool of people. Thankfully as I walk through the crowd, I find solace in the 1 or 2 spots where the crowd is a little less packed.
Having lived in some of the biggest cities in the world and primarily having used public transportation in those metropolitan areas, Mumbai feels like any other place…perhaps a bit muggier, smellier and dare I say louder. But Mumbai local trains have something I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world — 2 designated compartments specifically for ‘handicapped, cancer patients and advanced staged pregnant women’.
The 2nd class compartments house the who’s who of the Mumbai public we seldom recognize or even possibly acknowledge. For the large majority of Mumbaiites, their exposure to the handicapped population comes only at traffic signals or on their television sets when featured as contestants on a reality program. But the true reality is that there is a thriving, highly motivated, well-functioning, working middle class population of handicapped citizens who like all others; need to use the train to get to and from their home to work and back respectively.
Just sitting in the compartment you will see the blind, the deaf, the physically challenged, the mentally challenged and the injured all sitting side by side. Amongst them, there will be the occasional pregnant woman who needs to protect herself and her soon-to-be child from the pushes and shoves of the regular compartments. And finally, you’ll see individuals like me — cancer patients, who rely on the train to go to and from appointments and also to and from work — ideally with a little less crowd so as to not compromise our immunity.
Not a day goes by that the physically challenged don’t question my disability. As I walk with my ‘cancer card’ (given to you after submitting your medical records) their curiosity quickly gets silenced. Like the rest of the world, a visually appearing disability always trumps what’s on the inside, but in this compartment, as we sit side by side, slowly but surely the realization is made that anyone can get sick, anyone can have a disability and it can strike at any age - across gender, race, class, ethnicity and socio-economic class.
As someone who moved to Mumbai with certain physical restrictions, it is imperative for me to not sit in one position for a long time. As a result despite my ability to afford to drive or commute otherwise, traveling by train provides the most comfort. In all honesty, if the handicapped compartment didn’t exist on the local trains of Mumbai — I would not have even thought to live here.
The compartment now feels like home. Like any compartment, we have regulars, we share stories and we share heartbreak. It’s a powerful sight to see a pregnant woman seated next a terminal cancer patient chatting about the weather on one side while you see a half dozen deaf students laughing about some joke on the other while somewhere by the door, there is a quadriplegic with a tin ready to get down at the next station to solicit for money (something he never asks of his fellow handicap patrons in that compartment).
Recently there was an emergency situation on my train ride from Marine Lines to Bandra. A young mother was seated with her son who had leukemia. He started to have trouble breathing and began to hyperventilate. The mother was confused as to what to do. Quickly a one-legged man walked towards her and handed her a plastic bag. A blind woman opened her purse and got out her inhaler. Meanwhile, I grabbed hold of the child as he started to shake uncontrollably. We had him breathe into the bag and I as patted his back and his mother began to cry, the entire compartment watched in sheer silence.
It was like the entire train was focused on the boy. Within a few seconds, he seemed to calm down and the crisis was averted. As we all felt relief, the mother thanked all of us for our prompt help and then the one-legged man replied back, ‘it’s our duty, we take care of our own’.
As we all went back to our routine, the woman seated across from me asked me about my diagnosis. As I shared with her my story, without realizing, I inadvertently made her miss her stop. She said she was not worried, as she wanted to be there for me. It was a lovely realization I had as I too felt just like that little boy — that I was part of this group and that we really did get to care for one another — even if it’s just for a moment.
From that day onward, I’ve made it my mission to engage in conversation with those in the compartment along with me — offering support, an ear or just a voice to make the ride not only go faster but also go by in a positive way.
I recently had some luggage with me and asked my friend to join me in the compartment, as it was more than I could handle myself. Seeing his reaction to the compartment was priceless. He felt so out of place and so uncomfortable it frankly shocked me. He asked me point blank how I could feel comfortable there, and I told him that these people are just like us — they are us — ‘I’m one of them’. He listened but his body language told a different story. As we approached the next station, Rohan, a young college student who I befriended a few days prior came on. We exchanged hellos and my friend quickly asked me what was ‘wrong’ with him. I told him that he technically was legally blind.
Rohan then asked me if I could help him with something. I obliged and he went on to ask me about occupational therapy. As we chatted, other passengers got engaged and soon enough, I was being bombarded with medical questions. While I’m not a doctor, it seemed my general knowledge and perhaps my long-term illness offered me insight that many of my compartment mates lacked.
We discussed the appropriate dosage of a medication, the pros and cons of ayurvedic medicine versus allopathic treatment, the tricks to expensing treatments with insurance and more. My friend stood the entire time in disbelief. As our stop arrived, he looked at me and said — ‘you’re the train’s doctor’. I laughed at his statement but later realized the validity of his point.
In a city where we seldom have time to slow down and listen, the train is a meeting place for people to exchange information. In the handicapped compartments, it’s an even more important venue for those with greater challenges having a place where they can vent their frustrations, feel a sense of security and less judgment and perhaps also learn something and become better health advocates for themselves.
Almost anytime I hear something about the Mumbai local trains, it’s a negative story about the overcrowding or the dirtiness or the heat or all of the above. Now, I hope amongst the negatives, there is a positive which the rest of the world should take note of — the handicap/cancer patient compartment is a brilliant and forward thinking idea that has not just made it easier for those who already have tougher challenges a little more comfortable but has created a space where those who often are put to the sides of society and feel the lack of support get a voice. Here’s to hoping other cities follow Mumbai on this journey of compassion, caring and concern.