THIS party keeps changing location. At 12.30 am, it’s at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Parel at 12.55 am, Ghatkopar by 1.15 am and so on until the last revellers disperse at Karjat. The venue is equally unlikely, the south-end luggage compartment of the last suburban train that leaves CST, the 12.30 am Karjat Slow Local. At the heart of the party are the compartment’s regulars, work-weary Mumbaikars who expend the day’s final energies singing Bollywood numbers, relishing a back-slapping camaraderie with fellow travellers, a sort of final celebration of the day, everyday, before the railway takes its nightly nap.
The daily unwinding of 25-30 people on board the 15ft x 12ft luggage compartment is the only time they can dedicate to themselves, the commute between work and home. On board are taxi drivers, a couple of singers at an orchestra bar, a waiter from a Shivaji Park restaurant and others.
Tonight, the flavour of the evening is Kishore Kumar. The orchestra singers are at the centre of the compartment, belting out oldie after golden oldie, everybody else humming along, nodding their heads, helping keep rhythm by drumming on lunch boxes. The late-night party on board the luggage compartment of the Karjat local is now several years old, and is the stuff of lore — everybody who has been a reveller at this party has a story to tell.
“Once I was about to miss the last local and, in a hurry, hopped on to the luggage compartment, running,” says one old-timer.
“I saw that most people in the compartment apparently knew one another. They would keep space reserved for those who will board at a later station, those who knew the singers would be making one farmaaish after another. There would be jokes, food, it was a fun place. I’ve been taking this compartment home for years now,” he says.
Incidentally, the north-end luggage compartment is called the ‘casino’ — some regulars there like to enjoy a quiet game of cards.
In the south-end luggage compartment, almost everybody who joins brings something to the table, literally. A head waiter at a central Mumbai restaurant often brings a starter course — ‘chicken kali miri’ being a favourite. A bhurji pav vendor outside Parel railway station would routinely bring several plates of bhurji neatly parcelled. There are also small acts of kindness — one man boarding at CST calls up a friend who will board at Ghatkopar. “Buy cigarettes, the shops would have closed by the time we reach Diva.” Not all of them have one another’s cellphone numbers, some are merely train acquaintances, others are Facebook friends.
One singer at an orchestra bar boards in Ghatkopar, but never sings along. “He probably wants a break from work,” another traveller explains. There’s also the legend of a man who has not been on board for a while. “He would be seen brushing his teeth at one end of the platform at CST. He’d tell us, ‘Colgate kar raha hoon.’ Then he’d board the luggage compartment and always stand on the footboard, never sitting inside with the others. He would keep announcing stations: ‘Chalo chalo Kalwa aa gaya, chalo chalo Mumbra aa gaya,” one regular remembers. Nobody knows why he did that. “You can be whatever you want to be here.”
Some old-timers rue that the charm has worn off. A few mischief-makers had led to the Railway Protection Force intervening. “When some people started misbehaving and the police got involved, we stopped coming,” one man says.
Some of the regulars stopped coming due to new work timings or residences. But when, occasionally, an old-timer is spotted, the familiar shout-out is guaranteed: “Bhai, come on in. Bombay mein nahin hai kya aaj kal?” An old friendship is rekindled, and an old party continues.