Regular commuters know that the second from last compartment in the 8.52 pm CST-Kasara local is the liveliest of all. Seated and standing by the seats on the right are some 40-odd men, who spend two hours — until the train reaches Dombivli — singing bhajans.
One of the several bhajan mandals active on local trains, this particular group is registered as the Kalyan-based Shree Ashthavinayak Railway Paravasi Bhajan Mandal. Laxman Bobade, the founder, says they began as a bunch of daily travellers united in their love for devotional songs.
“No one here knew each other until they met on the train,” says 42-year-old Ganesh Kadam, who works in a private firm in Kalbadevi.
Another member, Rajesh Dhumal, recalls that more than two decades ago, he and his gang of then young and raucous train friends were one day handed a Rs 10 note by a complete stranger. “We used to joke about and swear at each other, and be pretty loud. So he gave us the money and told us to buy a pair of cymbals and sing bhajans,” says Dhumal.
Between Monday and Saturday, most of the men board at CST, while others join at Dadar and Kurla. It is Bobade, who after garlanding a picture of Ganesha hung on the luggage rack, begins the proceedings. In the minutes before the train is to move, another member has a box of modak open in front of him and sets about breaking the sweets into small pieces.
The train’s lurch into motion is the signal for the group to break into song, beginning with a Ganpati prayer.
As the stations flit by, and the men alternate between songs to Ganpati and Sant Tukaram, they pause only for a few seconds in between. That is all the breather the practised singers need.
Among the more melodious ones is a middle-aged man who goes by the name of Vijay Maharaj.
“He works in Worli and travels all the way to CST to sing with us,” Kadam says.
While Kadam and Uttarakhand native Diwan Rajput get chances to lead certain bhajans, it is Bobade who is the conductor, the most expressive with his hands, shooting off silent cues.
“Marathi is not Rajput’s first language. But he has learnt it just to sing here,” Kadam says.
There is little jostling even as crowds swell at Dadar, Kurla and Ghatkopar.
“We never take up more space than required or stop any passenger from sitting or standing anywhere. In all these years, we have never bullied anyone,” says Bobade.
Nevertheless, the railway police’s periodic crackdowns on bhajan mandals has not impressed the group. “There are certain mandals that harass passengers, but we are not one of them. We do not disturb anyone,” Bobade says.
Dhumal says each man in the group comes from a modest background and with a family to support, singing bhajans is a way to ease the daily stress. “These are men who earn very little and would otherwise spend evenings drinking at bars and wasting hard-earned money. Instead, they chant God’s name and go back to their families in good spirits. They are also able to instil good values in their children,” he said.