The local trains that run across Mumbai are known as the city’s lifeline, and for good reason too. Rarely will you meet a Mumbaikar who doesn’t, or hasn’t at some point, used the local transportation system, which has an average ridership of close to 7.5 million people to-and-fro on a daily basis--that’s almost double the population of New Zealand, five times the population of Estonia and ten times that of Bhutan. Hours are spent by people on the trains, people from all walks of life crammed together in the same space. You end up seeing the same people at the same time of day as the both of you carry on your daily routines, and eventually, all kinds of relationships and friendships are formed as you come up with ways to pass time on your commute. It is these relationships that Mumbai-based photojournalist Anushree Fadnavis captures in her series #traindiaries on Instagram.
For her, the trains are as uniting as they are diving, physically at least--in the east and west, as well as the north and south.
“My oldest memory of riding the train is from my childhood. Whenever a festival would come around we would end up going to my grandmother’s house in town for which we had to take the train. Before getting onto the train, every time, my mother would instruct me and my sister to memorise the name of our destination and phone numbers just in case we got lost in the crowds or don’t get in/out of the train,” Fadnavis tells us. “Thankfully that never happened. And while returning back home the trains would always be packed, and we would always be standing, there were always some nice ladies who would make me and my sister sit on their laps.”
Spending countless hours in the trains’ ladies compartment, Fadnavis began interacting with the riders and taking their pictures in a sort of online diary format on her Instagram page. Right from women cutting vegetables during their journey so they’d be ready in time to cook dinner, to others singing, dancing and knitting, Fadnavis has seen, as well as documented, the sights and stories of them all. “I realised that the trains might not last forever, and the city might get more metros and mono rail in the future in its place. All the stories, hardships and the joy that these trains hold might be lost. I wanted to document these people who travel in the train--the people, the life and the breath of the train. We might not be here forever but these stories will always remain through my pictures,” says Fadnavis, adding that while doing so she also wanted to examine and explore her own relationship with the Mumbai locals, document her memories, those of other people and combine them all together into the visual daily journey-journal that her series is today.
Every story is different and so are the affects it has on her. It’s hard to imagine spending so much time with the same people on a regular basis and not have them rub off on you in some way--in the end, they aren’t strangers any longer but familiar and welcoming faces in the microcosm of the trains’ ladies compartment. “I have come to realise that everyone is unique in their own way. This realisation can only happen when you start observing so many people daily. shoes , dress, scarf, jewelry, food habits, mannerisms and the stories each one has. I met old ladies who are over 80 and they are either working in the train, or somewhere or the other, and I keep thinking to myself that no one has to work at all when they are this old, but if these ladies can work so hard at this age then we definitely can work even harder.”
“Since the time I have started to document the ladies compartment, I get in and loiter around until I find something or someone interesting. Once there were these two girls who got on the compartment at a station and were observing me. After some time of watching me talk to strangers and moving around in the train, one of the girls came up to me and asked if I was ok and whether I needed help. I was wondering what happened but decided to ignore it. I politely replied that I was fine. This girl got off at the next stop, and her friend continued to watch me. After a few minutes, she came up to me and asked the same question as her friend. Now, I was beginning to think that there is definitely something wrong so I asked her what happened and why she and her friend were so concerned about me. She replied saying that they thought I was drunk and that was why I was moving around the train so much and talking to people, asking strangers questions. She even offered her help to drop me home. This was really funny, later when I explained my story to her and why I was doing what I was doing she was a lot less stressed about me and my wellbeing,” says Fadnavis.
Initially, this series was a personal project Fadnavis called ‘train diaries’ because it was supposed to be a diary with pictures (clicked on a polaroid camera) pinned on it along with my notes. Instagram was the closest to a virtual photo-diary, and Fadnavis started shooting images on her cellphone; “I consider a phone more personal than a DSLR. A DSLR can be really intimidating too. People get really conscious of the big camera. A phone has helped me push boundaries, personal space, and also to be able to observe quietly and inconspicuously.”
In her series, Fadnavis captures what is part of thousands of peoples daily routine. For some it’s just a matter of commute, for others it’s a meeting point, a time for socialising and forming bonds as you share a small crammed space with so many others on a regular basis that a connection is bound to be formed, regardless of your physical, mental or social differences. In the Mumbai local trains, everyone is the same, yet so incredibly unique.