How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

They say a great pain has to be the driver behind great art. Well, my feet hurt like hell. So here goes nothing. An ailing spouse whose hacking cough brought on by a too-cool-for-sweaters syndrome keeps you up 2 nights in a row. A bipolar housemaid who resigns and then responds next week to an ad for the vacancy thus created (true story). A 24×7 job that kicks all popular notions of “sarkaari naukari” in the gut. A pair of lovepigeons that just wouldn’t stop shitting, birthing, and that thing that comes before birthing, in your precious balcony. Yes, that’ll about do for a particularly artistic morning. Which brings me to where I am. Standing in the Delhi metro on my way to work. Admittedly, it is no Mumbai local (which is my personal favorite definition of purgatory). But we in the Delhi metro, have our own jostling body odours,  edgy tempers, and seasonal flu germs feasting on a human buffet of respiratory tracts. And, yes, feet trampling on feet. No prizes for guessing I lost on that elusive prize of resting one’s buttocks. Some days, though, the battle for the buttock rest just doesn’t seem worth fighting for. Correction. Make that most days. The non-existence or eventually fated breakdown of a queue foretells a stampede a la zombie attack as soon as the doors slide open. People shove, push and race mercilessly, unmindful of women, children, senior citizens and (I swear this happens) even people on crutches along the way. PA announcements pleading people to “Please allow passengers on the train to alight first” might as well be airing war cries, for all the good they do. The man who sits on a ladies’ seat is treated like a dog, the woman who makes him get up is eyed like a bitch. Makes you wonder if it is all that hard for us all to be humans.

Being Human(?)

Or may be this is how humans are programmed. May be our garb of humanity (by which I mean the notion that humans are capable of sensitivity for fellow beings) is a tenderly balanced house of cards, on a table of convenience. When the going gets tough, the people get rough. All it takes is a set of well-aligned disincentives. Pit high demands against limited resources and voilà, humanity becomes passé. Makes you worry about the future of the planet. Is this is a worldwide phenomenon or a special characteristic of Indians alone? I have commuted to work everyday for months in the London underground. I have seen orderly queues on the platform, patiently waiting for passengers aboard to alight first. For real. Crowds perform the role of a social audit, shaming any commuter who attempts to break this decorum. Is that a deeper cultural difference? Or is it just some cold demand-supply logic at work? If Indians were given enough seats, would they behave better? If Londoners were made to compete for a handful of seats, would they turn on one another too? There are exceptions, of course. Reassuring exceptions. The man who stands up for any visible lady standing, even at the other end of the compartment (My husband, by the way. #ProudWife.) The young girl who leaves her seat for an old lady. The lady who lets a woman carrying a child rest awhile. But there is still the majority that chooses to look the other way. Which pisses off the ones who don’t. During rush hour, squabbles and even fistfights are not uncommon. The male equivalent of cold stares and dirty looks in the ladies compartment.

Whose elbow is it anyway?

Whose elbow is it anyway?

***

What can we do about this?

 

A. Shaming the transgressors, London style: This strategy almost never works, given that one is almost always outnumbered by said transgressors. Which makes civil behavior the real transgression from the norm. Indians also have the amazing ability to react to shaming with aggression rather than shame. I should know. I once got yelled at by a guy for asking him to not throw a banana peel on the platform.

 

B. Gandhigiri:  Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line vahin se shuru hoti hai. Credits to Shri Bachchan for making civilized behavior uncool. The husband discovered the Gandhigiri way after strategy A failed spectacularly in the face of these everyday “heroes” on the platform. He started offering them the place in front of him in the queue. Day 1: He tried it on two men. One mumbled a sheepish apology, and took his place at the back of the queue. The other proudly accepted the offer, glad that the world was finally giving him his royal due. 50% success rate. Better than A, but unsustainable across people and time. Plus, an added risk of driving an aspiring Gandhian to violence.

 

C. Enforcement: The presence of security guards at every door of the incoming metros makes Rajiv Chowk the most orderly metro station in Delhi. Which is not an accident, as Rajiv Chowk is the most populous station of Delhi, with footfalls comparable to your average airport. If the Indian crowd were left to their own devices, things there would descend to a riot in no time.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi's "orderly" pride.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi’s “orderly” pride.

But is it reasonable to expect security at every station? Would we happily bear the fare hike it entailed? Worse, what does it say about us as a people that it takes burly guys with whistles and sticks to make us behave like civilized adults?

 

D. (Cultural) DNA: What is it about Indian – or indeed human – nature that it takes so little to make us behave like savages? One could say we are biologically wired for natural selection. Survival of the fittest. That could be an acceptable argument if we were playing The Hunger Games. But how come these basic instincts start dictating our behavior even when the stakes are as small as a buttock rests?

***

Is there a systemic solution to this? More sophisticated urban planning? Fines and punishments? Awareness and behavior change campaigns? Design solutions for public transport utilities? Better moral education at school level, inculcating a sense of empathy, compassion for our fellow beings or even basic civility at an early age? Or will nothing less than whistles and sticks work on us? Everyone likes to park their behinds. But let’s not use that as an excuse to trample on our own humanity. Trust me, it looks nothing like my feet.

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33 thoughts on “How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

      • I strongly believe, that given the same incentives, people will behave the same the world over. A prime example of this is the regular Northern Line rush that happens whenever there is a spillover from a delayed or suspended line. The reason why people don’t kill each other in London, is because we are being constantly reminded (via boards and platform announcements) that there is a train coming soon right behind the current one.

        People have relatively more cumbersome commutes in India than in London – and Indian passengers have no idea whether the next train will be just as crushing as the one before them. So, that’s why the rush to take what we have now.

        Also, I have seen the trains shut on people while they are boarding in Delhi Metro! That would never happen in London. The drivers here ensure that all those who have to get out are out, and those who want to get in are in (assuming there’s space for all of them), and then only proceeds to shut the train doors. No wonder passengers in Delhi get paranoid that they won’t be able to board the train!

        I think we ought to give people a little more credit – we all said that Delhiites would wreck the Metro – and it’s still there, isn’t it, all reasonably clean and shiny? Which Delhiite doesn’t want to brag about our Metro? (yes, even the autorickwallas can be heard grumbling their compliments occasionally.)

        I think we need to examine really hard the possibility of expanding the pipeline, and start planning for Delhi Metro v2.0. Given the confidence and trust that they will soon get a chance to travel, more and more people will behave human, and soon you civil peepuls (no pun intended) will be able to shame “etiquette offenders”.

        We all want to be human – but if it is difficult to survive being human, then our animalistic behaviour surfaces. That is true everywhere.

        Of course, in the meantime, we may need the occasional lathi charge, waterboarding, tear gassing, public lashing, what have you.

        Thanks for letting me blog here.

        kthxbai.

      • Wow. Blog indeed. Point by point dekhte hain.

        1. Yes, I agree that this may be human nature instead of just Indian nature. Have said so in so many words in the blog too.

        2. Train doors shutting on people is not true. There is a blinking light and alarm beep that indicate that doors will be closed in a few seconds. People pay no heed to either. In fact, I have seen people jutting shoes, handbags, parts of their bodies inside the doors as they are closing to stop the train with no heed for their own security – vandalising public property, delaying fellow passengers. Doors closing is a very poor excuse for such behavior, especially when given ample warning.

        3. “Delhi Metro is still there” – no credits to Delhities though. That is because of the brilliant systems put in place by the designers of DMRC. Trains are cleaned every night, maintenance checks done multiple times a day. Seats are made of steel otherwise cushions would have been long ripped by our fellow citizens. Have seen drunks puking on board the metro. Delhites deserve NO CREDIT whatsoever for the Metro still running. It is running INSPITE OF them, not because of them.

        4. Need for more trains – I agree. Like in the comment above.

        5. “We all want to be human, but if it is difficult to survive being human” – Too bad. With great power comes great responsibility.

        6. Your blogs are always welcome. Kthxbai-ed like a pro. Also, you in Delhi?

  1. Sad as it sounds, in India the only thing that works is fear….. Nothing else will do.. No matter which level you are, how much you are educated… As cynical as it sounds, thats the grim reality… Take this and expand this to Bangalore traffic.. Pretty much the same…

    • Completely disagree. I am not saying fear doesn’t work, but to go so far as to say that it is the ONLY thing that works is not true. There are exemplary instances of humanity, super humanity even, that happen on a daily basis in India, which is not provoked by fear, but just because it is human to do so.

      • Exceptions do exist. Have seen them and given due credits in the blog too. They are the ones that keep one’s faith in humanity alive. But I do agree with Vinay to the extent of ensuring civil behaviour on a mass scale, you need to align incentives to support it (fear being one of said incentives). You cannot rely on humanity and the goodness in people’s hearts, especially on a large scale. When talking crowds and mobs and systems, incentives work.

  2. Re: People inserting pieces of luggage and various appendages in doorways

    Consider the options in front of the average passenger in the Delhi Metro or the Mumbai local.

    Stuff oneself into the already over-crowded compartment a la Harry Houdini.
    Wait for the next train which may be 5 minutes away (or 10 minutes away if you are Jamuna par) and repeat ad infinitum.
    Give up and go fight with the auto-rickkies.
    Get on a Blueline, if you are feeling especially suicidal.

    The most rational choice in the above is the first one. Why are we expecting people to behave anything but? All of us need to get on office on time. I think a couple of days a week, your boss will take the excuse, but what if it happens everyday? And what about getting home to the proverbial irate spouse and making him (or her, I am all for sexual equality) even more irate? Is it not rational to earn the ire of fellow passengers you might never see again than the wrath of the dragon at work / home?

    I get your “With great power comes great responsibility”, yes, but that just doesn’t make any sense in this context. Expecting them to form orderly queues would be akin to expecting the Pomeranian next door to apologise for disturbing your afternoon nap.

    Re: Existence of the Metro despite best efforts of the local populace

    Puking is a bad example – I mean, unless your bulimic, there is no comprehensible reason why you would WANT to puke – in trains or otherwise. Drunks puke all over the place. That’s why cabs here have a standard soiling charge. In general, people do exhibit a certain amount of embarrassment in expelling bodily fluids and matter (the rare exceptions do exist) — But I ask are the Delhi Metro trains, stations and tracks pan-stained? Are there tickets and debris floating about like in other modes of transport in India that you would generally find?

    Yes, the staff at the DMRC assiduously maintain the system, but the work almost all over the world is similarly intense. I have photographs of people’s garbage and expellings rolling about the trains here – the trains which I take to work everyday. The Metro systems all over the world are subject to onslaught – but more so in Delhi, because of the volume. I argue, it could be a lot worse, and the people have definitely restrained littering their jewel.

    To say that you would not give ANY credit to our fellow compatriots, is in my humble opinion, very harsh.

    Re: the line at the bottom and et al.
    People generally want to aspire higher – and this is in all respects. Or rather, let me frame it this way – who wants to go down in life, (or if you use a word I abhor, but somehow manages to convey the message, degrow) ?

    We know that even though it’s more expensive, the people prefer to go in the Delhi Metro than any other mode of transport. That’s because people felt like you know, they were being treated like adults for the first time. Yay, the government has given me an expensive toy, and I will not destroy it.

    I think we should be a little kinder to them and instead of writing them off, be a little more confident that people can actually behave like humans, if the system is able to provide them a chance at getting their basic needs.

    I am confident about this because all cities in the world including Londinium and the Big Apple were once shit holes (literally) to live in. Give them a chance to live respectably, and voila! Look at them now.

    We definitely need rules and penalties – but I think the focus should be on positive reinforcement.

    ALL THIS SAID, there was a line about some idiots being inconsiderate to the point of harassment to women. Laaton ke bhooth baaton se nahi maanenge and all that, but surely, that’s not the general case, is it?

    PS: I am not in Delhi. But my dil is forever chhole bhature and kathi rolls. My waist too.

    kthxbai

    • Pick a side, its-a-sonny. Which is it? Are people rational decision makers who do the math for the easy way out between two dragons, and take that, irrespective of human concern? Or are they butter-hearted marshmallows who have nothing but the noblest of intentions translating into publicly responsible behaviour?

      And yes, Metros are littered too, even over and above the involuntary bodily discharges (ref the banana peel throwing gentleman, and his sizable kin).

      I gave the Spidey wisdom in response to your statement “We all want to be human, but if it is difficult to survive being human”. If you think that my response doesn’t apply and are willing to compare human beings to dogs in this context, then we are not only in agreement, you actually surpass me in the harsh choice of analogies.

      Harassment to women was a topic I didn’t even touch upon in this post (since that is a given across space and time in our country). Are you sure we’re talking about the same blogpost?

      Come to Delhi sometime. We can continue this debate over a metro ride. I get and respect your charitable viewpoint, but when your yardstick is Bombay, there really isn’t much further below to stoop.

  3. Assuming the reason is demand-supply and giving the humans involved the benefit of the doubt, why do Indians scramble when the plane comes to a halt? Are we trying to be the first ones to get to the Metro station?

      • Oh hello, officer. I guess I parked the debate in a no-parking zone 😛

        Ms. V – let me first point out that it’s not just Indians who do the plane-scrambly thing; from my experience, it’s a universal phenomenon.

        Secondly, why is it so bad that people want to get out of a tin can they have been trapped in for several hours, with tiny cutlery and crappy food – as soon as possible?

        Why are we assuming that people seated randomly in front of you have the divine right to get off the plane first? As long as I didn’t clothesline (or shove or nudge or insert your choice of verb) you back into your seat, I think we should just suck it up and let them go ahead.

  4. Yes, I agree with you on one thing – let us park this debate for sometime, and let us pick it up when I come back to Delhi. Then we do Delhi Metro joyrides and all 😛

    But just summarising my points:

    1. Human beings want to be human, but if there is no option for them to be human, then they won’t be – because, they cannot be. It’s not one or the other – it’s context-dependent.

    2. I know you didn’t talk about women harassment in that sense – I meant the men who would not give up seats for women, even though those are designated seats for women. I meant that they were being inconsiderate — to the point that it could be termed as harassment.

    3. My reference point for all my opinions above is not just the Mumbai local train – but also the Delhi Metro itself (I have been using the Metro since the first line connected Kashmere Gate to Rithala), the London Underground and the National Rail in the UK. So, quite a spectrum. In all cases, passengers have the same mentality. If the situation is bad, they are going to squeeze in. People trash their trains.

    kthxbai (till we ride again)

    • Yeah, I’ve understood all your points right from the time the first comment came up between Kashmere Gate and Rithala. Decent reading comprehension is one of my few qualities. Another is recognizing a LastWord junkie when I see one 🙂

      Send over a Facebook ping or something next time you’re in town.

  5. Wokes – will send you something. (*have to capture pigeons for the pigeon courier, no, is that ravens – or crows. John Sonny, you knows the nutthings.* #TGIFramblingsandallthat)

    PS: See, I am letting you have the last word, and didn’t say anything about the junkie thing.

    SEE. SEE! DID YOU SEE?

    PPS: *dammit*

  6. Great writing as always.

    You’re right when you note that this is more of human nature than Indian nature. I have noticed queues breaking down, people not honoring basic courtesy, in all parts of the world I have visited… once the tolerance levels are crossed. I think the last part is the key point here. Tolerance levels.

    I think Indians are routinely singled out for this behavior only because our tolerance levels are relatively low. I disagree with other people here saying that it’s a rational choice Indians make every day. I think it’s an instinct for us Indians. To be a little bit better placed than all around us. So, we can feel good about ourselves. We don’t even think about it. We just go ahead and break rules.

    But, what cultivates this instinct inside of us? Well, being born in a country of shortages amidst more than a Billion people, for one. In such an environment, you are almost always positively rewarded for rude behavior and much more often than not, negatively rewarded for sticking to rules or etiquette.

    But, I think more to blame is our brand of parenting. The kid so much as sobs a little and most Indian parents would drop everything at hand to come tend to the apple of their eye. Indian parents are so devoted to their kids, that they make them feel entitled to royal treatment. Wherever they go. Depleting the tolerance levels for discomfort.

    This probably also explains why Shaming and Gandhigiri don’t work on us. Because we truly believe we are entitled to more comfort and better treatment, ground reality/others be damned.

    Speaking of solutions, it’s a complex systemic problem. Not sure if there’s a simple solution. Abundance will help, sure. But that’s not within any one person’s ability. What each of us could do, is a) start at home; teach one’s own kids (if any) to respect lines and develop empathy for others. And b), keep doing what you mentioned, Shaming and Gandhigiri. If enough people indulge in shaming, offenders won’t be able to retaliate. And Gandhigiri might have a 50-50 success rate, but avoids confrontation and gives you some peace of mind.

    And if doing b) repeatedly takes a toll on you. Vent out on blogs like this and get cheered on by people like me, for being great members of the society and just plain awesome! But don’t stop. Thank you 🙂

    • I agree with Pulkit. From my own experiences at the mess counter of a well known management institute in South India (I hope I got that right!), it’s definitely not scarcity that makes people cut lines. The sense of entitlement that we bestow on people based on “achievements” such as test scores is insane. The minute we start respecting each other and affording a basic level of dignity to all humans we’ll start behaving without requiring any ‘rational’ incentives. Till then, the rat race will be our go-to excuse.

    • I wish things were as simple as that, “TT”. Broadly, the suggestions you’ve made would help, of course. But these things alone would not be the complete solution, I’m afraid. There are all sorts of network externalities at play in the real world, not to mention the basic cultural DNA of a land.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_effect

      E.g. if it were just about low supply, why would the behavior remain largely unaltered during off-peak hours? If the question was just low ticket prices, why would it replicate even aboard aircraft rides (presumably priced much higher), as written about by Ms V?

    • Rather banal as far as a creative product goes. I usually stuff my ears with Bollywood when in the ladies coach. This is a good reflection of the conversations that go on (add to that, the flaunting of all the guys who girls imagine are hitting on them). They usually make me want to commit murder. Human evolution seems to not be working out too well for the species.

  7. Happy New Year. May the burdens and any possible writer’s block on your blog shift to your neighbour’s blog! 😛

    The best conversation I’ve overheard is at the whimsical MARS at WIMSI; something along the lines of: “My internship in Singapore was fun. But you know what, I went to all the Starbucks stores in every mall. There’s nothing else to see anymore. I don’t wanna go back.”

    I don’t think Arbit was a major thing by the time I got there. Then again, I wasn’t a cool kid either. Was there a secret knock?

    • Well, if you have seen one Starbucks,…. and Singaporeans live in their Starbucks.

      First of all, it is .:Arbit:. There was no secret knock, no password. We welcome all. Like the mental asylums of yore.

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