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?

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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.

It happens even in India – The Sequel

Read the prequel here.



An email from the Joint Commissioner of Police to the Matunga ACP, in which I was CCed:



Dear Sir / Madam,

Attached herewith a complaint/suggestion no.1064 /2010 received on www.trafficpolicemumbai.org which is forwarded to you for taking necessary action.

Immediate action be taken at the earliest. Till the final disposal is underway, interim reply should be sent to complainant without fail with a copy to Joint Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Mumbai

Regards

(Sanjay Barve)

Joint Commissioner of Police

Traffic, Mumbai.



Following this, last week I even got a phone call from the ACP, asking me the exact location where I met one particular cabbie whose name featured twice in my complaint. He went on to thank me for bringing this to their notice and assured me of quick action. I could only mutter my admittedly surprised gratitude. Brilliant, I say. Hats off, Mumbai Police!

It happens even in India!

This one’s for Consumer Awareness. A colleague recently changed my life when she told me about this. So thought I should share it here. If you are a Mumbaikar, tired sick of the tyranny of Mumbai’s cab drivers, have no fear. Long-awaited panaceas is here.

In Mumbai parlance, our cabbies ‘seem to want to go only to Dubai’. That should about sum up what I am talking about. Ever been late to work, for an important meeting, for receiving a loved one at the airport because there just are no cabs ready to take you there? Me too. Ever had to grudgingly pay them 10-20 bucks extra to just do their job? Me too. Well, not anymore.

So apparently, there is a Mumbai police website where you can report the license plate number of a cab driver who refused to take you somewhere. Anywhere. I have been using it for only a few days now, but my colleague apparently used it for a year before she decided it was too much trouble. Which is something I fail to understand given the miracles it’s been working for me this past week. She also tells me that they really take action against the cabs you report. You mention the license plate number, the date, time and place where the incident took place and the kind of hell the devil put you through. And they actually get back to you on the action taken in the reported case!

Reporting-rogue-cabbbies for dummies:

Go to the Mumbai Traffic Police website (http://www.trafficpolicemumbai.org/). On the left panel, click on the bottom-most link: “Traffic Complaint Form”.

Or just click here.

Fill in the required personal details. Write out your complaint letter. I used this format to report each rogue cabbie:

Taxi license number: MH 1 AM 7630

Date: 26 April 2010

Approximate Time: 7pm

Place: BKC

Refused to ply to: Sion Circle

The only rider here is you have to be 110% sure that you got all the details right. Even the time is important. The same cab is driven by different drivers during different parts of the day, remember? (Saving one innocent is worth letting hundreds of villains go. Or something Bollywoody to that effect.)

Click “Submit”.

Tada! Mumbai Police thanks you with a dancing canary for your feedback. And from what I hear from my colleague, they actually write back to you on the action taken. (Yes. In India!)

Ever since I’ve heard about this, trust me, I’ve struck gold.

Case study: I ask a cabbie to take me to BKC. He shakes his head in that omnipotent manner of theirs. Out comes my notepad and pen. “What’s your number”, I say just for the effect as I look pointedly at the license plate. I proceed to note down the number with much fanfare and flourish. Suddenly, our man is not so smug anymore. He half-jumps out of the window and asks me, “Which BKC? The one in Bandra?”

“Yes, the one in Bandra.” I can see how he was confused earlier, considering as BKC only stands for Bandra Kurla Complex.

“Oh. In that case, come come.”, he mumbles as he puts the damned dilapidated thing into gear.

The pen, indeed, is mightier than the sword. Try it next time. It really works!