People traveling on Mumbai's locals have suddenly become more paranoid after Tuesday's blasts. While even today Mumbaikars might not give more than a cursory glance to the person they are sharing a seat with, they certainly have started paying more attention to the luggage that person brings into the local train compartment.
A good number of us have seen this before. I was in college in 1993 when bomb blasts first rocked the city. For weeks later, commuters would look suspiciously at any baggage on the luggage racks. A group of us used to take the 5.30 AM train every day to college — a time when only college going kids would have the energy to make noise and be a nuisance. The other regular commuters — the adults — were people catching an early train to work and who habitually dozed off once they boarded the train. But I recollect that after the blasts, for a few weeks, very few people seemed to be sleeping and eyes would constantly stray to the luggage rack at every station when somebody new got in and added a bag to the luggage rack.
After every blast the city and the suburban train network goes through this collective paranoia. It happened after the Mulund blast. And it happened after the blasts in Zhaveri bazaar, after the Ghatkpoar bus blasts and after the blast at the Gateway. The paranoia lasts typically for a few weeks and then commuters get back to catching up on their sleep, or to their newspapers, or books.
Yesterday, I took an early afternoon train to Mumbai CST. I was visiting a library in town and consequently my bag was heavy with books. As I dumped the bag on the rack, I could feel people's eyes taking in the bulk of the bag. I was warm after walking to the station, so I "reserved" my seat in the usual fashion — by leaving my handkerchief, and went and stood at the door hoping for a breeze. The eyes of my fellow commuters would sweep from my bag and to the door to check if I was still around. When I took my seat, the person seating opposite smiled a little apologetically and glanced at my bag. "It's only books." I said, "And I am going all the way to Mumbai." But he relaxed only when I took my bag off the luggage rack and pulled out a book to read.
On my way back, I alighted at Mulund to meet a friend. We watched a movie, had dinner and consequently I took a late train back home — the Badlapur slow at 22:29 in Mulund. That late in the night, it was sparsely crowded — I could stand easily and read a book. Within two stations, I had a seat. And by the time the train crossed Dombivili there must be less than 20 people in the first class general compartment. This was the compartment next to the Ladies first class compartment — the one that becomes a general compartment after 21:00. As the train entered the outskirts of Kalyan a person peeped over the partition that separated the general and the (erstwhile) ladies first class and calmly told us all that we should vacate the train at Kalyan.
"There's a tin container in the compartment which doesn't seem to belong to anyone."
The few people on the other side were already standing close to the door. I peeped over to find a small tin container — the kind you get in a hardware store containing about a kilo of paint or tar. It was underneath a seat, wrapped in plastic.
"We have to inform the police." said one of my fellow commuters.
"Pull the alarm chain." Another advised, "That will bring the police once we get to the station."
Somebody pulled a chain, it refused to budge. Noticing that another one tugged at a different alarm chain and that refused to budge too. By this time the train was pulling in at Kalyan station and everybody was crowded at the door. I took my bag, and changed my seat and got back to reading my book (A true train traveler takes every opportunity to get himself a window seat.) No, I was not trying to foolhardy — it was just that I felt that no terrorist would be working overtime and while a bomb going off around 23:15 in a train might get into news, it would hardly kill enough (I am sure even terrorists are governed by economics and would like high "returns" on their "investment.").
A fellow commuter asked me if I wasn't alighting. I replied in the negative and pointed out that it was probably too late in the day for a bomb to be set off especially in a compartment that hardly contained any people. A fellow commuter seemed to agree and grabbed another window seat.
By this time, the train was slowing down and people at the compartment's door had got the attention of two policemen patrolling the railway station. The policemen walked up to the small crowd outside the compartment's door and made a few enquiries. Then one of them walked into the compartment and just picked up the tin container (either the police too felt that it was too late for a bomb to go off or they had never heard how to approach a potential bomb) and walked away with it. The people got back in the compartment — one or two gave me dirty looks for bagging the window seat — and the train made its way further to its final destination. I haven't heard any news about a bomb being found in Kalyan so I assume that somebody had forgotten it in the compartment or worse some sicko was playing a prank (it has been known to happen).
I don't know how long this paranoia and this vigilance will last. Going by past experiences, we commuters go back to our old routines within a few weeks. But I do hope for the sake of all of us who use Mumbai's trains that we start taking a closer and more suspicious look at the luggage that fellow commuters bring in for some time to come.