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The Commuters

If you were to take a position far removed enough, in time and space, the life of the Mumbai commuter would seem like one of those elegantly crafted versions of hell that come to us from Hellenic antiquity. Each day, the transgressor against the natural order—and commuting for several hours a day for the best part of your life must surely be a transgression of the natural order—enters a tin box, crushed in with thousands of his kind, his body in intimate contact with theirs, his sweat and breath intermingling, a hideous impersonal intimacy that allows for no privacy or personality. Reduced to his essence, he is a man with a job. There is no other reason to be here. The occasional visitor, the accidental commuter is treated with scorn and contempt. This is often demonstrated physically by the use of shoulders, wrists, elbows, bags. Anything to demonstrate that even in hell, territoriality rules, okay?


I use the male gender here not just because the images are of men among men. The Mumbai local trains segregate men and women. There are “ladies compartments” and “ladies’ specials”. Women are not welcome in the “gents compartment”. If the women sit down, the space that accommodates four seated men shrinks to allow two men and a woman. If she stands, she creates a no-go zone around her. Most men try to respect that zone. A woman accompanied by a man creates the most problems. Here the man will demarcate the zone, often tucking the woman into the protective circle of the wall of the compartment and his outstretched arms. He must then bear the load of the other commuters and they must try not to exert too much pressure. Women are not welcome here. I will stay with the male gender.

I use the male gender here not just because the images are of men among men. The Mumbai

local trains segregate men and women
There are “ladies compartments” and “ladies’ specials”. Women are not welcome in the “gents compartment”. If the women sit down, the space that accommodates four seated men shrinks to allow two men and a woman. If she stands, she creates a no-go zone around her. Most men try to respect that zone. A woman accompanied by a man creates the most problems. Here the man will demarcate the zone, often tucking the woman into the protective circle of the wall of the compartment and his outstretched arms. He must then bear the load of the other commuters and they must try not to exert too much pressure. Women are not welcome here. I will stay with the male gender.

The commuter transgressor spends an hour like this, if his karmic sin is minor, two to three hours if it is not. He then works for eight hours or more and repeats the procedure in the reverse order, again and again, every weekday of almost every month of every year, until death or retirement

The commuter/transgressor spends an hour like this, if his karmic sin is minor, two to three hours if it is not. He then works for eight hours or more and repeats the procedure in the reverse order, again and again, every weekday of almost every month of every year, until death or retirement comes to claim him. You could imagine him in the role of Sisyphus, forever heaving the stone up the mountain, only to have it roll back down again. And yet, he counts himself among the fortunate. He has a job and a home and a mission. He has something to do and he will set out to do it every day. He has a position in society and he will fight to keep and protect it.

The faces in this portfolio of images are those of the victors. They are men who have managed to get something rare and privileged. They have each found a place to sit. The way in which they take the space, the way in which their faces dominate Chaudhuri’s frames allows you to imagine that they see themselves as conquistadors. It is a small conquest and to the outside, it may seem like an unimportant one. But if you have ever been a regular commuter, you will know that sometimes a window seat can seem like an epiphany, a loosely-packed compartment like a gift from the Gods themselves.

comes to claim him. You could imagine him in the role of Sisyphus, forever heaving the stone up the mountain, only to have it roll back down again. And yet, he counts himself among the fortunate. He has a job and a home and a mission. He has something to do and he will set out to do it every day. He has a position in society and he will fight to keep and protect it.

The faces in this portfolio of images are those of the victors. They are men who have managed to get something rare and privileged. They have each found a place to sit. The way in which they take the space, the way in which their faces dominate Chaudhuri’s frames allows you to imagine that they see themselves as conquistadors. It is a small conquest and to the outside, it may seem like an unimportant one. But if you have ever been a regular commuter, you will know that sometimes a window seat can seem like an epiphany, a loosely-packed compartment like a gift from the Gods themselves.

Perhaps this is why so many of them respond with interest as their images are being made. You can see in their eyes, a challenge to the camera, to the man behind the camera. You can see an abstract/ed awareness that they are now part of someone else’s visual world. Look carefully and you can see the question: is this about me? If it is, why is it? If it isn’t, why isn’t it?

Those whose eyes do not meet the imaginary eye of the camera or the eye of the viewer have found space for themselves in their own minds. For if the commuter has a job, he has a loan. If he has a loan, he can have another. This is the moment in which each man is Tantalus, eternally thirsty, eternally deprived; the car-as-personal space hovers, so close and yet so far away.

And then there is the self, and its extensions that conjure up another world. Your mobile phone may allow you to escape work; it may extend your work world into the space of your commute. Whether the commuter/transgressor is studying his hands or peering into the tiny screen of a phone, he’s looking into some aspect of himself. Here each man is Narcissus, studying himself and his reflection in the world of the virtual. The world of human interaction fades into Echoes.

But in these images, there is something essentially human. You have to be human to get to hell. Animals do not qualify. (The transportation of animals, we have been told ad nauseam, are governed by laws that do not apply to unreserved compartments and to commuter trains in this city.) The lack of self-consciousness means that hell is deprived of its greatest power: the awareness that one is in hell, the awareness that one is suffering.

Because if human beings invented God, then we invented Hell too. Dante anatomised it for us, producing in his Inferno, such a brilliant variety of punishments, that many people take this to have the same level of reality as the Judaeo-Christian holy books. This is because Dante devised punishments that suited the crimes. If we do not have a classical version of what constitutes the hell of commuting in Mumbai, that’s because no one has figured out the crime.

Perhaps this is why so many of them respond with interest as their images are being made. You can see in their eyes, a challenge to the camera, to the man behind the camera. You can see an abstracted awareness that they are now part of someone else’s visual world. Look carefully and you can see the question: is this about me? If it is, why is it? If it isn’t, why isn’t it? Those whose eyes do not meet the imaginary eye of the camera or the eye of the viewer have found space for themselves in their own minds. For if the commuter has a job, he has a loan. If he has a loan, he can have another. This is the moment in which each man is Tantalus, eternally thirsty, eternally deprived; the car-as-personal space hovers, so close and yet so far away.

And then there is the self, and its extensions that conjure up another world. Your mobile phone may allow you to escape work; it may extend your work world into the space of your commute. Whether the commuter/transgressor is studying his hands or peering into the tiny screen of a


phone, he’s looking into some aspect of himself. Here each man is Narcissus, studying himself and his reflection in the world of the virtual. The world of human interaction fades into Echoes.But in these images, there is something essentially human. You have to be human to get to hell. Animals do not qualify. (The transportation of animals, we have been told ad nauseam, are governed by laws that do not apply to unreserved compartments and to commuter trains in this city.) The lack of self-consciousness means that hell is deprived of its greatest power: the awareness that one is in hell, the awareness that one is suffering.

Because if human beings invented God, then we invented Hell too. Dante anatomised it for us, producing in his Inferno, such a brilliant variety of punishments, that many people take this to have the same level of reality as the Judaeo-Christian holy books. This is because Dante devised punishments that suited the crimes. If we do not have a classical version of what constitutes the


hell of commuting in Mumbai, that’s because no one has figured out the crime.

Not yet.

This introductory essay by Jerry Pinto appeared in the limited edition book “The Commuters” published in 2012.

To purchase a signed and numbered copy, write to me at c.chirodeep@gmail.com
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )
The Commuters (photo- Chirodeep )