It is approaching the hour of twilight. The battlefield is long and elevated. Every inch of it is packed with clusters of chattering warriors. One can even spot separate clusters of female warriors, amazons primed for battle. The infantry seems to be divided on various lines. It is possible at sight to make out the higher ranks, while others appear to be burdened with heavy loads on their backs. There are frequent glances at a bunch of red lights on a screen overhead. Warriors crane their necks as if expecting the occurrence of a spectacle, never to have been seen before. But wait. Suddenly there is a buzz in the air. The atmosphere is electric. From one end of the battlefield, warriors start backing off and suddenly all these mighty gladiators take a few paces back. A low rumbling sound is heard. As the sound grows louder, the tension in the air increases.
As the sound becomes deafening, fists are clenched and teeth are gritted. All the combatants are on their toes by now. Suddenly the object of desire is seen. It is a long chariot. No, it is actually a series of smaller chariots each connected to the other. As the chariots arrive to a halt, war cries are heard all across. Realization dawns. This is not just the arrival of a string of chariots but is in fact the signal for the commencement of war.
The first battle of the war is to acquire control of the moving chariots. A part of the army from inside has already pounced upon the forces on the battlefield. Like lambs driven for a slaughter, the ground forces are momentarily pushed back. But before the soldiers from the chariots can drive home this advantage, the ground forces are buoyed by men shoving with all their might from behind. A stream of combatants pours out of the chariot, ready to resume warfare elsewhere as the rest try to hold their ground by the doors of the chariots. No sooner is this over than fierce warriors from the battleground attempt to force their way through the ranks, into the chariot. Even before all the troops can steady themselves, and as many more are still seeking their way inside, the chariots start moving. There are shrieks and cries abound as there are many warriors who have been unable to pull their gear in with them. Even more tragic is the tale of those, whose equipment makes it in without them. But brave soldiers that they are, they gamely hang on as the chariot picks up speed. With a swell in the chariots velocity, all animosity lies forgotten as irrespective of one’s physical condition, religion, caste or colour everyone psyches up for the next battle within the series of interconnected chariots.
A word here about those defeated souls who have failed in the first battle. Yes they have been vanquished but not in the mind. Like true warriors, whatever the odds, there is no turning back. In a few minutes, another battle will begin…
Once inside the chariot, all slates are wiped clean. Previous allies and enemies are fast forgotten. A new battle has begun. Its objective is simple, to make room for oneself. The early birds, those fortunate few who managed to penetrate the defenses first squeeze space for themselves. Some warriors prefer not to be drawn into this conflict and instead indulge each other to determine who gets to stand in the chariots doorway. This is a not a task for the light hearted, one fraught with grave danger. But for the majority, their next scuffle is to be seated within the chariots. Gear is hastily disposed off on the shelves lining the upper walls. Whether a combatant gets to rest on these invaluable few seats is determined by ones skills in the matter, often honed by invaluable years of experience. It is not uncommon to see a veteran beat a rookie to a spot from an unfavorable location, using his superior wiles. Here the victor and the vanquished stay in sight of each other and it is not uncommon for them to engage in a verbal spitfire following their skirmish. But it is only the true champions who manage to attain the greatly coveted holy grail of the warriors, a place by the window of the chariot.
A relative period of calm follows. Sheets of paper are produced to read and there is much murmuring. In the true spirit of war, fellow warriors often doze off on each others shoulders. However, not everyone is so agreeable. Often there are internal clashes, but these are soon looked over as talk veers to a strange game of spheres and wooden planks played by two groups of flannelled fools on which everyone seems to have an opinion to express. Some warriors prefer to read while others still twiddle their thumbs on small rectangular objects that emit strange sounds and are put to their ears from time to time.
But this is merely the lull before the storm. Another battle is about to begin as every warrior will alight at a particular battlefield according to his or her mission. Combatants stuck in the far ends of the chariots have great difficulty in dismounting. But in the enterprise of brotherhood, previous enemies have now become allies and they are presented with their gear and helped towards the way out by others who have to travel further. An entire battalion thus awaits to alight on the battleground. Once again there are pushes and shoves, and angry stares that would make lesser men queasy are exchanged generously. Muscles are flexed and fists are clenched as the velocity of the chariots decreases.
Finally, the long battlefield is in sight once more. Patience is not a virtue to be savored by these fine soldiers, as before the chariots can draw to a halt, combatants are already leaping on to the sea of bodies waiting to get inside. War cries float around again. Some lose their footwear while others still are trampled upon. But in a few seconds, the chariots are once again in motion where other hostilities have resumed.
These battles are unique to the city of Mumbai and they occur unfailingly at dawn and dusk. They become a part of the lives of the young and the old, the rich and the poor, teachers and disciples, parents and their brood. Differences are forgotten in this cesspool of bodies as everyone comes together to fight the war on the local trains.