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What Your Daily Commute Tells You About Your City

Ever since the pandemic, all of us have enjoyed the convenience of waking up two minutes before the morning briefing and getting on with our day. Alas, things weren’t so before, when morning briefings meant – waking up two-three hours before the reporting time, being in denial of your sleep deprivation, and slaving through your morning ritual to hastily get to your destination. The bridge between waking up and working is the inescapable monotonous routine of the daily commute.

The daily commute is the lifeblood of a city trying to understand itself. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your car stuck in traffic or waiting to get a seat in your metro coach. Because for the next hour, you’re stuck with people you don’t know. These are the people that steal your seat and push you while trying to get in. These are the people who take wrong turns and absurdly honk at an apathetic red light. 

While you’re waiting to get to work, you can’t help but let your mind wander off into thinking about everything from the last time you fucked up to the dread of the mind-numbing bureaucracy that waits for you at work. However, amidst this train of thoughts is an inevitable realization of the mutual animosity that exists between you and your co-passengers. Your next response to this, naturally, is to eavesdrop. 

A person stands, eavesdropping on snippets of conversation. Phrases like 'Poonam, please reply', 'Beta, Covid is a conspiracy' and Did you hear what her daughter did' are heard by the person.

So, as you sit in the metro, you look at the old man trying to figure out email sitting right next to you, you see a young boy trying to type out the perfect “Hi” to his crush on messenger. You also see the guy who’s on his way to coaching, re-adjusting his specs and getting back to his notes. As you see these people, what you’re really doing is weaving backstories about them. Your backstories are a mundane application of archetypes that you’ve grown up with. The kid with the well-oiled hair and specs needs to be studious and the guy trying to initiate a conversation with his crush must be a socially awkward guy. 

However, one month into the daily commute, you know your city much better. You know exactly the kind of aunties that will keep gabbing on about a daily soap and the people who will not wear earphones while watching reels on their phones. Then, of course, is the couple who’s just a tad too touchy in the corner of the metro coach and the uncle that will keep shouting at everyone he calls. You know you’ve got to stay away from them, the same way they’ve gotten tired of your frowning face they’ve met all too many times in every metro they board. While you pigeonhole these people into an archetype, they’re just as quick of doing the same to you as well. What started as animosity, transcends to something else. See? In the process of understanding this city, the city begins to understand you, too. 

A pie diagram titled 'In the metro' is divided into four parts. The first contains 'annoying uncles', the second 'annoying aunties', the third 'annoyed people like you' and the fourth part contains 'annoying couples'.

The daily commute in a car, however, is a lonelier affair. While the daily commute of public transport forces you to look outward and soak in the characters that thrive in your city, the solace of being in a car is almost the opposite. You’re stuck in a small space while trying to keep your eyes on the road. For the first time, you observe the rhythm of your body. You begin to know the force you need to keep on the clutch, when you should honk, when you should slow down. The laws of driving are – an oxymoronic lesson in co-existence. Here’s how to not get in the way of someone else, here’s how to not fall, here’s how to go faster, here’s when to slow down.

Person driving and thinking 'Was I wrong in last night's argument?"

You become more patient as a driver, more tolerant, and more aware of the delicate balance that you’re a part of. Public transport, on the other hand, is about the shared silence and the comfort of sitting in the back seat as you take pleasure in giving backstories to your co-passengers based on the role they physically fit in your marvellous daydream. Both means of transport, in a way, are trying to do one thing. They’re trying to connect you to not just your destination, but to your city, your city dwellers, and your surroundings that you think you know so well. 

Any long-time daily commuter will tell you about the rapidly changing face of a metropolitan city. The city’s childlike spirit is always trying to change its appearance. It imitates the West the same way we do. A daily commuter will see that a city that’s trying to understand itself, is a city suffering through an identity crisis. A city stuck in the rat race of trying to imitate the West and its skyscrapers, while the West tries to imitate the culture of a city that has an old soul. Much like the fleeting nature of a child’s heart, is the nature of the way we change the way our residential areas look, the way we build our skyscrapers, our malls, and how we see the reducing green pasture from one side of the city to another as we sit atop the city in our metro coach. 

A person frowns in front of the options of Ola,Uber and E-rickshaw. The person smiles when faced with the option of a metro.

While everything tries to change visually, the essence of a city remains distinct to the daily commuter as he sees Qutub Minar from the yellow line metro, and is welcomed with a whiff of the tastiest – albeit oiliest – Chole Bhature when he drops off at his station. A daily commuter ditches the cab to stay away from the traffic and soak in the changing landscape from Bombay’s beloved albeit crowded local trains. A daily commuter also chooses to take Calcutta’s metro rail and hangs on for dear life as he is equal parts scared of the century-old engineering and equal parts in love with the history of the city. 

Getting to know a city has the following checkboxes under it: tour guides, trip advisor reviews, Wikipedia pages and travelling through the city. The box travelling through the city is ticked.

So, the next time you’re traveling, remember to look up from your phone, unplug your earphones just for a minute to soak in the beauty and the secrets of your city, all from the comfort of your daily commute. 

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