Photograph by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images
Photograph by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

The citizens of Mumbai are a cynical, jaded lot, both energized and worn out from the never-ending large and small Darwinian struggles that come with being a mass of 20 million people condemned to a patched-up, humid, swampy set of islands where life always seems to run at 36 frames a second. They work long hours, and then even their leisure involves jostling and scheming in long queues for space in a park, cinema, promenade or eating house. To Mumbaikars, the greatest human virtues are street smarts, speed and skepticism. They frown upon weakness and slowness; nothing surprises them -- except someone else’s innocence -- and they prefer to camouflage their excitement with irony. But even the most hardened souls have their blind spots.

And so it came to pass that thousands flocked to a distant, decrepit eastern flank of the city at dawn last Sunday. There, strangely feverish and restless, they pushed and shoved in yet another queue for the privilege of being the first people in the history of the city to be ingested for a few minutes by a large, slow-moving, bubble-gum-pink caterpillar: the new Mumbai monorail, the first of its kind in India.

First in line was Sunil Khade, from the far northern suburb of Nallasopara, who claimed to have arrived at the station at 1 a.m. Behind him was Abhishek Chopra. Khade was the first to buy a ticket. But, as the Mumbai tabloid Midday reported, Chopra later claimed -- with an intense conviction that reveals much about the city's competitive culture -- that though he was second in line, "he managed to enter the monorail first.”

It was Tuesday by the time I, a lapsed Mumbaikar, winged it down to the city from New Delhi, and I was only among the first 40,000 people to take the monorail -- but probably the first man to ride it who is six feet tall, has written a novel and ate butter chicken for dinner the previous night. Getting to the station, I joined hundreds of other first-time visitors in the silent crowd's contemplation of certain perplexing questions. (No Mumbaikar likes to let on that he or she doesn't know something.) What kind of track was this, a strange cross between a road and a rail? Where were the wheels of the train? And why were the doors closed, eliminating the possibility of storming the train before it had stopped? (This is the Mumbai way of trying to find a seat on the city’s fantastically overcrowded commuter train system, which carries more than 7 million passengers daily. A recent newspaper report asked what every visitor to the city immediately thinks: “When can we travel like humans?”)

The monorail has a declared capacity of just 560 passengers per train, but many more excited Mumbaikars than that swarmed through the gates and onto the platforms on the opening day, taking selfies all the while. Several times, the doors wouldn’t close, and security personnel had to intervene to jettison some disgruntled souls. The sights on the 9-kilometer (5.6-mile) journey from Wadala to Chembur were well worth the investment of time and an 11-rupee (16-cent) ticket. Beneath me, there passed a strange, almost apocalyptic landscape: gas refineries, salt pans, marshes and mangroves -- and the craned necks of people looking up from the streets below. The crush inside the coaches was familiar to every commuter; what was disturbing was a strange new sizzle on the skin, a visceral pleasure so unconnected to train travel it became transformed immediately into a kind of panic.

It was the first time that any commuter train in Mumbai has offered air conditioning.

Jointly constructed by the Indian engineering firm Larsen & Toubro Ltd. and the Malaysian monorail specialist firm Scomi Rail, the Mumbai monorail represents the arrival, decades overdue, of a modern mode of urban transport in the medieval, traffic-choked transport system of one of the world’s most densely packed metropolises. Its impact in terms of real numbers will, in truth, be slight.

Even when its second phase is completed and it becomes the world’s second-longest monorail system at 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), it will still ferry a little more than 100,000 passengers a day, a small blip on Mumbai’s transport charts. When finished, it will primarily serve as a feeder linking up stations on the three major suburban commuter lines that ferry millions of passengers every day. Some transport experts have asked whether it was a good idea to invest so much money in such a small-scale system, and at least one made a convincing case that what the city needs is a less capital-intensive rapid-transport bus system.

And then there’s the question of land, especially the land beneath an elevated transport system built primarily because no land is available for new surface-transport solutions. A recurring feature of Mumbai’s public sphere is the ascription of a real-estate-based conspiracy theory for all new infrastructure projects and changes in government policy -- a cynicism rooted in excellent foundations. For years there have been murmurs about the decision to set up the first line across a relatively thinly populated, underdeveloped part of the city, thus far untouched by railway lines. "The line would seem to be unnecessary because it travels through vast swathes of swamp land," Mridula Chari wrote on the website Scroll.in.

That, it would seem, is precisely the aim of the project. What the monorail does effectively is open up the empty eastern section of the congested metropolis to real-estate developers. In a seemingly unrelated move, the official in charge of this part of Mumbai passed an order at the beginning of January that could pave the way for homes and offices to be constructed on the 3,000 acres of tidal salt pans here.

I wouldn’t rule out the validity of the theory of the monorail as yet another instance of Mumbai's politician-builder nexus at work. But the experience of taking it is already so different from any other commuter experience in Bombay that it’s not unreasonable to hope that the monorail’s order and grace will eventually impact the larger transport culture of the city, moderating its present hysteria, chaos and violence -- one that claims more than 3,000 lives every year in train accidents.

A hilarious Photoshopped picture was soon making the rounds on social media showing what might soon be visited upon the monorail -- but it attested, too, to the city’s disbelief that its transport systems and commuter culture can ever be changed or improved. But with a new metro also in the works, even if progressing at a snail’s pace, it became possible this week to imagine a mass rapid-transport system that will belatedly drag Mumbai into the 21st century -- and, in time, create a whole new relationship between desperately overcombative commuters and the unforgiving city.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.