In the picture, Case No. 288 is lying on Track 5. He’s wearing a white shirt neatly tucked into his grey pants. He has a crew cut and a clean-shaven face with a thick black moustache. His face, resting to the left on a bed of ballast, has been severed at the neck; guillotined.

Bits of flesh hang out. His eyes, open but lifeless, are staring past the wires of Kurla’s train system into the empty nothingness of Mumbai’s suburban sky. In the picture, a crowd has gathered, yet they stay clear of the man’s torso and head. A finger in the picture points to blood splattered on the tracks. The train had continued to Sion, the next station. No one ever wipes the blood off the lines.


Case No. 288. We don’t refer to them by names here,” said the hefty police officer. We were sitting in a small room at the Government Railway Police (GRP) station, Kurla. There is barely any space to move but somehow five of us have crammed in. The police officer was noting down complaints from an old man in a white kurta whose nephew had fallen off the train on to the tracks. He’d been rushed to the hospital in Sion with a severe concussion.

“Two eighty-eight isn’t special,” the officer says. Just yesterday, they found a woman in a purple sari with a pink blouse, lying face down in the shrubs next to the tracks. She had been there for days; worms had disfigured her face, erasing her identity. Nobody had come looking for her; nobody had been called by the cops. In the logbook of cases, she was just one of the dead; a name replaced with a number. “At least 288 had been given a timely funeral.”

In a voice loud enough for the people outside to hear, the officer said, “This is a human butcher shop.”

Sometimes officers, stationmasters, and hammals (porters) have to pick up body parts thrown across and along the tracks: an arm here, a leg there. It has to be done with care and speed. Mumbai’s trains can’t afford to stop for the dead. Everyone agrees that without the railways, the public would go berserk. When the trains stop, so does the city.

“At least 288 went in a good way,” the policeman says, walking out.

This is a human butcher shop.

Case No. 288 was Raju Vittal Wangde. The day he died, he was one of the 2.1 million people who take Mumbai’s suburban trains every day: to work and home, to shop and deliver, to date and dance, to live and die.

***

There’s a reason why Kurla is called ‘death station’,” says stationmaster Lakhan Lal Meena. Kurla has the unfortunate distinction of witnessing the highest number of deaths due to accidents on Mumbai’s suburban network. Wangde’s death, like the deaths of many before and after him, is unspectacular, commonplace. It’s reduced to a figure inside the Kurla stationmaster’s log of deaths, filed away in a pink folder.

January: 19 dead; February: 13 dead; March: 29 dead; April: 26 dead; May: 28 dead; June: 15 dead; July: 28 dead; August: 27 dead.

“It’s become routine for us. Our heart, our soul, has died,” says Ram Krishna Nandanwar, stationmaster on duty on September 2, the day of Wangde’s death. He is seated in the control room of Kurla railway station, on the second floor of a crumbling building off Platform 1.

Layers of lemon-yellow paint have chipped off the walls, revealing different coats of paint underneath. A small computer monitors train activity, but all eyes are on the massive Route Relay Interlocking machine that has monitored train traffic in and out of the station for over 50 years.

“Not much has changed here,” says the deputy stationmaster as he turns knobs on the control panel. “People died before, they continue to die now.”

Nandanwar tries to get in as many words as possible between phone calls alerting him of impending train arrivals. Kurla station runs two different lines: the Central line and the Harbour line. On any given day, around 1,00,000 people use the station, making Kurla a hub in the North Mumbai network.

On the morning of September 2, Nandanwar had just arrived at the station. He was standing opposite his locker in the spartan office, unbuttoning his shirt to change into his white uniform, when a passenger came running and yelled for help.

“Someone is dead,” he shrieked, jolting the stationmaster into action.

First he called the control room, ordering an announcement that would alert the GRP and the porters. The policeman on duty stationed on Platform 4 and the porters carrying the stretcher from Platform 6 made their way to the stationmaster’s office. It was a familiar routine in Kurla, a morbid ritual of resignation at the “death station”.

The porters would carry the victim and police would take down the details of the incident. Trailing behind them was the stationmaster’s assistant Kashi Ram, who carried the first aid box and flags that would signal an incoming train to stop. The passenger who had come yelling for help had disappeared.

The group of seven—four porters, the stationmaster and his assistant, and the policeman—proceeded towards Track 5.

They jumped off the platform on to the track and walked until they saw a crowd of about 100 people gathered near the 15/20 kilometre mark. A train was slowly pulling in and the assistant waved his flags for it to stop, increasing the number of spectators and delaying the outbound train to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

Once the police had logged the time, the porters got to work.

***

Police Constable P. G. Chavan was nearing the end of his 12-hour shift when he heard the announcement. He knew—despite being on the job for just one year—that someone had died. Morning and evening rush hours see the largest number of deaths.

He walked next to Nandanwar and kept an eye on the porters, sizing them up, assessing whether they were high as they walked to the spot. He double-checked to see if his mobile had enough battery life left. He used his phone to take pictures of the accident scene; the file where names were replaced by numbers required it.

“Nothing to see here,” he yelled to the gathered crowd.

Click.

“Don’t you think you can go the same way? Go!” he hollered.

Click.

One of the porters had taken out the dead man’s wallet and retrieved his driving licence for the police.
After filing the report, the constable went out on a mission to find Wangde’s house and spoke with his sisters. The elder brother, he was told, had already appeared on the scene.

***

Over the course of a few days, an image of the hammal, the porter, begins to take shape. Stationmaster Lakhan Lal Meena reclines in his chair, pressing index finger and thumb together before bringing them to his lips. “Charsi, all charsi, bewadas. (Dopers, all dopers, drunkards.) This is who we have to deal with,” he thunders.

Many of the Railway staff liken the porters to miscreants, unreliable and uncouth, always stoned or drunk and living off other people’s suffering to fuel their addiction. Many railway employees complain about the need for licensed porters, grumbling about how the unlicensed porters would skive off whenever needed.

“Sometimes we have to pick up the dead,” complains Meena. Several other stationmasters point fingers at the Railway authorities for providing such a shoddy service.

The police adopt a more enlightened attitude.“What sort of man likes to pick up dead people for a living? What sort of person do you have to be to do that job?” asks an officer. “Would you not take drugs, drink a bit, to survive such dehumanising work for a mere Rs. 100 per body?”

The day that Wangde died, four hammals had responded to the death announcement: Akbar, Shethi, Bangali, and Vinod.

What sort of man likes to pick up dead people for a living? What sort of person do you have to be to do that job.

In search of the porters, I first meet a man who goes by Papa: a young man in a tight T-shirt with a buffed up body. Once, he too was a hammal living on Platform 6, picking up dead bodies to survive, but now he’s moved on to cleaning the station instead.

Papa has seen his share of dead; he once picked up a woman’s fingers from the tracks and then realised no amount of money was worth the job. Sometimes, when cleaning doesn’t pay enough, he carries vegetables and fruit but he never does body-work again.

“Those are desperate acts for desperate men,” he says.

Papa speaks on behalf of Bangali because he’d “raised” Bangali. When Bangali arrived at Kurla station he was a scatty mess; his hair was matted and he hadn’t showered for days and smelt awful. He didn’t know where he was from. He had nowhere to go.

Bangali is, and was, a drifter and so the boys on Platform 6 took him in. He is a short man, no taller than five feet, with stripes of black, white, and mehendi red in his hair. When we meet, he is wearing a bright orange T-shirt with cargo pants. His laugh is jittery and his eyes dart left and right.

It was Bangali who had fished out Wangde’s wallet that contained the driving licence. “The family members don’t even want to touch the dead,” he says.

Akbar was the second porter to respond. When he saw Wangde’s body on the floor, he recalls feeling hurt; this man must have a wife, children, he thought. “This need not happen. If only they closed the doors, if only they put fences to stop trespassers,” he says, shaking his head.

Akbar has been working at Kurla Station for five years, sleeping on Platform 6, and at times he’s picked up bodies in the wee hours. Even then during the morning rush, people kick to wake him up. “We’re here because we don’t have other options,” he says.

So Akbar does the job that most wouldn’t. He’s the one who picked up Wangde’s head, despite the gush of blood that stained his clothes. For this he was paid ₹100.

The porter’s job doesn’t end with carrying the body to the ambulance. It is the hammal who has to wait until the police officer writes his assessment of the case, and it is he who will have to wait outside the hospital until the coroner has done his work.

Unsurprisingly, the hammals have complaints. Not all of them are drug addicts or drunkards. So what if some smoke a bit of hashish, nurse a toddy in the late hours; don’t they do their job well, they ask. They would like a room, of which there are so many to spare at the station, to sleep in. The Railways, however, refuses to house them.

They would also like to have identification cards; they would like a bit of respect.

“Just because we’ll clean the final mess doesn’t mean we’re any less human,” says Akbar.

***

Moments after Akbar had lifted the head, he recognised the face. This was no stranger. He was a local resident who crossed the tracks often; he was the temple florist’s youngest brother. The woman who tended to the tracks recognised him too. She walked to the florist but stopped short of revealing the full story to the dead man’s young nephew. She asked him to call his father but the child came too.

“Let me through, I’m family,” the nephew shouted. He had come running from the temple that abutted Platform 1. The station was crammed; people walked into each other without regard. He ran past the officers to the police station. A crowd, the infamous “public”, had gathered in a suffocating heap. He pushed past people but no one let him through. A woman held him by the shoulders—she said it was no scene for a young boy—but he fought out of her grip. When he finally pushed to the front, he saw the silver stretcher and a body covered with a cloth, and he realised that his uncle was, in fact, dead.

***

Nobody stands and watches for long if there isn’t any drama,” he tells me under the shade of the temple. It’s just started raining and the Kurla station is awash with activity. People are splashing through small puddles, dodging the honking autos and rows of buses and taxis. Many of the street vendors are feverishly moving their wares: carrying shirts, socks, and spices under the shelter of the temple, inside which some are praying.

That day, he says, his father asked him to leave but the boy refused to follow orders and watched from a distance. The police needed Datatre Vittal Wangde to identify the body and they would then crosscheck it with the driving licence. They peeled off the white cloth to the sound of gasps from the gathered public. The nephew vomited. “He’s not been the same since,” Datatre tells me.

Datatre works at the temple selling flowers. His family’s life revolves around the station; home is a mere five-minute walk away. But the area has changed; over the years it got filthier and lost its innocence with the avalanche of addicts and drunkards. “This death is the final straw. I have to take my son away. Kurla is not good for us anymore,” he says.

***

Rumours about Wangde started making rounds at the police station, in the market, and at the stationmaster’s office. Some said Wangde had committed suicide. Others said he’d had too much to drink and had lost his balance on the tracks. The suicide rumours don’t abate: many claimed that such a clean cut—the severing of head and body—is too perfect to just be an accident. The police allege that if he had fallen off the train or tripped on the tracks, there would be other cuts too.

However, the family claims otherwise. They say there was no reason for Wangde to commit suicide and if he had done so, he would have left a note for his wife and two children.

Instead, he had woken up that morning as he had done every day before that, and had crossed the tracks to work. Wangde worked as a truck driver and his shift started at 9 a.m. His wife, Rani Wangde, is inconsolable. “Who will look after us?” she asks repeatedly, as a widow with no source of income. “At least the Railways are kind enough to join the head to the body,” she adds.

The family say they can’t just go on with their lives as if it never happened. “He’s my brother, not just yesterday’s vegetable so that I can forget the pain,” says Wangde’s sister. Meanwhile, a lawyer approached Datatre at the police station and offered his counsel. He would fight the case that would bring the family a token amount of Rs. 4 lakh. Word on the street is that the money is hard to come by, and that the Railways tries its hardest to not dole it out.

Datatre shrugs. “They paid Rs. 400 for the porters, Rs. 700 for the ambulance. They didn’t help with the funeral; they didn’t even ask the ambulance to drop him back. This is the Railways system of India, we expect no more.”

***

The stationmasters are fed up too. The public always blames them. They are expected to be able to act but with a monthly budget of Rs. 2,500 for accidents and emergencies, how much can they do? Should there not be a doctor at Kurla, a stationmaster asks, given that this station sees the largest number of fatalities? What about the ambulance? The one that serves Kurla is parked at Ghatkopar and it takes at least 10 minutes to arrive.

“There is a golden hour during which lives can be saved, but we seldom make the most of it,” says one stationmaster.

When the Railway authorities meet, they almost never invite the stationmasters to the meetings but instead deliver minutes that the stationmasters have to enforce.

“But we’re the bad guys because we’re the ones in uniform,” says Lakhan Lal Meena.

Nandanwar adds, “Frankly, I’m scared of the public. There are only 10 of us but 1,00,000 of them.”