About 7.5 million Mumbaikars rely on the local trains to get to and from work. Journeys are typically uncomfortable, noisy and sweaty. But anyone who has ever been on a train in Mumbai will tell you it’s the best way to get to know the city’s heart, to witness its gritty underbelly and experience the struggle associated with life in the city. To say only the fittest survive isn’t even hyperbolic; there are about 2,000 recorded deaths on Mumbai trains each year.
Anushree Fadnavis is one of Mumbai’s commuting millions. The daily grind leaves most numb; journeys become a blur, sounds become muted and fellow travellers melt into a faceless mass. But Fadnavis spends each journey hyper-aware of the human stories that surround her, documenting them on her Instagram project #traindiaries.
“I enjoy shooting daily life and people,” she says. Ladies asleep on their way home from work, girls doing each others’ hair, a fish monger sorting out fish, a family taking their goat home or men reading prayer books on the early ride to work. In the Mumbai context these are all mundane scenes but Fadnavis is adept at bringing out the poetry in them. Her images aren’t just about individual moments or faces, but successfully highlight the underlying ethos of the Mumbai trains and offer a specific insight into the subculture that has developed in the ladies’ compartments.
All local trains in Mumbai have a few bogies reserved only for women, which were introduced to try and offer women commuters relative safety and comfort. Most women wouldn’t dare enter the other general/unisex compartments; they are more crowded and sexual harassment is rampant. The only commuters who traverse both the general and ladies’ compartments are girls or women with a male companion, vendors (who sell hair accessories, clothing, snacks and other knick knacks) and transexuals.
Hijdas or transgender women appear quite often in Fadnavis’ work. They have a very peculiar place in Indian culture; marginalised, misunderstood and feared, yet believed to have the power to grant wishes or curse. They live on the fringes of society and are denied employment opportunities which means many are destitute. In Mumbai, the local trains have become their playground of sorts, where they beg for money, sell things or just hang out in the ladies compartments, sometimes making their way into Fadnavis’ photographs. “I want to know more about their lives. Why they are doing what are doing. And how the society treats them,” she says. “They love being in front of the camera but they want to know why I am taking their picture.” Over the years, some have become friends which allows her intimate access to a community that is visible yet distant.
As a day job, Fadnavis works at a news agency as a staff photographer, which means she usually has a photography kit with her when traveling. But handling bulky equipment in the packed train compartments would make her presence overly obvious. So she prefers using her phone camera to capture fleeting moments that may be missed in the time taken to navigate a crowd with a large camera. On occasion, this has allowed her to capture some pretty gruesome accident scenes and misshaps that are rarely documented.
Anushree Fadnavis has been using Instagram to tell the story of Mumbai’s trains for about four years now. Her love for her subject matter is quite apparent and perhaps explains the emotional responses her pictures receive from followers. She’s amassed over 90k followers, but is quite unmoved by follower counts. “I think people have been kind enough to follow me and my stories,” she says unassumingly.