At first glance, Kurla’s Platform 8 looks and sounds like any other high-traffic train station in Mumbai.
Commuters wearing backpacks over their chests shout orders of deep-fried vada pav at the snack stalls. Merchants pile burlap sacks of onions and potatoes near the pillar where the trains’ luggage compartments stop. The train approaches; a mob forms. Riders leap off well before the carriage slows to a stop. Limbs and bags entangle as new riders climb aboard.
Amidst the bustle, a unique rhythm emerges. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. The slender white canes of blind commuters lightly rap the ground, and the swarm of bodies parts ways to clear a path for them.
For the sightless and sighted alike, Mumbai—one of the world’s most densely populated cities—is a chaotic and overwhelming place. But people with blindness must move through this megacity without the advantage of spotting oncoming rickshaws, motorbikes, people, or the gaping gap between train and platform. Discrimination often keeps them from holding certain jobs, even if they qualify. So they adapt.
Many have done so in part by moving outside of central Mumbai. In Vangani, more than an hour away from Kurla Station by train, nearly 400 families with at least one blind relative have settled into a relatively safe and supportive community for the visually impaired—a place where open doors are the norm and neighbors regularly check in on each other. Each blind person carries an identification card with their personal details and the village council’s phone number in case of an emergency.
Satish Chanvakar Nagrekar, 50, moved here from Mumbai’s Mulund suburb a decade ago with his adoptive mother, Kaleka Uttam Avad. The family could no longer afford rent in the city, and, like the hundreds of others who have migrated here from across India, they hoped to find a better life and a cheaper cost of living. Kaleka, a sharp, chatty 75-year-old widow, soon arranged Satish’s marriage, and the three—all visually impaired—live together in a cramped two-room house.
One of Vangani’s main advantages is its connection to Mumbai’s urban amenities. A single-platform train station shuttles residents to downtown organizations, such as the National Association for the Blind, that offer mobility training, skill development courses and rehabilitation programs. And the station creates income opportunities that would otherwise be tough for blind families to access.
Satish, like many there who provide for their families, earns money by peddling trinkets on the city’s vast train network. Jobs are scarce for blind people in Vangani and Mumbai, and although some still hope to benefit from the one percent of government positions reserved for the visually impaired, most people wind up disillusioned by discrimination and bureaucracy.
Vangani’s blind community first formed in 1998, when local politician Ravindra Patil announced a program to provide free housing for visually impaired people. News spread quickly, and soon around four dozen families from across Maharashtra state moved there, according to Atul Jaiswal, an occupational therapist turned social worker who has worked in Vangani for two years.
But the promised housing never came. Rivals murdered the politician before his plans came to fruition.
Most of the blind migrants who arrived at that time were educated young adults. At 18, they had applied for jobs in their hometowns, but many were disqualified from or discriminated against in various positions. They were quick to pounce on the offer of free homes, but arriving in Vangani, they found themselves not only unemployed but also homeless. So many turned to train hawking.
From Satish’s home in Vangani, the train station is a 15-minute walk. Each morning, after finishing his chores at home, he strides along a dusty lane lined with one-room houses, over a small hill and past a provisions store, and finally through a vegetable market that yields to a path to the train tracks. He walks alone, using only his white cane to find his way.
An official message at the station blares through the speakers: “Please do not cross the railway tracks.”
Satish does it anyways. Without a pedestrian footbridge, it’s the only way to reach the platform. Atul, the social worker, led a recent effort to get the Central Railway authorities to build a footbridge here. In a petition he launched in late 2012, he warned of sightless commuters who lost their balance while crossing the tracks and fell. Anita Tai, a Vangani resident, lost a limb after a train ran over her hand; it had to be surgically amputated.
Central Railways agreed to build a footbridge in March 2013 after Atul’s petition gathered over 6,000 signatures. So far, a contractor has come to dig holes, but the construction workers haven’t shown up, Vangani residents say.
For now, blind commuters continue to take precautions. Most cross the tracks in pairs, or in a single-file line of three or more. The leader taps a cane back and forth to find the way, and the rest follow with one hand placed on the shoulder of the person in front. Others cross the tracks with a sighted guide—their children, a friend, or a neighbor—then travel on alone.
By memorizing the exact arrivals and departures of trains, individuals can figure out where to be and when in order to make their way into the city and back, and families know when to expect them home.
Satish always takes the 11:24 a.m. train to Mumbai. Wearing an empty black crossbody bag, he boards the handicapped car and folds his white cane. At 12:14 p.m., he arrives at Thane Station, where he hops off to meet with a wholesaler and fill his bags with goods to sell that day. He’ll spend the rest of the afternoon selling goods like hair accessories, cardholders, key chains, and packs of facial tissues on the rail lines between Thane and Kurla Station, a 27-minute ride in each direction.
At every other station along the way, he switches compartments. As the train nears a stop, Satish anticipates on which side of the compartment the platform will appear and positions himself as close to that side as possible. A change in pattern underfoot—from a raised crosshatch to more pronounced vertical lines—warns of the compartment’s edge.
For less experienced blind commuters, maneuvering from coach to coach is risky. Some slip into the gap between the train and platform. But Satish avoids this with careful movements. Stepping off, he puts one hand on the outside of the train while the other sweeps his cane on the platform: right, left, right, left, right, left. He drags his hand along the metal exterior until it finds the opening to the next compartment, just in time to climb aboard before the train leaves the station.
By 5:54 p.m., he makes sure he is at Kurla to catch his train home. An hour and nine minutes later, he arrives in Vangani.
Train hawking is hardly lucrative. At the end of the day, he usually profits about INR 150 (USD 2.50). Of that amount, INR 70 (USD 1.20) is set aside for rent each month. The rest of the family’s income comes mainly from government disability benefits and any assistance or donations from nearby churches that his mother and wife are affiliated with.
“I don’t always want to do the train job,” says Satish, who has ridden the rails almost every day for the last nine years. “It’s not always safe for us. Anything can happen at anytime.”
Some vendors do manage to leave the “cutlery business,” as hawking is called locally. Shankar Pawar, who is also blind, stopped selling on the trains six years ago. He is now a schoolteacher and working to start his own business.
We meet at Vangani Station on a recent Sunday, a school holiday. He folds his white cane and tucks it in the left pocket of his dark slacks, then clutches my right arm and nudges me in the direction of his village. Shankar teaches at eight public schools in rural Karjat and uses his well-developed intuition to travel the four train stops it takes to get there. “I teach blind children,” he explains. “All subjects—Braille, math, crafts…Hindi, English, Marathi, the languages.”
He says it’s easy to navigate the trains because he lost his eyesight as a child due to an infection. (His mother used traditional herbal medicine rather than the modern variety. It didn’t work.) He has since mastered his other senses. “By now, I’m used to it. I listen to everything.” Listen for when the whole train has passed to know when it’s safe to cross, he instructs. Listen to conversations to sort out different languages, accents, and patterns of speech, to discern between first- and second-class carriages, and to distinguish ladies-only from general. Always listen.
Shankar makes it clear that he is not a fan of train hawking. On top of teaching, he is trying to open a candle factory that would make small, thin wax sticks like the ones that top birthday cakes. He already has connections with wholesalers that could stock the candles in Mumbai malls, but his teaching salary is just INR 7,000 (USD 116) a month and not enough to start the operation.
Various non-profit and state-run organizations have offered to provide him with financial support. But none have followed through yet. “People just come to take pictures, ask questions, then just leave,” Shankar says. “The idea is there, but the money is not.”
We return to the train platform after our walk. He releases my arm and unfolds his cane.
“The train has come,” he announces. I look left. A train appears in the distance, though it’s not audible until a good seven seconds after Shankar spoke. Asked how he knew it was coming, he laughs. “My concentration is better than yours.”