Aboard the Pushpak Express

The man with neatly parted hair stood in the doorway of the hurtling train. And then, at the perfect moment, he jumped.

The vendor who has to perform dangerous manoeuvres to sell tea on the Pushpak Express

He glided like a rock climber across the train’s epidermis, from one foothold to the next. He reached the steel beam that connects the cars and crossed it like a tightrope. Then, having arrived at the next car, he hopped among more footholds and, at last, ducked inside to utter his sales pitch:

“Tea! Tea! Get your hot tea!"

Such acrobatics are not required of vendors on most of the world’s trains—nor even in this train’s cars in first class or second class. Those are ordinarily connected from the inside. But this was third class on the Pushpak Express, a $6 (Rs236), 24-hour ride ferrying migrants from India’s bleak heartland to the thriving coastal megalopolis of Mumbai. And in an echo of the ancient caste system, officialdom had judged it necessary to seal off these passengers from the compartments of the luckier-born.

These passengers are changing the world. In one of the greatest migrations in history, an average of 31 villagers are predicted to show up in an Indian city every minute for the next 43 years, according to a study by Goldman Sachs—700 million people in all. This exodus, along with China’s, has helped push the world over a historic threshold this year: the planet, for the first time, is more urban than rural.

Behind this shift are a handful of obscure routes that play a pivotal role: the buses from Hunan and Jiangxi provinces in south-central China to wealthy Guangzhou, for example, and the trains that link the desolate Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with India’s capital, New Delhi, and its financial centre, Mumbai. To ride the Pushpak Express from Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, to Mumbai is to witness this global metamorphosis writ small.

In Lucknow, the migrants had been waiting in silence on the platform—that is, until they heard the train roll in, clickety-clack. They surged to their feet and, with the train still decelerating, made for the doors. Mob rule erupted. Strangers pushed and pulled one another. An infant, clinging to her father’s back, was not spared flying elbows as travellers vied to fling themselves through the large metal doors.

Tranquillity was ultimately restored, and before long the train was lumbering towards Mumbai.

As evening surrendered to night, the passengers settled into position. Most were migrants, and most were men. Some sat upright on the wooden benches; others lay on the floor; a few climbed into the luggage rack near the ceiling to secure scarce personal space.

Wide-eyed new migrants mingled with hardened veterans. There were a handful of what the veterans call “new men"—first-timers to Mumbai. They were rarely older than 18, dispatched by families whose farms are struggling and who need a son in the big city to survive.

Sonu Gupta is 15. He looks more like 10, with his wiry body and close-cropped hair. He was travelling with a family friend from his village, which is a half-day drive from Lucknow. Should the friend find him work in Mumbai, Gupta will become his family’s main breadwinner. “I’m happy," he said in a shy voice, “and I’m scared."

A few berths down, 18-year-old Deepak Kumar, with light, watery eyes and dirt-stained fingernails, would not admit to being scared. But he had every reason to be, for he was a runaway with no hands to hold. His mother had died. When his father remarried, his stepmother came to see Kumar as a useless holdover. She beat him, he said: “She says to me, ‘You’re not my child’."

One day, while visiting an uncle in Lucknow, he got a phone call from friends who had moved to Mumbai. Realizing Kumar was unhappy, they urged him to come to the city. He declined. Then he called back three days later, on a Tuesday, to say he would be there by Friday night.

And so he boarded the train with the clothes he was wearing, an empty wallet and a cellphone SIM card. Like so many migrants to the City of Gold, as Mumbai is often called, he came with little but his own lofty hopes.

The old-timers know better than to bathe in hope. Alok Misra, seated across from Kumar, was going to Mumbai for the third time in six years. He recalled his own early Mumbai fever.

“You see in the movies ‘Bombay, Bombay, Bombay’," he said, striking a macho Bollywood pose every time he said the city’s name, which has officially been changed to Mumbai. “So people think, ‘I want to go to Bombay’." He came with dreams of being a Bollywood star. Instead, he found work as a parking valet.

“Dreams don’t go away in Mumbai," he said. “They just get smaller."

As the train sputtered through the countryside, one could detect the shifting geography of affluence. It was now clearer why so many desert the heartland for the coast. The terrain became greener. Commodities such as corn yielded to cash crops such as grapes. The average farm plot swelled in size. Thatched-roof shacks ceded to mansions.

The Pushpak is a peculiar train, swallowing heroes from the village and spitting them out as nobodies in the big city.

These migrants will become Mumbai’s anonymous, floating underclass: taxi drivers who sleep in their taxis, electricians who wait for days for a Rs80 job. The irony is that, in leaving the village, they are doing something heroic for their families—but the life they go on to lead feels anything but. Most inure themselves to the prospect of endless sacrifice: they toil so that others might eat. “I don’t live for myself," said Nowshad Ali, who has come 15 times to Mumbai since 1986 to work in a bakery.

Kumar, the runaway, was staring and listening to the veterans’ tales. At times, his eyes welled with tears. But he was not alone. Misra and his friends began to make him laugh.

One boy reached out and took Kumar’s hand into his own. Another told funny stories about their own foibles in Mumbai, as if to say: “We’ve gone through this. You will survive." (In fact, Kumar had a discouraging start in Mumbai. His contact failed to meet him at the station. This reporter gave him $12 for a room and wished him luck.)

This is the paradox of the Pushpak Express. Here was a train carrying passengers from the collectivist safety of the village and dumping them in the ruthless, anonymous city. But on board, for a final few hours, collectivism had its last hurrah.

To ride this train was to recall that India remains in so many ways a village nation: the effortless involvement of people in other people’s lives, the ceaseless generosity.

The migrants showed a strange kindness to those just a few shades poorer than they. Throughout the journey, a parade of beggars marched through third class.

There was little money to be had here, but it was also easiest to beg, because there were no conductors, as there were in the other compartments, to protect these travellers.

But when a beggar begs from the equally desperate, it requires special creativity. Two hours beyond Lucknow, a blind man’s voice began to waft through the car.

“Oh, my brothers, if you have no eyes, you have nothing," he moaned, putting his hand out. Nearly every migrant gave him a coin, something most upper-class Mumbai residents would hesitate to do.

Later, a shirtless man slunk like a snake into the compartment, moving prostrate across the floor. He was ridding the floor of garbage. Then he got up, and he, too, begged.

Later still, as the Pushpak left its penultimate station before reaching downtown Mumbai, three transsexuals boarded the train, wearing colourful saris. They pressed the migrants with special force, taunting them when they did not pay.

One man demurred: He had already given money to the transsexuals.

They corrected him. He had given to some other transsexuals, somewhere back in the countryside. They were Bombay transsexuals, and that was a different thing altogether.