The ‘passwallahs’ of Mumbai’s far suburbs are now virtually the stuff of legend. Sirus J Libeiro shares a train ride with a friendly, busy lot
Early mornings at Virar station are neither quiet nor deserted. Before the office-going commuters give the train its eponymous ‘Virar Fast’ look, there is another movement afoot. As bundles of flowers, banana leaves, and other produce arrive, it hardly feels like 3am in a distant Mumbai suburb.
I grew up in Virar listening to tales of the ‘passwallahs’—of grandparents, parents, and relatives who travelled into the city to sell milk, vegetables, and agricultural products. These people, named after the ‘pass’ or the season train ticket, would set off very early from the villages to make it in time to supply their urban customers. Today the children of the passwallahs still travel to the city, but not with produce. More education, rapid urbanisation of Vasai-Virar, and low returns and high uncertainty in agriculture has transitioned the new generation firmly into Mumbai’s service industry. This leaves us with just stories of a time that once was, and difficult lives once led.
When I heard that there were still a few passwallahs who travel to Mumbai, I decided to accompany them. I set out at 2.30am from one of the villages. The silence of the vacant streets, where dogs reign supreme, was broken by an occasional auto-rickshaw or a tempo carrying ‘maal’ to the railway station.
At the station, I introduced myself to one passwallah, and once the your-neighbour-is-married-to-someone-from-my-village level of familiarity was established, I was welcomed to accompany them. They were surprised I was doing this. Our first stop was the Meenatai Thackeray Flower Market, which was bustling with activity when we reached it at around 5am. The wholesale market is a delight to wade through, but I stuck to my group who sit in one of the side lanes selling locally grown flowers. From there, I walked to Dadar station, to meet more passwallahs selling vegetables and bananas, huddled along one street under the bridge. Many chais were drunk that morning as I hung around watching them solicit customers with the ‘Vasai produce’ brand.
As the sky brightened over the towering buildings, the morning haze cleared and the city grew louder. The office-going crowd started appearing in the lanes outside the station. It was 7am. The passwallahs would stay for a while longer, trying to sell all their maal. After that, it was time to go home.