I’m seated by the window, but my eyes tend to wander inside the train. Here I am this morning, probably the only person with no real agenda. Well, nothing but to marinate in the sights, smells and sounds around me.
It’s just like any other day here at the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local. Hurried footsteps, gaalis, crying babies and bollywood gossip echo through the packed compartment. While I sit here and marvel at the sheer magnitude of it all, the train picks up and drops off thousands of agendas – job interviews, final exams, the latest Shah Rukh movie – and moves on with casual indifference.
I challenge you to find another place on earth with more women per square foot than the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local. And yet somehow, it always seems to make room for one more. I notice the metal wall that separates the general and ladies compartment. Old, rusting metal sheets assigned the responsibility of holding back lusty gazes, wolf whistles, the ‘accidental’ brushing up against.
It dawned on me that it’s oddly tragic – that this packed compartment, where women run to cling onto the doors of moving trains, where they push, squeeze and cuss their way through a mammoth crowd, is the safest place so many would be in that day.
That many would dread leaving its safety to make their way to work, school and home. That once they stepped out, everyone would break out of their hypnosis and seamlessly adopt the rules of life outside the ladies compartment.
And like clockwork, dupattas would be pulled over chests, paces would quicken, lusty gazes would find a target. The young mother would be asked to cover up when breastfeeding. No one would make eye contact with the transgender.
The general and ladies compartment would mix into the endless horde we call Mumbai. Until the same time next morning.
You could say, that in its own way, the ladies compartment is a strong symbol of feminism. Or argue, that its very existence is a symbol of our backwardness. The ladies compartment is a potpourri of contradictions. One that simply cannot be dissected and analysed. One that’s meant to be observed, not understood.
And yet, you can’t help but feel strangely optimistic. That while India evolves its perceptions, beliefs and norms at the mercy of our gods, politicians and colony aunties, for a while every morning, hundreds of thousands of women live in the future.
A place where knees are bare, bra-straps show, and no one notices that your dupatta dropped off your shoulder. Young mothers nurse their children in public, the businesswoman closes her deal, the transgender does her make-up and young girls recite multiplication tables, all in the safety of an overflowing morning local.
And every day, the rusting old train between Borivali and Mumbai Central, races towards the future.
Photo source: New York Times
Inspired by Train Diaries by Anushree Fadnavis