True Life

Ladies’ Special

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Inside the ladies’ compartment of the Mumbai local is a world that is both strange and familiar, compassionate and vicious; where lives are saved by generous hands. Yet a girl who has fallen down could be trampled for blocking the entrance.
The electronic indicator reads ‘00’ minutes till the arrival of the next train. She pulls the pallu of her sari and tightens the grip over her purse. There is a slight commotion on the platform, bottled up restlessness struggling for release. She stands close to the edge of the platform, shiftily juggling the weight of her body from one leg to another. Her hands run over her bun, her wallet and her mobile phone, checking to see if they are securely deposited the way they should be.

As the train arrives around the bend, she glances around to see the women surrounding her, readying themselves with solemn faces. Their stance suggests they are gearing for battle; eyes fixed and hands morphed into fists. The train screeches to a stop, and, in an abrupt mad rush, bodies push bodies as those who have to alight and those who have to board charge at each other. Those trying to get off scream ‘jaane doh jaane doh’ (make way, make way) and those trying to get in scream ‘poori khali hai’- (the train is empty). The frenzy is all-consuming.

A stray elbow jabs into her ribs. She looks furiously at the owner of the elbow expecting an apology, but there is only indifference. There is more pushing and nudging. The wave of the crowd carries her into the compartment and deposits her in the middle of the corridor. Suddenly, the mood changes. The solemn, uninterested faces—and hers was one of them— are now smiling in recognition. The woman who jabbed her, pats her on her back and starts to talk about her mother-in-law.

The train starts to move and a thin strangled cry reaches them. A young girl is running towards the compartment. Four women standing at the gate extend their arms, their faces scared but determined, and they curse her even as they lift her inside. A dozen or so women have gathered around the young lady. Her saviours reprimand her. She looks ashamed as each of them recalls a scary episode of near- death, meant to serve as an example for her. The women around nod, and add to the swiftly-expanding pool of anecdotes with tragic endings.

The momentary excitement over, all the women settle themselves. Some fish out their earphones, some their books. Others take out bags of vegetables and start to prepare for dinner.

The women’s compartment of the Mumbai local train is a strange amalgamation; bringing together unlikely situations that range from intense to poignant. Anuradha Shankar, blogger and a seasoned commuter, recollects a journey two decades ago. She was then studying in Ruia College. One day, she reached college early, spent time in the library, and came out in time for her lecture to find just a handful of people standing outside the class. “Only then did I learn that riots had broken out in Bombay,” she says, referring to the 1992-93 violence.

Just then, the principal announced on the loudspeaker that college would be shut down. Anuradha immediately left for the station to get back home. She waited an hour; when there was no sign of a train coming, panic set in. Suddenly, there was an announcement that a fast train would stop as an emergency measure. However, it came on the other platform and she had to cross the tracks and by the time Anuradha reached, it was leaving. She ran and tried to jump in. “I might have fallen, and even died, had it not been for the women hanging from the doors who pulled me in, then berated me for doing something so stupid. ‘There will always be another train, no matter what!’ was something I heard over and over, and it is something I have never forgotten,” she says.

But there was more to the adventure. The train travelled smoothly up to Kurla where it stopped. They waited patiently for half an hour, but then people started getting restless. A few sensible women closed all the shutters and doors. A few thought about getting down and taking a bus, but the others told them that the train was a better option. Buses could be broken and set on fire. Besides, Kurla had a huge Muslim population and in that communal atmosphere they thought it wasn’t safe to get down. They kept sitting, tense with dread.

Suddenly, a couple of young girls returning from school started crying. They were the only Muslims in the coach and scared about how they would get home. A bunch of women calmed the girls down and told them they would make sure they remained safe. An hour later, the train started again. When it reached Thane, five to six women got down with the Muslim girls and escorted them home. “It was that day I truly started to rely on local trains. Not because of the administration or management, but because of the people in them,” says Anuradha.

The picture is not always this rosy though. Desperate times often inspire humanity in people, but on a normal day, the commuters on a local train are simply looking out for themselves. These are generous women but they are also looking to survive; sometimes, that turns them ruthless. Genevieve Lucien recounts one display of such callousness. A student of Sophia college, Genevieve takes the 8:19 Vasai- Churchgate Local every day. She was used to climbing into the train before it would halt at a station. This is a popular, if dangerous, tactic for securing a seat. “But that day my leg slipped as I jumped in. I fell flat on my face with my upper body in the compartment and my lower half on the station platform.” That a girl was lying down and could die didn’t seem to pose a problem for the other women. They started getting in as usual. “They were almost using me as a bridge between the platform and the compartment and stepping all over me,” she says.

Genevieve would have been shoved in the gap between the train and the station platform had it not been for the few women who had already entered. “They started yelling at the crowd. Three held the crowd back and two helped me up,” she says. And in the nick of time—because no sooner had she got up, the train started moving again. “If help had arrived even a second later than it did, I would have probably been dragged by the train across the length of the platform and probably lost a leg,” she says.

Inside a women’s compartment exists an alternative universe. It has its own rules, its own systems. Familiar faces become nameless friends who pour out their hearts to each other. Others become bodies with which to fight for a seat. A group of eunuchs can get into a compartment and demand money from its occupants with ease. It is also an accepted tradition to have them curse you and even touch you inappropriately if you refuse them the money. It is, however, not normal to see a eunuch using the compartment just to commute. When that happens, the commuters of an overcrowded train somehow manage to give the eunuch two seats all to herself. Anything to avoid the seat next to her.

Many years ago, a girl fainted on the footboard while travelling in a local. A eunuch was standing nearby and caught her before she could fall out of the train. With great effort, she kept her up, dangling halfway outside the train for about ten or more minutes till the next platform arrived. No one else offered to help. “They were most probably too terrified to, I know I was,” says Diksha Nainan who recalls the incident as she saw it about six years ago. “We did appreciate what the eunuch did but there was this silent understanding, a no-touch zone of a foot’s radius around her.”

A Google search for ‘‘eunuch and local trains’ comes up with an assorted set of links that only discuss the menace they cause on trains. Nothing about the stigma they face. This exists even in the greatest equaliser of all, a place where someone’s class, money, intelligence, looks, everything is neutralised by the fact that they are travelling together, looking for the very same thing: space.

Every system has its own bullies, just as it has its own chain of command. Regulars form groups and forcibly reserve seats while keeping out others even if they have a greater right to that seat. It happened to Barkha Menghani a 23-year-old executive who was harassed for close to a month on the 8:10 Ambernath-CST train that she uses regularly. A group of seven women would taunt her, sit on her lap and take pictures. This stopped when she lodged a complaint and made sure it was followed up by reaching out to the Railway Protection Force. The women were eventually fined for harassing the young professional.

One would expect such viciousness in a permanent space, like a college or a workplace—this is just a one- hour journey. But one hour is still a long time when you are forced to share a cloistered space with 500 others. Territories are marked, and fought for.

A group of eight women are sitting together. Four of them are professors. They boarded the train at CST. At Byculla two young girls, both dance instructors, join them. At Parel, another woman joins in. She is returning from a session with her prayer group and works for the community with a team of Sai Baba followers. At Dadar, they are joined by a business analyst who jumps into the train a little before it halts. She has a seat waiting for her and must grab it fast. The eight of them are ‘train friends’, treading together in that narrow passage of time between home and work. The Dadar seat is the biggest challenge for them. On most days they have to struggle to ensure it stays vacant for the business analyst.

That day, one of the dance instructors is teary-eyed. She has lost her phone, she reveals, and is promptly swallowed by a sea of questions.

“Phone kuthe padla?”(Where did you lose your phone?)

Tu tuza phone haravlas ki chorilagela?”(Did your phone fall or was it stolen?)

Heghe pani pi”(Drink some water)

The dance instructor accepts a bottle of water and replies, “Byculla madhe gela.”(I lost it in Byculla.)

The whole compartment seems interested. Everyone relates to the girl. The women are cursing all the men who steal phones. Some are cursing men in general.

The train reaches Dadar and the business analyst enters and is filled in on the latest happenings. She offers to give up a part of her bonus to the girl. The conversation then turns into a detailed comparison between different phones.

“Phone ‘switched off’ aa raha hai?” asks one of the professors. (Is the phone switched off?) The girl suddenly realises that she never tried calling the phone. She is offered a plethora of phones. Three phones are set to task to start dialling the number. Near the entrance, someone shouts—there is a phone lying there. The dance instructor rushes to the door. “Yehi hai,” she declares. (This is the one)

The women sitting near the entrance nod happily. Everyone pats her on her back.