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From Confused to Confident

By Meenakshi Verma Agrawal

Riding the Mumbai Locals-Ladies Style


Sitting on the commuter rail in Boston, I suddenly became very aware of my personal space. A woman sat next to me, and I immediately moved away to make sure she wasn’t sitting too close. It brought me back to riding the local trains in Mumbai, where personal space was a foreign phenomenon. Riding the Mumbai locals ladies’ compartments can open adventurous minds to the differences between genders, the joy of proximity and the complexity of public transportation in India.

After spending 27 years of my life in the United States, I moved to Mumbai for two years to work for a non-profit organization called AVSAR India (Alliance of Volunteers for Service, Action and Reform). The organization recruited volunteers to work in Mumbai for local organizations and part of my job was to orient volunteers (mostly from America or Canada) to Mumbai. This experience led to my discovery of the wonderful world of the local trains of Mumbai.


Photo by Deepti Gupta

The train lines in Mumbai run north to south with some variations. The three lines are the Western, Central and Harbour lines. It has been observed that at present about 5,000 people cram into trains with the capacity to carry only 1,700 passengers. The suburban railway began operation in 1857 and is considered the oldest railway in Asia. Total ridership is estimated at 6.1 million daily.

The dubbas or ladies’ compartments are at the front, middle and end of each train. It’s easy to find the dubbas at the train station because you see a multitude of blood red, peacock blue, lime green and haldi yellow on saris, jeans, tops, purses and shoes. The ladies’ compartments were most likely created to save women from various forms of sexual, visual and verbal harassment that one of mixed genders could bring. Although Mumbai is quite safe (generally speaking), it’s always safer for a lady to retie her sari, put on make-up or gossip with the gals without the roving eyes of their male counterparts. The ladies’ compartments are still usually not large enough to accommodate the waiting crowd of ladies, so where you sit or stand usually impacts your experience on the train.

Standing in the breeze of the doorway of the train provides anonymity of the best kind. I once saw a young woman crying there. She wasn't weeping, but there were big tears rolling down her round cheeks. I wanted to say something, but it felt like she needed to be alone and anonymous in that crowd. Perhaps someone had broken her heart at Churchgate (south Mumbai) and she needed the ride to gather her thoughts before going home to her family in Andheri (a suburb of Mumbai).

When the trains are crowded, averting your eyes is difficult because you can only look at the person squashed up against you (or, more specifically, you can look at her hair, arms, sari, cell phone, purse or whatever is directly in sight). Pieces of flesh (butts, breasts, thighs, arms, knees, elbows) are haphazardly forced upon one another, and the commotion of a lost dupatta (scarf usually worn with traditional Indian dress), umbrella or child usually takes over until the item is returned to its original owner. Women and children squeeze up against the doors, in the aisles, in the benches and anywhere else there is an iota of space available.

The Western, Harbour and Central lines all have their regulars: beggars, saleswomen and men (either young adults or handicapped), entertainers, street children and food vendors. They are as timely as the trains. There is never any peace, especially if you want it. All around you hear:

"Kela Dus Ka Char" (Four bananas for Rs.10)

"Cleeeps, fine cleeeeps" (Fine hair clips)

“Lipis-steek” (Lipstick)

"Orrrrrrraaaangggeeee" (Orange)

"Seeng-phali, Seeng-phali" (A local word for roasted peanuts).

Although there is a first-class compartment, the random mix of women who ride the second-class compartments is as diverse as the colors that the women wear. When else would Desi housewives, school teachers, bais (maids), ayahs (nannies), vegetable and fish sellers, investment bankers, college students, transvestites and social workers ever find themselves together in such an intimate situation?

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of social classes on the Mumbai local trains. With five rupees for a second-class ticket compared to over 70 rupees for a first class one, the price of a first class ticket from Bandra to King's Circle is virtually unaffordable for the average Mumbaiite. Most second-class riders will say, "In first class, you are being pushed in the same way by more expensive elbows. Tch, tch, what a waste." I agree.

The most striking observation I made while riding the trains, however, was of the power of progress. I arrived at Bandra Station in Mumbai in July 2004, and beyond track seven, I saw a family living a tenuous existence. Their shelter consisted of a tent made of plastic and cloth, precariously supported by uneven wooden poles. By the time I left in March 2006, the same family had turned the tent into a square shed, with four walls and a roof. Perhaps they still don’t have access to running water, health care or a toilet, and maybe they are living on land that is not legally theirs. But in the struggle for basic human rights—food, shelter and clothing—possessing one of them is certainly a start.

During my two years in India, I was able to be a part of the place I always called home. Navigating the public transport system taught me so much about the different worlds that exist within India and Mumbai. I will always carry the memories of the people and the place with me.

Back on the train in Boston, I sleep and my thoughts drift off to another time and place. There is very little interaction with the other passengers on the train and very little noise. The train conductor smiles at me and says “Good morning.” I recognize some other passengers, but we don’t talk. Then I miss the voices of the ladies compartments on the local trains of Mumbai, for that is where I really learned about India.




Meenakshi Verma Agrawal works as a Public Health Analyst in Boston. She would like to dedicate this piece to her grandfather, P.R. Verma for always inspiring her to "seek thy self" through writing. You can read her blog at transformintobeauty.blogspot.com. To volunteer in India, please visit www.AVSARIndia.org.


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