When I was new in Mumbai, I quickly realized that I’d have to learn to use the local train. Cosmopolitan Mumbai on India’s west coast is a linear city, which means that taking cabs or rickshaws from place to place is expensive and time-consuming.
Not so with the local train! Once you know how to use it, the train is the cheapest and fastest way to get from A to B, especially because it avoids the choking Mumbai traffic. Most importantly, the ladies car of the train allows Indian women and foreigners like me to travel safely day or night, free of harassment or groping.
As soon as I became accustomed to the train, I began to relax, observing and wondering about the women around me.
Very elderly ladies aren’t accustomed to sitting on chairs, and don’t feel the need to venture so far into the train car, jostling to compete for space with so many others. They climb aboard, hitch up their saris that are tied in the Maharashtrian dhoti-style, and sit in the doorway on the ground.
Beggar families, usually a mom and a pile of kids, have no qualms about doing whatever they want wherever… as they have no private place to do private things anyway. So they also sit on the ground inside the trains, eating donated roti or bananas, or taking sitting-up naps. The kids play, trying to take back the childhood that was never offered to them.
Modern girls in shorts and blouses, university students, do their homework on the way. They listen to iPods and appear disinterested.
Babies fall asleep against their mother’s soft bodies gently jarred by the train’s humming movement. I’m still new and alone here, and think about how nice and secure they feel.
The only males in the ladies car are the infants and those young enough still to be harmless. These boys observe the secret world of women until they’re old enough to cause trouble, and then must sit in the general cars. From those general cars, they can only watch into the ladies car from a distance, and use their eyes to flirt with shy young girls who have just realized that they’re beautiful.
There’s an abundance of softness: worn cotton and silks, floppy synthetic purses, impossibly soft women’s upper arms, and bowed toddler calves. It all rests against unforgiving hard benches, poles, and walls.
Most women have long hair that falls down their backs or is collected in loosely plaited braids. Spare strands inevitably become free, and sit wrapped around their owners’ necks in a mess of clear sweat and train grime. In monsoon season, the air is full of water.
Most wear sandals and have painted toenails. There are so many kinds of feet: one lady has six toes on each. On their left hands, women have painted, long nails, and on their right hands, their nails are cut short and left unpolished, for eating.
Some women catch up on their sleep, falling against the seats and lifting their feet up, abandoning plastic sandals under the benches. Some read English romance novels, textbooks or different books from different faiths.
Muslim women enter the car and pull their hijabs off of their heads to get some relief from the heat, only to re-wrap them carefully before they leave.
Some of the women are so delicate and spare, skin drawn tightly over their bones, as though there is only enough to cover them. Some are beautiful and perfect: skin tight over their collarbones and then quickly loosening at their sari blouses. Older, heavier women shuffle to their seats, hot, heavy, and uncomfortable with no release.
At each station, there is a clamour and dash towards the doors, pushing and shoving and all kinds of unladylike behaviours. Between stops, a stillness gathers and everyone appears to sleep, even with their eyes open. Gold nose rings and earrings that drape over the top of the ear all glint in sunset sun that enters the cars through slats in windows.
A small Bengali baby has thick dark curls, and her long eyelashes shielding big eyes. Her fat baby thighs straddle her mother’s hip. The mother uses the end of her sari to wipe the sweat gathered at her temples, her upper lip, and her throat. Locked together, they are funnelled through one crowd off of the train and into the next, those waiting on the platform. They are only two among the millions of little fish swimming in the watery and stale station air every day, coming and going and continuing on.