A two-part series on women commuters and their adventures in the capital. Read Part 2 here.
By Pooja Pande
Dolly doesn’t pick calls from unlisted numbers. I tried her a few times before she finally picked up – in half a ring – when I tried her from my mother-in-law’s phone. (This is because they had exchanged recipes once, but mostly because my mother-in-law “speaks such good Bengali despite not being Bengali” – which is more than she can say for me.) Working as a cook in Noida, she gets from one house to the other on her BSA Ladybird Angel, and never stops to give directions to anyone – for the same reason she doesn’t pick random calls. “There are all kinds of bad people who are usually asking for directions just as a cover,” she says.
It’s a necessary precaution – Dolly (who prefers her daak naam to her bhaalo naam, thank you very much) keeps slightly erratic timings at work, because the boys she cooks for keep slightly erratic timings at work. But she likes cooking for them because there’s less “chik-chik”, see. She generally avoids very late nights though, she tells me, and has been advised more than once that she keep the “cycle ki chain” handy. Although she’s never had to use it so far, “kai faayde hai uske [it has several advantages)],” she smiles.
Dolly, who lives in Nithari gaon in Delhi’s other suburb (the one that’s not Gurgaon), used to walk to work and back seven years ago, but had always longed for a better means to commute. She saved up money and making the switch saved her time – she soon realised she could jam in another cooking gig – “a young couple, they don’t interfere with my work because between the two of them, they can barely make tea” – because of that. “It’s a swift way to travel.” Plus, “it’s fun.” Dolly loves the feeling of the breeze through her hair when she’s cycling and even though her hair is generally tied up in a bun – “Well, yes, I’m a cook”, Dolly is nothing if not practical – you get the idea. She’s generally humming perched atop her cycle, and she says it puts her in a general feel-good frame of mind. “I’m mostly humming while cooking also,” she adds.
There might be a cosmetic change in the near future, we learn – “I’m thinking of painting it, though I quite like the steel grey. Do you think one can paint a cycle? Maybe orange?” And you’ll find her chosen mode of transport generally parked easy, resting in a kothi’s (villa’s) verandah while Dolly chops and fries and kneads and makes killer pureés inside, or leaning against a peepal tree, in which case she locks it.
She gets her kicks too: Dolly recalls a morning recently when she was just about getting ready to leave, and the memsaab of the kothi she’d just stepped out of, got into her car. “For some reason, it just didn’t start. Sardiyon ke din hai na [Because it’s winter, right?]. And madam kept turning on and off the ignition.”
As for Dolly, well, she just whizzed away.
Any Dilliwali worth her rage knows the unwritten rules of automobile hierarchy on the road: The SUV will behave only if a private chopper suddenly descended upon the DND and forced it to; while the two-wheelers will automatically be last in the queue lest they are forced to topple over the divider. Even as we all abide by that which embodies our collective impatience, and honk the hell out of our respective vehicle’s horns each time we read that aberrant directive glowing in red shorn of Douglas Adams-styled irony – ‘Don’t Panic’. But when we step onto a bus – that original mode of public transport in the city that was never called that because we were all apparently waiting for the Metro to be given that honour – we find the city’s complex narratives writ even larger.
Some of which we discuss animatedly with Jasmine Lovely George, 27, lawyer and founder of Hidden Pockets, an initiative with feminist leanings exploring Delhi’s other stories – those tied up in its rich history, among other things – offering ‘pleasure pockets’ for those who care enough to look beyond the obvious image of the city.
Jasmine went back to her old routine of taking the 427 from her home in Mehrauli every day after a brief fling with the Metro, because things had really started to bother her. “There is a class difference that operates between those taking the metro and those travelling in the buses. For instance, even if a bus is empty, people of the middle income group do not prefer to travel in it, because it’s associated with the working class.” The switch had other reasons too, “I had completely forgotten how the city looked, for me it was all metro lines. Roads started making sense to me ever since I started taking the bus again last year, I started seeing people more often, and generally had a better grip on the way the Delhi map worked. There is a sense of danger that seems to be synonymous with the Delhi DTC – the Nirbhaya incident has also added to it. I remember people actually telling me that the rape had happened in a bus close to Munirka, which is close to my place, and so I should be careful.”
As Delhi-ites, we must all be wary of what we’re choosing to perpetuate as the city’s dominant narrative, Jasmine feels, “I remember the initial hysteria when the Metro started in 2006 – one of the first remarks made by a lot of people I knew was along the lines of how now ‘we’ don’t have to travel with ‘the working class’. People happily made that switch to Metro for that. The people who remained in buses were the people for whom metro was still expensive, buses are any day cheaper, and for whom metro was never in their route, it does not provide last mile connectivity.” Mind the gap gains new import: “It is a scary trend where the language of feminism is being used to project men of certain income group as the creeps. Men of certain caste, religion, income group: they are the others, they are the ones women need to be protected from, and women should not come into contact with these groups.”
Speaking of contact, what is up with the pink-only carriage in the Metro? Delhi runs an entire coach exclusively for the female population – while the men are kept at bay sternly, always reminded by the public service announcements of it being a ‘dandaniya apraadh’ (‘punishable crime’ – as opposed to the crimes that are not?, I always wonder), if they perchance enter the hallowed space.
I am skeptical of the zenana carriage, but Swaati Vivek, 34, dancer-writer, and mum to a two-year-old, terms it “the right kind of sexism”, and Chetna Arya, 21, a sophomore at Lady Hardinge Medical who commutes from Seelampur to Rajiv Chowk, waves it away, “Please. Delhi is the rape capital of India. I mean, everyone knows this. If the Metro is safe for women, that’s only because of the ladies’ coach.”
Jasmine distances herself from the stance, “Some strands of feminism are taking this approach of safety (read security) without realising they are invoking the very language of patriarchy as well as war. And the worst part is that it is difficult to fight this language because it takes the discourse of ‘care’. They care for us, and hence they are creating these safe measures, not realising that they are taking us back by decades in the work done by feminists. Also there is the stupid narrative of women’s empowerment, which is using the ploy of gender justice, and using the narrative of safety.”
But questions concerning women’s empowerment are complex issues, as we know. Jasmine recalls an episode from her Metro-travelling days to illustrate, “I often leave my hair open, it’s curly and long, and I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been ‘advised’ by older women to tie it up. While the younger women tell me, ‘Wow, you have the guts to leave your hair open.’ Women are the worst agents of patriarchy, you know – this whole thing of older women keeping the younger women in check, and that same old control of unbridled female sexuality.” And even though I know just what Jasmine means (so many flashbacks of so many aunts advising me on making the food, making the tea, making the bed, day in and freakin’ day out because these were the responsibilities of the woman of the house), I can’t help but recall yet another flashback – an 11-pm Metro ride I took to Gurgaon last year. I was alone in the women’s coach, I was feeling a wee bit unnerved, and then at Chhattarpur, one other woman boarded. About my aunt’s age. She entered looking a bit frazzled and then she saw me, and even though we only sort-of nodded at one another, I know we bonded that night.
If Jasmine goes back to the Metro, she might go back to the general coach, “The ladies’ coach is a ‘short term’ solution to a problem that is so inherent in our patriarchal systems. There is a sense of ‘imagined safety’ and a sort of bubble that we are very comfortable in. I understand why women don’t want to leave that zone, because it is one of the few spaces where one does not have to be alert. But what the ladies’ coach has done is that it has further sexed the metro.”
Artika Raj, 28, editor and brave traveller of the city (Dwarka-Noida-Dwarka every single day), prefers the general coach too, we learn, despite the rush-hour commute. She has her reasons, “The ladies’ coach is like the drawing room of the Delhi Metro – they have these open conversations across the length of it. It’s just assumed that everyone is interested in the saas-bahu conversations. This whole sisterhood thing is very uncomfortable in the ladies’ coach, if you ask me, which doesn’t happen between the women travelling in the general coach. I mean, just because I’m a woman and so are you, it doesn’t mean you can take liberty with my body – hum sab auratein hi toh hai, hum sab chipkenge [It’s like we’re all women, so it’s ok to stick to one another]. Every woman who’s travelled in the Metro knows that every woman has to adjust with every other woman – that behind is going to make some room somehow! Also, it’s never quiet – the chit-chatting is eternal. And I’m someone who reads the paper in the Metro.”
She’s never faced “slimy vibes” in the general coach she says, and has even taken direct action against manspreading, “Initially, I would sit like a woman, you know – knees together – and invariably, the men would be somewhat in my space because of their postures. So I got over that hang-up – how does it matter if my knee’s touching his knee – I’ll also sit like that and I’ll read my paper. It was also about letting go of my own conditioning – that any kind of touch with a man will possibly not be taken in the right intention. If he’s sitting like that and in my space, why do I have to become the smaller person?” Artika does some thinking aloud about the need for the ladies’ coach, “I would like to believe that it’s not an ideology that believes the men need to be kept away from the women. It enables the number of working women to increase, right? For women coming out of their homes for the first time, after having fought all kinds of odds to work, I think the ladies’ coach gives their families some mental security. And that way, it’s great. The idea might just be to keep the women together, to make them feel that this is where they can be comfortable and have some space.”
Space, such a prized concept on the Metro, is perhaps more precious when it’s mental. When I accost Sushma Dhar, 39, on the blue line one morning, she tells me she’s nursing a headache because she’s late for work and it’s going to be a buzzing day in the office because today is ‘filing tender’ day. Sushma works as a personal assistant to the MD at a power brokerage firm on Barakhamba Road and runs a tight morning routine of “chai-naashta-making-getting-the-kids-to-school” before she heads out. Her eight-year-old threw a tantrum this morning – something to do with his school shoes and how it was not the day he was supposed to be wearing the white ones – and that’s what messed up her a.m. And gave her the headache. I let her be as the train crosses Mayur Vihar Extension, so she has some time and a couple more stops to plug back into her music. “Bhajans”, she qualifies, as she puts on the earphones, “They calm me,” she explains.
Ratika Kapur, who recently penned the brilliantly subversive The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, a Delhi novel if there ever was one, wrote a personal essay on riding the Metro with her four-year-old, and described the ladies’ coach as “the very first time there’s a space exclusively for women where they can assert their independence.” And even if we don’t go that far, it’s definitely offering them respite, some version of me time.
Ritu Sud, 52, used to travel to GK everyday for work, circa DTC era, and even though she describes the commute then as “largely unpleasant”, she got by because the then-35-year-old was at “a comfortable enough age to shout at people.” She lauds the arrival of the Metro and especially the ladies’ coach, sharing a perspective that Sushma would appreciate, “Many of the women who travel are from a lower middle class background and they have done a huge amount of housework – packed tiffins and what-not – before leaving for office. When they reach home in the evening, they are the ones responsible for the food to be on the table at dinner time, for the kids’ homework. Unfortunately the Indian man does not generally share any of these chores with his wife. So really, if she has a reserved coach, I am all for it!”
Read Part 2 of the series here.