Ladies Only

Ladies Only

The Mumbai suburban trains move over 6.4 million passengers every day running 2,070 train services on two lines: the Central Line, which connects the eastern suburbs with the city, and the Western Line, which connects the northern suburbs. In the course of this amazing feat, an average of 10 people are killed every day. (According to a senior safety consultant for Indian Railways, every conductor, through no fault of his own, will kill an average of 3 people over the life (no pun intended) of his career.) Every two to four minutes, depending on the time of day, a “slow” or “fast” train, terminating at different points along the line, leaves a station. The trains keep on schedule by barely stopping at the scheduled stations. At the major stations, such as transfer points, the trains stop for a maximum of 25 to 30 seconds. That’s seconds! At minor stations, the stop is as little as 12 seconds. So, seasoned commuters follow a protocol for the train they should ride depending on their destination that has been developed to ensure ingress and egress of the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time. The “fast” trains, the ones that carry the bulk of the long-distance commuters, have a mafia of regular riders that punishes people for daring to break the unwritten rules – they will not let you get off at intermediate stops!

Each 9- or 12-car train has a bogie for luggage and vendors (these are people taking bulk goods in and out of the city) which also contains a compartment for the handicapped. (How a handicapped person would ever get into the compartment is a mystery, since there are no special provisions for ramps or railings. Did I mention that the trains stopped for a few seconds at each station?) Each train also has a number of first class compartments (sometimes full bogies) for those commuters willing to pay 1300% over the cost of a second class ticket. (Some companies that pay for their employees’ commute mandate first class season tickets for the safety of their employees.) A first class compartment is not that different from the second class compartment except that the seats have a bit of padding and the number of people in each compartment is restricted by the price differential to only double the capacity (as opposed to triple). And every train has at least two bogies for Ladies Only. Some of the compartments are “for all the 24 hours”, while others allow men during off-peak hours (10 or 11pm to 4 or 5am). Children accompanying their mothers, small school boys, young male vendors and blind beggars are also allowed.

Men are envious of women who get to ride in what they perceive to be the relative spaciousness of Ladies Only bogies, while women claim that the men’s compartments are more organized and the “ladies” more vicious. (Avani Shah tells of a woman’s glass bangles cutting her as she is whacked in the face and just yesterday, Sachi Maniar tells of having to hang out of the door because the woman in front of her would not let her squeeze in. Apparently, pinches and elbows are not uncommon.) However, I’ve found the second class Ladies compartments quite civilized, with a system not unlike that of the men.

First, choose your train. If you are going to Andheri (a suburb that was once considered the end of civilization but is now the middle of the burbs) on the Western line, you take the slow train to Borivali and never a fast train going further on to Virar (which is now considered the end of civilization and does not appear on tourist maps). Second, you move deep into the car so that those getting off at earlier stops can position themselves strategically for exit by the appropriate door. If you don’t move, people will question you: “Where are you going?” and then urge you to move “inside”. There have been times when I could not possibly see a way to squeeze “inside” and when women urged me to move forward, I would motion for them to go around me. And somehow, they squeeze by me and into spaces that were invisible to me. There is no parting of the seas. Just some slight tidal movement that envelops.

Before the train blasts several months ago, each bogie had overhead racks for parcels and bags. During commute hours, even purses were handed over to be placed on the racks to allow for maximum body space. If the racks were full, those seated would take bags and purses on their laps. Women going to the end of the line would question those seated to find out when they were getting off and make deals for their seats. Women who hadn’t made any deals would grace lucky standees with a tap and offer their seats as they got up. Most of these gestures take place wordlessly and fairly systematically: the passing of the bags, the motioning of people to move over so that someone could rest one buttock cheek on the seat, the tap to offer a vacated seat…

Regulars share tiffins, drinks, snacks, and fruit. They practice singing. A new sari is untied and retied by more experienced wearers. And on top of all this, vendors ply their ware. I know – it is unbelievable. The vendors come in waves, depending on the time of day. During off-peak hours, they sell earrings, necklaces, bangles, hair bands, hair clips, combs, saris, purses, pens, flash lights, pens that have built-in flashlights, books, toiletries, household goods… During commute hours, they sell fruits, vegetables and snacks. And not just packaged snacks, but full on preparations of bhel ( served in a newspaper cone with chopped onions and tomatoes, a squeeze of lime and a deep fried puri that is used as a scoop), idli and vada complete with South Indian chutneys, samosas with tamarind chutney… all for less than a dollar. The snacks are usually 5 rupees (about 11 cents) and almost everything else is 10.

These past few days in Mumbai, I’ve been lucky enough to miss the commuter crush with two holidays, reverse, and mid afternoon or late commutes. A good thing too, because I’m out of practice.

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5 Responses to “Ladies Only”


  1. 1 Hiren February 5, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Good to see everything in full swing despite the bomb blasts. Salute the spirit of Mumbai- Salaam Bombay

  2. 2 Lavanya February 5, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Nice Post. I felt like i was on the train while reading.

  3. 3 Petals February 6, 2007 at 8:57 am

    Hey dude…this one is coool…I’m not sure what you were driving your readers to…but the ‘travel’ was quite a thrilling experience…
    keep the good work bro!!!

  4. 4 Shveta February 6, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Hi Yoomi,

    hope you and Mark are doing great, i love reading your blogs! this entry was great! such great insight into the world of the train riders:)

  5. 5 yoomilee February 7, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Thanks Hiren, Lavanya, Petals, and Shveta for your comments.

    Shveta – we are doing well. Are now in Delhi and missing the trains in Bombay – you have to deal with uppity auto rickshaw drivers to take you anywhere. 🙂


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