The Ladies’ Coach

Originally published in First City magazine, Delhi, May 2011

It was another day in the Ladies’ Coach, which is my number one, all time favourite place in Delhi. The ingenious idea was started in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and, to my great joy, its rules are still (mostly) being followed.

I remember noticing  the odd, neon-pink, flowery stickers on the platform (to be followed later by odd, neon-pink, flowery cardboard circles floating above the platform). ‘Women Only’ in English, ‘Kewal Mahilaye’ in Hindi, and *PINK! FLOWERS!*  for the less literate of Delhi’s commuters.

One of my favourite phrases to hear in Delhi is: ‘Excuse me, yeh Ladies’ Coach hai!’  which, in reality, means:  ‘Hey, you great big hairy spitting man, can’t you read? Are you colour-blind? Get out!’ The Delhi Metro is wonderful. And the Ladies’ Coach, in my opinion, is the pride of the city.

So anyway, it was another day in the Ladies’ Coach. After three minutes of admiring the clothing and footwear of the other Metro users on the ‘pink’ section of the platform, the train arrived. ‘ADARSH NAGAR’, boomed the soothing robotic voice I’d become so used to. I stepped on board, and the journey began.

Next stop, Azadpur. The doors slid open, a la Star Trek, and a man entered. Yes, a man. Normally at this point, us women would share a collective look of disgust before pointing the culprit to the mass of sweating bodies in the next carriage. But this unfortunate guy only had one leg. He hobbled towards the “Please Offer This Seat to Someone Who Needs it More Than You Do” seat, and politely motioned to the young lady sitting there to shift her rear-end.

She was a young-ish, jeans-wearing, Blackberry-twiddling, English newspaper-brandishing type. And she refused to move. ‘Yeh Ladies’ Coach hai!’  she protested. The man glanced down at where his left leg would have been, had he had one, and then back at her. She would not budge. A feminist to the end, possibly. Or maybe she just wanted to sit because she was going all the way to Central Secretariat.  ‘Actually, I think it’s allowed,’ said a pretty young girl in a white jacket. The newspaper woman’s face contorted. ‘But… this is the Ladies’ Coach!Her whine rang out, empty and metallic – similar to the “This Is a Punishable Offence” drone of the robotic Metro voice.

‘Here, uncle, take my seat,’ offered one woman, and then another. But the man would not accept. This had become a war between him and Newspaper Woman. A war of the sexes. Finally, defeated, Newspaper Woman heaved an angry sigh and gave up her seat. He sat down without a hint of smugness, and she stood in the aisle, huffing and puffing, until the robotic voice announced ‘MODEL TOWN’. And then she stomped out, having completely lost face. Even though she was going all the way to Central Secretariat.

At G.T.B. Nagar, a large crowd of women piled into the Ladies’ Coach. It was getting a bit cramped, but I reminded myself, as I always do, it’s much better to be squashed up against a hundred Indian women than a hundred Indian men. I found myself near the door, beside the girl in the white jacket. The train zoomed on, and those of us who were Yellow Line regulars knew what was coming: Kashmere Gate.

‘Uh-ohh…’ we all murmured, under our breath, when the train pulled into the station. There were so many women that the neon-pink stickers were completely hidden. The crowd inside the train stared out at the crowd on the platform – those expecting, somehow, to get into the same carriage. The doors slid open in what felt like dramatic slow-motion, and the carnage commenced. Nobody waited, nobody queued, they just pushed and elbowed their way through the chaos. A few women were laughing, but others were clearly boiling with rage, handbags and jewellery swinging in all directions. The noise was deafening.  ‘HE BHAGWAAAN!’,  somebody screamed. Another lady was almost strangled by her dupatta, which was half-in, half-out of the doors. White Jacket Girl, who may have previously had army training, I decided, was shouting at the passengers to ‘STAY IN A LINE!’,  grabbing bodies and hauling them in.

In the madness, an elderly gori had somehow climbed aboard, with a suitcase. Her face was flushed and her eyes were glazed over in shock. White Jacket Girl found out that she was going to New Delhi, and at the station cleared a pathway and helped the old woman onto the platform. She remained there, motionless, after the doors closed and the train moved off. Post-traumatic stress, maybe. I couldn’t blame her.

Finally we arrived at Rajiv Chowk, my final destination. Fortunately I was already pressed against the glass of the doors and so would be one of the first to be washed out in the wave of bodies. ‘Good luck!’ I called to White Jacket Girl as the floodgates opened. ‘Thanks,’ she smiled, surprisingly calm. I’d planned to turn round and wave to her but I was caught in the current, which was moving swiftly in the direction of the escalators.

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