Delhi's same-sex carriages: The ladies' compartment is a public space where women can assert their independence

The ladies' carriage of a train en route to a suburb of Delhi is an ideal place to observe caste, gender and age jostle for position; it is, finds the novelist Ratika Kapur, a microcosm for a society on a stop-start journey into the 21st century

Ratika Kapur
Wednesday 02 December 2015 21:39
Comments
Train of thought: the women-only carriage allows travellers a certain degree of independence – albeit in often cramped conditions
Train of thought: the women-only carriage allows travellers a certain degree of independence – albeit in often cramped conditions

I am sitting in the ladies' compartment of a Delhi Metro train that will take me from Hauz Khas in south Delhi to Gurgaon, a once dusty suburb of India's capital, which, in the last decade and a half, has grown into a Las Vegas-like city chock-a-block with flashy condos, flashy malls, and flashy office complexes that house close to half of the Fortune 500. At 11am, every woman in the compartment has a seat, but only because every woman has made some hip adjustment to allow for this. The Metro is only 10 or 15 years old; our ability to pack ourselves into tight spaces is much, much older. We know how to adjust, us women.

The only non-lady in the ladies' compartment is my son, age four, who sits in my lap. His attention is fixed on the young woman seated next to us. She wears a leopard-print dress that probably falls just at the knees, but, because she is sitting down, it rides somewhere around mid-thigh. My son's eyes are not taken as much with this irregular show of leg as they are by a small number of scarlet-coloured toenails peeking through her peep-toe pumps. He wants her attention. He is too old to initiate any kind of direct verbal engagement with a stranger, but still young enough to attempt several spoony smiles and gentle lean-ins towards her. None of his overtures, however, can pull her away from the frenetic WhatsApp conversation she is having on her smartphone with someone who is likely a long-time female friend, given the general ease of the exchange and its choice of subjects: Ms Leopard Skin's boss, who is a total IDIOT; Ms Leopard Skin's mother, who is also, apparently, an idiot; and the friend's very sweet but clingy fiancé. (I confess, I am a hardened snooper. But this is my work, this is what I do. The American sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, once said, "My feminism expresses itself as an intense interest in what women do." As a writer, this is my interest, too.) My son does not have a cat in hell's chance of getting anywhere with the young woman. He begins to fidget, triggering in me the anxiety familiar to every mother whose child is about to express a need to be entertained. But despite the onset of this anxiety I find myself admiring, grudgingly, this young woman's ability to disregard what I had assumed was the responsibility of every woman: to coochy-coo with any child within coochy-cooing range. In India, as elsewhere, this responsibility sometimes extends to correcting faulty behaviour patterns in strangers' children: not many months ago, my son had his thumb yanked out of his mouth at airport security by a rather maternal constable who had to sling her automatic weapon off to one side so that she could reach down to extract the offending digit. But Ms Leopard Skin rejects society's straitjacket in favour of her smartphone. I pull the iPad out of my backpack and hand it to my son.

The ever-hungry beast of a child's boredom temporarily gratified, I settle back and begin to goggle at this woman, much like my son had just been doing. What is up with the leopard-print dress? Someone from my English-speaking mother's generation might have said that she has no class. Someone from Ms Leopard Skin's Hindi-speaking mother's generation might have said that she has no shame. And why this ensemble on a weekday morning? Who is she wearing it for? Is it for the IDIOT boss? Is it judgemental of me – shirt, jeans, and loafers, child in tow – to think that she wore this dress for her boss? Like my son, I, too, start to get a bit fidgety. The charter that I had signed up for years ago in the course of a Western-style education that would have been unaffordable for Ms Leopard Skin had a clause in it about solidarity with other women. Have I just violated that clause? Is the Fashion Police just the Class Police in disguise? I shrink further into the small space that I have been allowed. "Can I watch Peppa Pig on this?" my son asks.

Now, from my left, comes a sound, a song, which, I soon discover, is actually a ringtone of a popular Hindi movie tune. A woman who is probably in her mid-fifties grubs about in a large purple handbag and pulls out her phone. She says hello loudly. The greeting travels across to me above the chatter, above the various kinds of sonic emissions coming from the various kinds of mobile devices in the compartment. After that, however, she is quiet. Her mouth does not move. For maybe three or four minutes, she only nods, sometimes from back to front, sometimes from side to side, but that is all. She does not speak. The call ends wordlessly too: she simply presses a button on her phone, stares at its screen for a few seconds, and drops it into her bag. Then she pulls a handkerchief out of her sari blouse and wipes her face.

Violence towards women is a routine cause of protest in India

From where I sit it is difficult to know for certain that she is crying; it is difficult to tell whether she is using her handkerchief to clean away tears or simply out of habit. But everything in her bearing indicates some kind of sorrow. Her head hangs low, as if it is much too heavy for her neck to support, and her shoulders droop, closing in at her chest. In fact, she is in the sort of slouch that you typically see in an adolescent or a hip-hop artist, the sort of slouch that seems so out of line on a sari-clad woman past her middle years. Has someone died? Is a child very sick? Is she heartsick? Has she been deluded, deserted, or wronged? She is now looking down. I rest my head on my son's.

The train arrives at the Chhatarpur station. Many commuters get off, fewer get on. There is more room now in the ladies' compartment. Ms Leopard Skin slides a few inches away from me, and we are no longer hip against hip. It appears that her conversation on WhatsApp has ended. Presently, she holds the phone up in front of her face. She twists her mouth into a moue, tilts her head to one side, and arches her left eyebrow. For a moment I think that she is about to take a photograph of herself, but when I see her reach into her little velvet clutch and pull out a tube of lip gloss I realise that she is using her phone as a mirror. I have observed this phenomenon a number of times before, in traffic and on the Metro. Young women like Ms Leopard Skin – young women on the move, young women on the go, young women who do not always have access to a proper wall-mounted mirror to attend to their looks – have probably been doing this from the moment smartphones with front cameras first became available. We know how to adapt, us women. Now, just as our young woman brings lip gloss to lips, my son, who is beginning to tire of Peppa, and who is also part of a screen-obsessed generation, proceeds to lean over and stick his own face in front of Ms Leopard Skin's cool mirror-phone. A minor collision of their heads ensues. My son thinks this is wildly funny and starts to laugh, but not so for Ms Leopard Skin. Miffed, she stands up, mumbles something that I fail to hear, but whose import – can't you control your child? – comes through loud and clear, and finds herself a seat opposite my son and me. Then she looks at me. I would not go so far as to say that she glowers, but there seems to be some reproach in her eyes, which, three or four seconds later, transforms into pity.

Reproach may or may not shame its target, but pity is always a successful form of attack. F**k her, I think, trying to glare back. F**k her and her WhatsApp friend, and their bitching about their poor mothers and long-suffering suitors on their stupid smartphones. Ms Leopard Skin needs to learn to respect people, I think. No, she first needs to learn to respect herself. That dress on that body? I don't think so, honey. And then I find myself thinking: God, I sound so bloody crusty. Her I-don't-give-a-f**k brand of youth has turned me old.

Author Ratika Kapur, whose first novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize

There is so much about this situation that disorients me. Ten years ago a girl like that would not only not have dressed the way she does, but she also would not have felt that it was OK to behave the way she just did. Ten years ago I was her age and I could not have pulled off a dress like hers in public unless I was in some far-away country. Ten years ago I could not have flaunted myself in public without feeling the eyes of those that stared at me.

In the last few years, people have been talking about how Delhi is unsafe for women, perhaps making some believe that it is only now that the city has become unsafe for women. But that is the opposite of the truth. Delhi was always unsafe for women. The fact that so many people are saying it now means that this lack of safety is no longer acceptable, no longer something to be accepted. That is why this girl can casually continue to WhatsApp while her dress rides up her thigh. Granted, she does so within the relative safety of the ladies' compartment, and elsewhere in public she might be keeping a close watch on her hemline, ready to pull it down when required, but it is a step in the right direction. This train of thought has now turned Ms Leopard Skin from an antagonist into an ally, but since it is conducted within the confines of my head she is not privy to it and so continues to scowl.

The slow pace of social reform can seem at odds with some of the modern freedoms enjoyed in women-only carriages

I turn away, only to be confronted by more looks. It appears that the little encounter between Ms Leopard Skin and my son has caught the attention of several women in the compartment, including that of the lady with the purple bag. Her eyes briefly settle on mine. She looks at me with neither reproach nor pity, but with the gaze of someone who might have been reproached or pitied herself. With some hesitation I move my lips, as if to break into a smile. I am testing the waters. My caution turns out to be sensible. The lady with the purple bag looks away.

What does she see when she sees me? I find myself wondering. With her nylon red sari and that great big balloon of a purple bag (what's in that bag? Is it filled with her despair?), she has probably, in an instant, sized up my hair, my complexion, my clothes, the shoes and T-shirt my son is wearing, and classified me as one of those people who lives in a gated community in Gurgaon, or in a "posh" south Delhi house. I have spoken in English, and what's more, I have spoken it to my son. She has marked me out. And I am younger than her, even if I am a decade-and-a-half older than Ms Leopard Skin. We are together in the ladies' compartment, in possibly the first public space in Delhi where women can assert their independence, and she can only see the things that separate us, not the thing that binds us, the thing that has pushed the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation to reserve the first compartment – "in the direction of the train's motion" as the phrase goes – for us women. I cannot expect sympathy from her. How can someone with my privileges expect sympathy from her?

The train slows as it pulls into the Ghitorni station. She hefts her purple bag and rises to her feet. The way to the door closest to her leads past me. She begins to walk and, just as she is about to pass, she turns in my direction, bends down, and takes hold of my son's left hand, or rather the left fist made by a hand that is attached to a thumb that is firmly stuck inside his mouth. "Don't suck your thumb, son," she says in Hindi, a smile finally breaking out across her face. "Your teeth will become crooked." Then she straightens up and, pointedly arching her neck to the back, not just to ensure that Ms Leopard Skin hears, but to make it evident that she is the intended audience, she says: "What a delightful little child!"

I watch her step off the train onto the disarmingly sexist pink markings on the platform where the ladies' compartment is supposed to pull up, and I catch myself smiling as well. Ms Leopard Skin looks a little shell-shocked at first, then she smiles, too, but only just, before lifting up her phone again and beginning to caress its screen with her thumb.

Ratika Kapur's latest novel, 'The Private Life of Mrs Sharma' (Bloomsbury, £8.99) is out now

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in