After years, I traveled 'third class' in a train.
Of course, technically, the third class no longer exists on Indian railways. There's a first, a second, a third air-conditioned, and a sleeper class. But what my mom refers to as the third-class dabba is actually the general compartment, which the unreserved passengers lunge, shove, stampede and/or claw their way into.
This is a dabba that one does not step into if one can help it. (I have vague childhood memories of being swept into the general dabba, once, when tickets could not be confirmed. I fell asleep reading, sitting on top of a suitcase. I was too little to care). However, last week, I was forced to take refuge in a general compartment for three hours, because my tickets were confirmed only from Bilaspur onwards.
I must admit that my little heart trembled when it first beheld the crowds waiting to scratch and elbow and press their way into the already-crowded dabba. It didn't help knowing that the train was coming in from Bihar and Jharkhand.
However, once inside the dabba, it really wasn't so bad. There was no place to sit (or stand). But I was accorded the woman-privilege and a greying family of six (crammed onto a seat meant for four) shifted, snuggled and cramped together, until a six-inch gap had been created for me.
[This is what I love about the poor in this country - they lesser they have, the more they are willing to share. I have never been offered a seat in air-conditioned classes. Whenever I have waited for a TTE to confirm a wait-listed ticket, I have always had to stand in the corridor, lugging heavy bags. Not one man, or woman, has invited me to sit down for a bit, catch my breath...]
To their infinite credit, the lack of space notwithstanding, the men - Biharis all - did not take any advantage of this crush, to misbehave. When one man began to topple over in his sleep, almost on my head, he was shaken awake and told to shift elsewhere, by other male passengers. I didn't even have to complain.
In stark contrast, Bombay - that mecca of single, independent, working girls - leaves much to be desired. Whenever I have travelled in the general compartment, I have been reduced to tears by men who milk the space crunch for whatever it is worth - a feel-up, a pinch, a squeeze, a shove, a grope....
The inevitable male trump card in Bombay's local trains is - "If you don't like being touched, you should travel in the first class."
North-Indian - those of the 'cow-belt' - men are a much-maligned species. All sorts of things are said about them - the leery gaze, the hands that they can't keep to themselves, the obscene language...
But I have usually found them to be fairly courteous, in an earthy fashion, and often genuinely concerned about young girls traveling alone.
They may be nosy. Ill-mannered, maybe. Old-fashioned, I suppose.
But north-Indian men are not really out to hurt you. They are no more agressive than south-Indian or west-Indian or north-east-Indian men, at any rate.
If you don't believe me, try traveling in a third-class dabba in a train passing through Bihar. You just might go back for a second ride.