Over a year and they haven’t faded — two tiny scars on my right hand, caused by another woman’s hands. Both of us were trying to get into a local train and she was both impatient and aggressive.
Trains are the rather choked lifeline of Mumbai and commuter fights are routine. I don’t mean squabbling about who gets to sit down where. I’m talking about petty violence — an elbow in the ribs, a shove, a slap, plenty of speculation about the incestuous and bestial relationships in our families.
But what troubles me the most are the nightly first class-second class confrontations. Around 11pm, one of the three ‘Ladies Only’ coaches is de-reserved. Or, like the Mumbai ladies say, “It becomes gents”. Around 10.45pm, men start to pour in. Women commuters choose to get into the adjacent coach instead, which is ‘24-hour Ladies Only’. This is also a first class coach.
They assess each other’s clothes, bags, burqas, kids. They sniff, and say things like: “These women, they just get in, don’t they? How many do you think have a valid pass? But here they are! And we’re such idiots. Paying extra money to travel in comfort. But what for? We stand and they sit.”
They do sit, rather shamefacedly, afraid of being exposed. Some are so embarrassed that they stand near the door, faces averted. Some brazen it out. They say things like: “We have valid passes, okay? Who are you to ask us for tickets?” Or, “Well, the ladies became the gents so what do you expect? It is the railways’ fault.” Or, “We aren’t regular commuters. It was a family outing, and with the kids...you are also a woman. You should understand.” Or, “Shut up, b***ch.”
This can lead to either an all-out slanging match, or a shrug and a remark directed at another first-class passenger: “These second class people… No point talking to them. No manners.”
The scary thing is that everyone seems to have a class radar whereby they can identify first or second class passengers. In case someone gets it wrong, there is an outraged splutter. First class passengers offer proof, angry at being mistaken for ‘them’. Their eyes seem to be asking: “Why? Do I look like I’m second class?”
On the other hand, there’s the silent outrage of ‘second class’ passengers. I remember two incidents of loud ‘class’ confrontations clearly. One woman had shouted: “Be grateful for us. If we weren’t here, robbers would enter this precious coach and all you first class people would get mugged.” Another night, another woman had snapped: “Are the seats made of gold in this coach?”
They aren’t. The seats are cushioned though. For first class bums, I suppose.
And to think that all this unpleasantness can be avoided. The metro in Delhi doesn’t have first class coaches. So although there is overcrowding and discomfort, we are not constantly gauging each other’s ‘class’, nor humiliating each other.
I’m hoping the new metro lines in Mumbai won’t have class distinctions. And I hope the older trains will also be rid of first class coaches. It might mean more discomfort for a few of us. But if we are to move towards a better world, if we want to build ‘world-class’ cities, then we must try to minimise social resentment. And how can we avoid resentment when some bums have cushioned seats while many others don’t?
Read full piece here