Bandra to Churchgate in the ladies car

Very elderly ladies aren’t accustomed to sitting on chairs, and don’t feel to venture so far into the trains, jostling to compete for space with so many. They climb aboard, hitch up their saris that are tied in the Maharashtrian dhoti-style, and sit in the doorway on the ground.

Beggar families, usually a mom and a pile of kids, have no qualms about doing whatever they want wherever… as anyways they have no private places to do private things. So they also sit on the ground in the train compartments, eating donated roti or banana, or taking sitting-up naps leaned against the walls. The kids try to play and take back the childhood that was not offered to them.

University students do their homework on the way, young modern girls in shorts and blouses. They listen to ipods and look disinterested.

If I was a baby I would also collapse into sleep against my mother’s softness, rocked as I was ferried from place to place, gently jarred by the train’s humming movement. So new and alone here, I think of how nice and secure this would be.

The only males in the ladies car are the infants and those young enough still to be harmless. These boys get to stay amongst women, and observe all of their secrets until they’re old enough to cause trouble, and then they have to go in the general cars. From those general cars, they can only watch into the ladies car from a distance, and flirt with their eyes with shy young girls who are just coming to know that they are beautiful.

An abundance of softness: soft worn cotton and silks, floppy synthetic purses, impossibly soft womens’ upper arms and bowed toddler calves. It all rests against unforgiving hard benches, poles, walls to contain the passengers.

Most women have long hair that falls down their backs or is collected in loosely plaited braids. Spare strands inevitably become free, and sit wrapped around their owners’ necks in a mess of clear sweat and train grime. Held there by sweat that’s summoned by air that’s full of water in this monsoon season.

Most wear sandals and have painted toenails. All kinds of different feet: one lady with six toes on each. Cars full of women with the nails on their left hand grown out and painted, and the nails on their right cut short and left unpolished, for eating.

Some people catch up on their sleep, falling against the seats and lifting their feet up, abandoning plastic sandals under the benches. Some read: English romance novels, textbooks or different books from different faiths.

Muslim women enter the car and sit and pull their hijabs off of their heads, only to re-wrap carefully before they get off. Younger girls from Islamic schools wear veils that cover their heads and shoulders. And long kurtas, and pants, and square school backpacks.

Some of the women are so delicate and spare, skin drawn tightly over their bones, as though there was only just enough to cover them, not more. Some are beautiful and perfect: skin tight over their collarbones and then quickly loosening into fullness at their sari blouses. Older, heavier women shuffle to their seats, hot and heavy and uncomfortable and with no release.

At each station, there is a clamour and dash towards the doors, pushing and shoving and all kinds of unladylike behaviours. Between stops, a stillness gathers and everyone appears to sleep even with their eyes open. Gold nose-rings and earrings that drape over the top of the ear all glint in late afternoon sun that enters the cars through slats in windows.

A small Bengali baby wears thick dark curls and long eyelashes shielding big eyes. Her fat baby thighs straddle her mom’s hip; mom uses the end of her sari to wipe the sweat gathered at her temples, her upper lip, her throat. Locked together, they are funnelled through one crowd off of the train and into the next, those waiting on the platform. Only two amongst the millions of little fish swimming in watery and stale station air every day, coming and going and continuing.


2 responses to “Bandra to Churchgate in the ladies car

  • sharell

    Wow, this is beautifully written. You have great observation powers. 🙂 I too have been fascinated by the Muslim women uncovering their faces on the train, only to cover them back up before getting off. It’s amazing how such private gestures become so public in India!

  • Mark

    A loving portrait of Mumbai women train commuters! Clearly, you are a keen observer!

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