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On the 'Ladies Special'

By Lina Mathias

The women-only compartments on Mumbai's locals and 'Ladies Special' trains are unique spaces for the city's working women, who have converted the benefits of this reservation to even greater effect. For many, the compartment itself is transformed into a workplace to sell anything from shelled peas to lingerie

Neither Hallmark Cards nor Archie's have scheduled a day for 'Train Friends' or come out with sentimental cards to mark such a day. But for many of Mumbai's 5 million daily train commuters, this category of friendship provides a strong antidote to the unbearable stress of commuting, and the effects it has on their lives.

'Train friends' travel by the same local at the beginning of the working day and often on the return journey too, share family news, gossip, food, vacation and wedding photographs, and even sing together to the entertainment/chagrin of other commuters. More than men (the only group activity they seem to engage in on trains is playing cards), it is women who take this form of friendship to a different dimension altogether.

These are women who travel long arduous hours every day on the local trains of Mumbai to and from work; women who often use the train itself as a workspace, either to sell food items and other products or to complete household tasks such as cutting vegetables; women who have transformed a daunting daily commute into a social sphere of comfort and sharing.

Local trains in Mumbai, as any commuter would know, have compartments only for women, as well as scheduled 'Ladies Special' trains. While the women-only compartments have existed for decades, Western Railways introduced the Specials in 1992. On May 5 that year, the first 'Ladies Special' left Virar station at 7.39 am for Churchgate. The return Churchgate-Virar journey started at 6.13 pm. Central Railways started its own train only for women on July 1 of the same year. It leaves at 8.15 am from Kalyan for CST, and from CST in the evenings at 6.05. Western Railways now has another north-south 'Ladies Special' from Bhayander to Churchgate, and one in the evening between Churchgate and Borivali.

The benefits of such reservations are immense, but even with the reservations the local Mumbai train is an intensely crowded space. The women-only compartments and trains are the location of harassed squabbling for the 'fourth seat' (the edge of a three-seat bench, which accommodates an extra person), crying children (who invariably accompany the female relative), an unending stream of hawkers and beggars, catcalls and lewd remarks called out by male passengers from passing trains or platforms, occasional stones hurled by miscreants, and a recent series of attacks by drug-users. All of this can ensure that many women commuters are in a state of irritation and anxiety when they reach their workplace and return home in the evenings or at night.

Over the years, women commuters have converted the benefit of having reserved spaces to even greater effect. The women-only compartments and 'Ladies Special' have become a microcosm of the socio-economic patterns of the world outside. So vibrant is the 'Ladies Special', with its multiplicity of activities, that it has been the subject of more than one documentary film. Women-only compartments and trains are not just spaces where some of the irritants recede, but sources of positive work and play that relieve some of the stress of commuting.

The camaraderie and banter between women 'train friends' may seem spontaneous to an onlooker, but it is usually the eventual outcome of tentative beginnings. Mira Madhavan's group of train friends also began slowly. Mira, a former nurse who works as a teacher trainer, would travel with a friend who boarded the train at Thane, rushed to her favourite window seat and promptly went to sleep until their destination at Dadar. So when Mira heard two young strangers, Shilpa and Phalguni, animatedly talking about health and children's education, she joined the discussion. Soon, another passenger, Karen, also fond of going off to sleep, began joining in the conversations, at a time when she was upset with her son's school and teachers. At Bhandup, Bindu and Chandra would join the group (the two were acquaintances of Shilpa and Phalguni). They began bringing batata wadas from a well-known stall for the group's breakfast on the train, while Mira made ribbon sandwiches. After a while, Chitra and Pooja also joined the group. Chitra's mother-in-law made crochet pieces and the others in the group began asking her to make gift items for their family and friends. Soon they began celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, husbands' and children's birthdays, all on the train. A high point of this friendship came when one of the group members, a bank employee, played matchmaker to one of the single women in the group. Today, the match-made couple has a two-year-old daughter.

"We are still in touch," Mira says, "but the group split because two of us changed jobs, one had a baby and decided to work from home, and another's husband got a job offer in Dubai and she accompanied him there. None of us has forgotten the good times on the train -- the eating, the laughter, the few dinners we went to, a day picnic to Karjat. But more importantly, the journey put us in an excellent frame of mind to face the working day and the commute. My train friends were wonderful."

No study in India has specifically measured the effect of the stress of commuting on work and productivity. However, psychologists Richard Wener and Gary Evans at Cornell University in the US have studied how travelling by mass transit can affect the stress level of commuters. When compared with men, they found, women with children are more susceptible to commuter stress and are more likely to carry that stress into the workplace. Women commuters, they write, experienced more stress in the workplace and that stress was exacerbated by the commute; if the women had children at home, they had the equivalent of a second job and hence additional stress.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has studied the impact of commuting on the health and safety of workers. People who travelled for more than 45 minutes from home to work (as do most of Mumbai's train commuters) reported higher psychological stress scores, more health complaints (essentially psychosomatic), and greater absenteeism from work due to sickness. Women commuters bore the brunt and had more family difficulties, more travelling complaints, and higher absenteeism.  

The Wener-Evans study also found that women benefited the most when transport services improved, which directly resulted in less stress at the workplace. Until the year 2000, women commuters in Japan faced such extensive sexual harassment that the railroad companies decided to provide sections only for women. The first women-only carriages started in Japan in 2000, on the Keio Line. By 2005, train services in all of Japan 's major cities had women-only carriages for at least the morning rush hour.

A few years ago women commuters got the first women-only (and pink-striped!) subway cars in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro as part of a scheme to curtail groping and other forms of sexual harassment. When buses exclusively meant for women were introduced for the first time in Pakistan by the Karachi Green Bus Company, women were relieved. Students and working women had complained that the unwanted male attention was affecting their academic and job performance. Clearly, sexual harassment that occurs even outside the workplace greatly affects women's psychological health and ability to work.

The importance of reserving compartments only for women and having exclusive 'Ladies Special' trains in Mumbai thus cannot be over-emphasised. This system of reservation, which Indian women rail commuters have had for decades, remains uncommon in other countries. When the bulk of the transport is in private hands, this is not a right that can be demanded. Mumbai might in fact be the only city in the world that reserves an entire 12-coach train for women during peak hours. 

To return to our 'train friends' on Mumbai's locals, like the crochet gifts that the group members bought from Chitra's mother-in-law, many women commuters tap into each other's contacts and hobbies to ease their familial and social obligations and to form supportive networks. The other day, in the Kalyan-VT 'Ladies Special' a woman realised that her friend's 'train friend', hastily introduced, was a children's counsellor. A visiting card was hurriedly thrust out; her neighbour was worried about the erratic behaviour of her child and this commuter wanted to help.

A jatra- like atmosphere prevails in the women's second class as well as first class compartments in the 'Ladies Special' trains. It is a marketplace -- and thereby a workplace -- for many women and children, who sell hair pins, flowers, gajras, cheap Chinese pens that double as torches, toys, colouring books with crayons, magazines, cosmetics, and even lingerie -- the list is inexhaustible. Others sell vaatas (shares) of vegetables like bhindi , beans, shelled peas (these vendors only travel in the evenings), fruits and homemade snacks. Often, the women who sell small packets of dry snacks uniformly priced at Rs 5, give away a packet or two for the children of some of the regular women commuters. Many women commuters prefer to complete their purchases on the train, which enables them to straightaway dash to the bus or autorickshaw queue to get home without wasting precious time.

Asha Sarangi, who travels by the 'Ladies Special' from Mira Road in the morning, often buys idli-chatni or mini medu wadas from a woman who makes them at home and sells them on the train. "They are hot and fresh and tasty. And the price is very reasonable. Her stuff simply vanishes within minutes," she says. This vendor, like many others, services ladies' compartments in other trains too, and, along with her husband who looks after the purchase of the raw material and the packaging, depends on the sales for her livelihood. She also takes 'orders' during festivals for special snacks for women who do not have the luxury of time to make these snacks.

Another category of sellers is somewhat discreet because vending is their 'second' job -- women who sell saris, salwar-kameez pieces and artificial jewellery, often only in the first class compartment because their prices are steep. Their 'regular' clients get the first viewing when the new stuff arrives. It is common to hear women commuters placing 'orders' for a particular colour or texture to give to friends and family members, and disappointed wails when a deadline is not honoured. 

Deepali Bhalerao, who travels to Thane in the 'Ladies Special' from CST in the evening, sometimes likes to travel in the luggage compartment. "Most of the women here have finished selling their wares and have bought vegetables to make for dinner," she says. "They keep their baskets close by, sit on the floor of the compartment in companionable circles and clean and cut while talking and laughing all the time."

Deepali treasures the experience of travelling on the Kalyan-bound 'Ladies Special' a few months ago. A group of 12 women were composing ukhane (couplets that Maharashtrian brides playfully put together with the husband's name in one of the lines). Each woman was given a small note with one word on it and she had to compose an ukhane on the spot that would include this word and her husband's name. It got so exciting, says Deepali, that other commuters joined in and women from the first class compartment next door, who usually do not give the second class commuters a second glance, began prompting words and phrases. "I would have even forgotten to get off at Thane if it was not such an ingrained habit," she laughed.

Women and work takes on a new colour altogether on Mumbai's locals. Here, the 'train friends' go on from day to day, from track to track, easing each other's journey as women have been doing down the centuries.

(Lina Mathias is Senior Assistant Editor at the Economic and Political Weekly)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007