MUMBAI, India—Riding the train in Mumbai is what expats call “an experience.” The cobweb of local lines is how most locals navigate this congested city, and trains, in fact, are iconic in Indian films.
The Indian train system is epic. It is considered the backbone of the economy and transports about 6.9 million passengers a day across Mumbai. The stations—a chaotic tangle of train tracks, stairs, and overpasses—are also emblematic of the railway system’s political disarray.
The general guidelines for train-riding recommended to all visiting Americans generally include: 1. Make sure it’s Sunday midday when it is most quiet. 2. Go with someone who knows the train system. 3. Buy a first class ticket. 4. Sit in the ladies car. 5. Only do it once.
I did not heed the instructions exactly. Nevertheless, riding my first local train (on a Wednesday evening during rush hour, without a fellow female escort, in second-class), I discovered affection and pandemonium in the ladies car.
Rush hour in the ladies car is a little like a girls’ bathroom during a high school dance. Sweaty women pack together, pushing and shoving for space, gossiping, adjusting their hair and outfits, admiring jewelry that sellers bring around on something that resembles a clothes hanger. A few women remove their hijabs to wipe sweat from their necks. Loud giggling girls are jostled aside by aggressive women holding children. Whenever I travel alone by train, I am the only foreigner in the car. But squished together with students in school uniforms and women in saris, I am just another one of the girls.
About three stops away from my destination, I ask the women around me which side I must exit from, and then start pushing toward the door. If I wait until my stop to attempt to get to the exit, I’ll never make it–I’ll be trampled by a flood of women pressing to board the train. But in the ladies car I am always in good hands; when I ask for my stop, a few women will take it upon themselves to fuss over me, to thrust me in the right direction, and to prod me off the still-moving train as it pulls into the station, to be absolutely sure I get off just in time.
The unexpected sense of camaraderie that I have discovered in a foreign (and formerly intimidating) daily activity is both perplexing and wonderful. To all the women who have helped me find the right track, who have shoved me towards the door, who have jumped off the moving train while clutching my arm, and who have made me feel at home on the Bombay Western railway, I thank you.
Zoe A.Y. Weinberg ’13 is a news writer in Currier House.