The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. Two elbows propelled me forward; my messenger bag left my side and I was flung headlong into the train compartment. People were caught at the door, still trying to leave, sandwiching me between immovable objects and an irresistible force.
I managed to pull my bag closer. A large bearded man turned sideways to give me space to plant both my feet. I watched a frail boy being squeezed against the backside of his father. There was still much jostling and swearing; like everywhere else in India, space was in acute scarcity.
“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” the doors began to close. Another man leapt through the gap and, with his momentum, fashioned a corner for himself just as the door shut behind him. Like a tin of atta, there was always space to accommodate more with enough impact. The rubbers pressed against each other and the train gently jumped into motion.
The man in a striped shirt, wearing Beats headphones, stumbled backwards and stepped on my foot. I pushed back on him. He turned and grunted, as if demanding an explanation. I looked away and tried to breathe.
The air smelled of wet armpits and stale cigarette smoke. An oddly shaped canvas bag which poked me in the midriff was the only thing that bothered me more. The train decelerated, throwing the collective mass of humanity in the direction of its motion. “Oh be’ncho” – a sardar drowned my own oath.
I realized, in that moment, the stark absence of femininity in the compartment. Sweating, swearing, testosterone-driven stereotypes. Women permeated the world only through Facebook and Whatsapp. I wasn’t sure if the wetness on my skin was my sweat or another’s. The train stopped.
“Ting. Guru Dronacharya station.”
The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. There was a massive readjustment. I hoped people would rush out of the compartment. Ten people entered instead. I held the pole tightly. “Idiots,” said the grey-haired uncle next to me, “live like cockroaches.”
I looked towards the door. In front of the exit stood a young woman, with her streaked curls tumbling onto her forehead. Her black dress, which ended only a little over her knees, hugged her fragile body. Standing on bright red heels, she stared into the compartment. The compartment stared at her.
Stories of Delhi – no, of Gurgaon! – rushed through my head. I wondered why she would want to enter this world, instead of the first compartment marked pink with white flowers. Her right hand clasped the strap of her Hidesign bag. She held it tightly against her body, and stepped forth into our hell. The compartment breathed the outside air, and waited for her eagerly.
I thought I saw the old man next to me nod in apprehension. The two men nearest me barged into me, compressing me in the process; I dropped my shoulders, brought my feet together and became insignificant. Every man around me reacted the same way and transferred, to some extent, the lack of space to his immediate neighbours. I waited for someone to burst out in anger and frustration.
And then, I witnessed the most extraordinary scene. The lady walked in and turned her back towards the compartment. Two young fellows and a pudgy, middle-aged man formed a semi-circle around the lady, around half a foot in radius. Men backed away, giving her a whole foot of freedom in front of the sliding door. Every other man in the vicinity gave up a few inches to accommodate the lady – to ensure they stayed at a decent distance from her.
In a country known for rapes and crimes against women (in the rape-capital of that country), I could see how statistics could lie. This was a most brilliant and inconvenient depiction of the same culture which is being blamed for violence against women.
“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” and the doors closed.