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The ladies’ compartment on local trains is a sisterhood of travellers, a place where women compete but also form bonds and care for each other.
I have spent countless hours waiting for trains, running after them and of course on board. The word ‘ZENANA’ on the side of the ladies’ carriage was a welcome sight as the train chugged into the platform.
Zenana is an Urdu word that refers to the part of the house meant exclusively for women. In the olden days, women in Hindu and Muslim households had separate chambers designated for them; away from the prying eyes of men and protected from undesired overtures. Places that afforded privacy for them to engage in womanly pursuits, to unsheathe their inhibitions, to be themselves.
Zenanas still exist in the urban jungles of 21st century India. In trains, whether in rural or urban India, the need is still the same: to separate the women from the men for reasons of privacy and protection. Yes, even in this day and age, ladies who are unaccompanied by men are bundled off to or compelled to travel in the zenana, the ladies’ compartment.
The ladies’ compartment is not exactly a luxury, but women who have travelled in the ladies’ compartment of trains, especially over many years, day in and day out on a regular basis, develop a certain inexplicable fondness for the ‘LADIES dabba’ of the train. In fact, ask any regular woman traveller in this train bogey and she will confess a love-hate relationship with it.
You hate being there because in this cramped, suffocating space, packed together like sardines are tons of other women, competing for space and fresh air: the smells of hair oil, jasmine flowers, fresh fish, sweat, all mixing into a heady combination, overpowering the senses.
You still love it because even in this confined area, there is room to make friendships, form acquaintances and forge alliances. You love it because even through the discomfort, there is a feeling of security being with other women and establishing a feeling of camaraderie; a sisterhood of train travellers.
Therefore, with much nostalgia, I recollect my days, in the 1990s, travelling 4 hours each time between Bombay and Pune, on various trains, every week for 5 years, almost exclusively in the Ladies’ compartment!
No memory of train journeys in the ‘ladies’ is complete without first paying a tribute to train friends. Often, there were friendly faces without names or women you met just once and never again. These were women with whom I spent hours chatting about random and diverse topics, any topic under the sun.
When there were no mobiles or iPods for entertainment, brilliant conversations just happened with strangers in the ladies compartment. In those few hours of travelling together, we often exchanged life histories but parted without exchanging contact details or even knowing each other’s names.
Oh yes, we were competitors first. Rivals of the fiercest kind when it came to grabbing seats in the train. But as one became a regular, that is, travelled more than a couple of times in the same compartment, one became part of the sisterhood. So even if you failed to claim yourself a seat, your sister travellers, however gruff and intimidating they sometimes looked, would accommodate you. A little adjustment here and there, a tiny bit of squeezing in…voila!
There you had it; your own 10 centimetres of seat space for the next four hours and you had to be eternally grateful for it. No doubt you would have to return the favour another time, but it was all about being part of the sorority. If you were new and did not find a seat, then you just had to climb up to the next level on the luggage berth and sit perched high up, where the fan kept you cool while you bonded with other sister newbies on another high berth.
This was done only with train friends you knew; but even if you had interacted with them once before, they qualified for this ‘food swapping’. We all brought different foods in our dabba and it was etiquette and almost a tradition among us regular travellers, to pass the dabbas around so that everyone could sample at least a little bite of your food. I remember filling up with what everyone else had in their lunch or dinner and by the time mine came back, it was virtually empty!
During festivals, the food was themed and special. We even had ‘dabba party’ days when we brought in something extra special like the time we had chaat with someone bringing in a bottle of pani puri which we poured carefully with the lid into each puri as the train bounced us about.
The ladies compartment was the place to engage in activities of various kinds. We students tried to study, trying not to doze off as the rhythmic chugging of the train lulled us into sleep.
Some enterprising and highly organized ladies would keep busy with breaking off the stems on just-bought green vegetables like spinach or snapping peas pods open so they could cook straightaway on getting home.
Some would knit or sew to relieve the boredom and us sister passengers would all gush over the designs and their handiwork as it was passed around for us to admire.
Where there are women, can shopping opportunities be far behind? The ‘ladies’ was the place to buy inexpensive hair accessories, costume jewellery; little kitchen items like scrubbers, graters and assorted toys, which you never saw in shops. From time to time, vendors would appear and we would be tempted into buying something or the other. The jasmine flowers lady was much awaited, the fish selling lady was dreaded, but they all added character and charm to the place.
Then of course there were the males who were privileged to be hawking their wares in the ‘ladies’. The chaiwalla, the ‘wada pav walla’, the railway catering man were all much sought after and pounced on, with enthusiasm. The ticket checker was the only other male who made his way to the ‘ladies’. If a male passenger or relative accidentally entered the crowded ‘ladies compartment, he was admonished with ‘ yeh ladies hai’ (This is the ‘ladies), shooed and made to get off. That was the power of sheer numbers.
In the ‘ladies’ we were all equals. Regardless of whether you were a high flying career woman or a simple woman trying to make two ends meet with a business of selling old clothes, when it came to the ‘ladies dabba’ we were all on a par. Whether we wore high heels or well worn out slippers, we all competed for space on a level footing. Yes, we didn’t all talk to each other, but there was a certain comfort in seeing the same familiar faces every time on the same train.
Once part of the sisterhood of train travellers, you knew you could depend on your regulars to bail you out; if you had a headache someone would offer you a painkiller or a balm, if you’d forgotten your rail pass, the other regular ladies would ‘convince’ the ticket checker or if you’d lost your purse (which I did once), you would be given money to at least get home.
So many times, when trains were delayed in the monsoons, it is these women who supported, comforted and helped each other get through and get home safely. Regardless of your social class, other women helped you.
Matchmaking flourished in the ‘ladies’ and how! If you were seated next to a middle aged lady and she kept looking at you, then progressing to ‘discreetly’ ask your surname and where you studied and so on, you could be sure that her mind was busy making all sorts of alliances. The next thing you know she whipped out a passport sized picture of her distant nephew and you realized what the questions were for!
We women in the “ladies’ knew how to entertain ourselves. One of the favourite games had to be ‘Antakshari’ with all ages of women joining in animatedly with songs from all eras. Some enthusiastic ladies would even celebrate days of dressing up; so we had a ‘red’ day or a ‘black dress’ for Makar Sankranti.
Many of these women travelled travelled daily on the Bombay-Pune route. How they did it with a smile on their faces while managing a job, family and hectic travel is truly admirable! They spent a chunk of their lives in the ‘ladies’ compartment and this was their home away from home.
The ‘ladies’ was usually packed to capacity and we all complained about the discomfort. Sometimes, women even sat on the floor and spilled all the way to the sink outside the toilet.
But there was safety in numbers. As the numbers dwindled, the comfort increased but the safety factor reduced. If the ‘ladies’ was empty, it was not the safe haven it was meant to be. All sorts of unsavoury characters would enter and many of us have had unpleasant experiences of all kinds. The only option was to get off at a station and go to the ‘general’ with your entire baggage in tow.
The ‘ladies’ was warded off from the rest of the train and cut off from all contact with the other bogeys. While this was great for privacy, it was a little unsettling to think of that barrier between the ‘general’ and the ‘ladies’. While there were so many general compartments there was only one ladies. Did we women not deserve more space? I wonder why this treatment was meted out to the ‘ladies’. While we were given our very limited space as a big favour, it had none of the frills of the other compartments. Even the catering was limited, while the general compartments had access to the restaurant car and unlimited food sold at all times.
I will always hang on to my precious memories of the ‘zenana’ . It is here that I learned to be tolerant, competitive and above all tough. It is here that I made some of the most wonderful friends who I have never seen again. It is here that I have felt woman power and bonded with women that I would otherwise never have known.
Image source: YouTube
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