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This Sisterhood Of Our Daily Train Commute; Nourishing Us Like Our Lifeblood…

Posted: February 2, 2021

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The younger girls openly approve of this, while the older ones are contemplative…perhaps thinking of their own compromises and adjustments, voluntary and involuntary.

The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women. 

Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is one of the winners picked by author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar for the January 2021 Muse of the Month. First titled ‘Local Train Friends’, this story, in Manreet’s words, is “a lovely story, with beautifully observed details, which captures the everyday sorority women experience and share.”

The local train thundered into the station, and screeched to a stop at its designated place. From my cozy seat near the window, I could see women of all ages poised to jump into the ladies’ compartment.

This was Rush-Hour in Mumbai trains after all. Mangalsutras held between teeth to protect them from chain snatchers, saree pallus and dupattas tucked in to prevent snagging in something, and handbags held securely in front of their bodies, these women were battle-ready commandos taking on the formidable foe of rush-hour crowds. Merely the tip of the iceberg that was the life of being a working woman in Mumbai.

Once you had access to the compartment, your woes were far from over.

The lucky ones had seats, four in seats meant for three. The aisles had many more crammed standing pressed against each other, choc-a-bloc, arms aching from hanging on to the handles overhead. The compartments were so jammed, that ventilation was a problem, many preferring to precariously balance on the footboard to get a whiff of fresh air. Most continued in this manner for the entire journey which sometimes lasted an hour or longer. If summers were bad, monsoon was the most dreaded with the flooding and cancelled trains leading to stranding.

With each new wave of women who boarded, the crowding increased, but some subliminal shifting occurred, miraculously some space was created, and more and more women were packed in.

As the train left the station, some regulars recognised each other and waved. Although petty rivalries flared at times and tempers often frayed, it was commoner to find kindred souls and emotional bonds even in this space so starved of everything else.

The phone of one of the women standing next to my seat trilled. She picked it up on the first ring.

“What is it?” She asked, sounding worried. A voice answered and as she listened, her worry seemed to increase.

“I had asked Daddy to pick you up, so he should have been there 15 minutes ago.” she said.”Just wait there….go back into the classroom….don’t wait on the road…” Growing more worried, she dialled another number….there was no answer.

The woman next to her commiserated, “Arre…It is of no use to give the men any responsible task. The last time I asked my husband to drop our son to his tuition class, he just sent him off walking. It was raining and the class was a thirty minute walk away.”

Another one, this one seated, said, “Ohhh ya. My husband works in the family owned business, a printing press. It is two minutes away from our home. He even comes home for lunch. I make that lunch before I leave for work every morning, but he will not even buy vegetables or cut them, or help with any preparation.” I noticed then that she had a newspaper open on her lap, and was plucking the leaves off a big green leafy bunch.

The woman next to her immediately offered to help her. “Taai, give me some…I can help you.”

The first woman who was calling her husband, finally got through. “Vivek, do you know that Anu is waiting to be picked up? It is a deserted road with a slum nearby…..please hurry.” She said with admirable restraint. The angry male voice at the other end was faintly audible, probably the husband heaping abuse or an excuse at his wife.

The others were diplomatically silent.

Someone said, “We have not played Antakshari for a long time….shall we do it now?”

Just then a voice piped up, “Auntie, not today please? I have an exam tomorrow.”

Everyone swivelled their gaze to the speaker.

It was a smartly dressed girl in her mid-twenties. “Sorry! My boss did not give me leave….Too much work to do at home; I need to help my mother. So I have to study in the train. My M.Com exam, you know, I failed one subject last time….I need this for my promotion. I can study when you are all talking. I am used to it. But when you sing…I just want to sing along.” She finished sheepishly.

Everyone laughed good-naturedly.

A woman on the seat opposite mine said, “Yeah, but don’t get too educated….you may not get a suitable marriage proposal. Usually the groom has to be equally or more educated.”

But the girl was already engrossed in her studies and did not answer or  chose not to.

The girl standing next to the speaker however bristled.

“Auntie, sorry, you may think that I am rude. But a groom who is confident about himself should not care about this… Let me tell you what happened to me.”

I looked at her. Tall, pretty, well dressed, confident, the speaker seemed to know her mind.

“Last month, my mother came to me with a proposal….incidentally, my parents are desperate to get me married. Every month, my mother comes to me with a proposal and when that falls through, she buys me a fairness cream!” She laughed.

I could sense the commiserating murmurs of  ‘Oh ya, that happened to me, too’ go through the others.

“Anyways,” she continued, “This guy, he had a list a mile long. Smart, educated, employed, modern… he comes over with his parents. And I have just returned from a friend’s birthday party. So I am wearing a short dress. Nothing radical…just knee length. The guy is positively leering at me… My mom shoos me in and  practically forces me into a salwar kameez….Next thing I know, they call up and say, we like her, BUT…no Western outfits after they are married!”

A big sigh went through her. She looked sad for a moment.

“I rejected him, thinking: what will they do later if they are like this now…but my parents were aghast. They felt that those people were right, you know!”

The younger girls openly approve of this, while the older ones are contemplative…perhaps thinking of their own compromises and adjustments, voluntary and involuntary.

I speak up. My grey hair and mature bearing gains me some respectful looks.

“I had only one condition when I consented to marry. I was the only child of a widowed mother who struggled and worked to put me through school and college. My mother would live with me and be looked after by me or there would be no wedding. And yes…my husband agreed. My mother stayed with us and I looked after my mother till she passed away a few years ago.” I say aloud.

Without anyone saying a word, I knew that I have struck a chord with these women. In this cauldron of humanity where each of us struggles to find a daily toehold on normalcy and still retain some sanity, this is ample evidence that one can state one’s terms and get them…at least in some areas of our lives.

The woman who was prepping her dinner veggies is done, thanks to her neighbour’s help. She wraps it all up.

“Thank you. Now once I reach home, I can help my daughter with her science journal. I can draw very well. So I do it for her.” She smiles.

The next station is mine. If boarding is an exercise in anti-gravity, then alighting is like submitting to a gravity-like force- you submit and go with the flow. I am ejected out with the crowd onto the platform in due course.

As I climb the steps of the bridge slowly with the crowd, two men in front of me are conversing.

“IPL matches are starting tomorrow. Let us watch it at my home. I will give my boss some excuse. My wife will be at work all day, so we can chill…But when she returns, I will tell her to make that chicken that we both like.”

As their voices faded away, I looked at the train. It had left the station taking my erstwhile co-passengers on their onward journey, a journey of courage, determination and sheer survival against the odds…nay, victory against all odds.

My brain is full of what I have heard and felt today. The sense of deja vu intensifies. I fumble with my phone, google it….ahh …there it is…the quote from Girls and the City. “Men love beautiful women. But when it’s beauty and brains, they don’t know how to handle it. Because we have no role models to emulate? Even our parents call such women ‘too forward’. When actually it’s the men who are backward. Women are racing ahead, having kids and careers, leaving men holding their dicks in their hands. You know, at one time, girls were sent to finishing schools to increase their market value? Well, guess what? It’s time for men’s finishing schools!”

So apt, I chuckle to myself.

Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, whom we have interviewed here.

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a multiple award-winning and bestselling writer of six books, including the Mehrunisa series – The Taj Conspiracy (2012), and The Hunt for Kohinoor (2014), the critically-acclaimed books The Long Walk Home (2009) and The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (2019), as well as Earning the Laundry Stripes (2014) and her latest, Girls and the City (2020). Hailed as ‘a star on the literary horizon’ by Khushwant Singh and garnering endorsements from Gulzar for two of her books, Manreet and her work have featured at literary festivals in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, India and NYC. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, the South China Morning Post and several Indian publications. Manreet lives in New York, New York, with her husband, daughter and cat.

The cue is from her book Girls and the City, which had to be incorporated in the stories – whether at the beginning, end, or somewhere in between.

“Men love beautiful women. But when it’s beauty and brains, they don’t know how to handle it. Because we have no role models to emulate? Even our parents call such women ‘too forward’. When actually it’s the men who are backward. Women are racing ahead, having kids and careers, leaving men holding their dicks in their hands. You know, at one time, girls were sent to finishing schools to increase their market value? Well, guess what? It’s time for men’s finishing schools!”

Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations! 

Image source: YouTube

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