Wheels and Tracks

ladies special trains.jpg

Same destination but different mode. Why one would chose train over bus travel in India–anywhere for that matter*–hardly warrants explanation. But let me try. I finished Paul Theroux’s The Grand Railway Bazaar while traveling from Delhi to Bombay, down the coast of Maharashtra and yes, eventually to Goa. It was a mixed modes approach of bus, rail, and one flight.

Reading a travel book while traveling is obviously cliché, but then to read a travel book while performing the regiment of everyday life is possibly to induce despair. Although my two week hiatus hardly compares to Theroux’s half year journey, it did allow me to reflect on a few things that have been brewing for some time, such as the gendered nature of adventure travel (and writing) and how the interior spaces of India’s overnight buses compare to the train journeys.

Inner-urban transportation in India is pretty gendered, from the subtle hand-painted portrait-of-a-lady on the side of Mumbai’s crumbling yet delightfully efficient suburban rail system to the ‘women on wheels’ pink taxis. Light rail and metro systems have whole compartments reserved for ‘ladies.’ In Delhi, this is indicated by a Barbie pink coloured sign complete with your classic stick-figure-in-a-dress and white flowers blooming around her body.

But inside the compartment of the long distance trains, gender differentiation evaporates. Of course there is the list outside the car, dutifully telling the name, sex, and age of each passenger, but within the car your cubicle of six berths, geometrically lined up and magically suspended by some cable that has been carrying the weight of human travellers since Gandhi, has no explicit demarcation for gender, personal space, and perhaps even class for the matter.**

What is it about this temporary communal space, a space within a contained vessel in motion, that allows things like concern for personal security to evaporate? I tried bringing up this question several times while doing research interviews with those who work in the field of urban public transportation. No one had ever given it much thought, and with the exception of times of social upheaval, no one could think of an instance when a woman rail passenger had been violated, nor any public demand for gender segregated compartments.

It is hard to convey the feeling of this tiny, 50 square foot, six berth space that is created on the long distances trains. A similar feeling does not exist on overnight buses, or international flights. I’ve tried to identify certain qualities–the freedom to move within and between cars, the open doors, the tiny table at the end of the lower berth where one can set their namkeen, chai, oily IRCTC breakfast. Is it the fact that there is a communal space? That everyone starts the journey sitting on the lower berth, a padded rectangle that eventually becomes someone’s bed and ends up in some contorted position with a wad of of stiff wool blanket wrapped around some part of the body? Is it the sounds and smells outside the rail station, the situated historicalness of rail travel itself? While there are a great number of rail travelogues, I’m hard pressed to think of any involving buses (that aren’t tied to some self-depreciating, down and out character), and certainly none written by women.

*I suppose in the US you could argue that there is hardly a lesser evil between Amtrak and Greyhound.

** Of course the compartments are organised according to class, but unlike air travel, where a curtain and several stewards and stewardesses are strategically placed to ensure no trespassing between first class, silver elite, gold and the masses in economy class.

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