Journeywoman: Gender and Commuting in Urban India

Off peak-hour this morning, it took me a solid two hours to reach Theatre Road from Dunlop. Google maps — which has a laughably naive Western attitude to city-commuting, bless it — says it should’ve take seventeen minutes. Seventeen! In seventeen minutes, we hadn’t even cleared Bonhoogli, which is 1 KM and a twenty-minute walk from Dunlop.

There was a time when the fistfighty Easter Railways seemed a remote and déclassé way of commuting, fit only for the scrappy working classes who shrieked, shrilled, scratched and swore their way between stations, venting pent-up rage at life, the universe, and everything. The People Like Us travelling in it were conservative suburban folk, who eyed our skirts and snickered every time we spoke to each other in English. So, not really People Like Us. The boy-clusters took us especially personally, and avenged the gross injustice of our obvious cultural difference by placing themselves in our vicinity, and making loud obnoxious taunts about our snobbery and presumed airheaded bitchery.

The sardine-packed Cal Metro was better than that. Even the clearly low-class types were in tune with city-living. So while well-dressed uncles and gutka-spewing bhaiyyas pawed us equally, and tried to peek down our necklines through the gauzy haze of our dupattas, they held their tongues about the scandal of our sleeveless blouses and scalloped backs.

But metros didn’t go everywhere. They certainly didn’t come anywhere near my house. A great chunk of my waking hours, therefore, were spent bouncing on the hard, torn seats of Route 230 and 234, as they chugged sluggishly through the knee-deep traffic of Calcutta’s smoky, pollution-thick streets. Either that, or standing sandwiched between layeres of sweaty men and women, breathing stale air. (The former of that sweaty lot often brought along tented anatomy, eager to make friends).

In hollow hope of reprieve, I frequently added minutes to my already excruciating four-hour commute by going back to terminal bus-stops. Boarding from terminal stops, even at peak hours, significantly raises one’s chances of getting a seat. And seats significantly lower one’s chances of (a) entertaining the manly desires of our fellowmen, and (b) muscle damage, since one has to hold desperately on to people and things as the buses lurch, swerve, race each other, and break abruptly at red lights with loud squeals of tyres.

And thus were autorickshaws my favourite mode of transport.

Back then, autos were rickety and belched thick black smoke, and could only be kicked to life by vigorously pumping the started handle. This handle being under the driver’s seat, the person next to the driver had to be something of a Jack in the Box, jumping off at the end of every red light so the driver could bend sideways and ‘estart’ the beast again. For a Young Person, this was rather fun. But what I loved most about autos was that my school, and all the places I was shoved off for private tuition to, were unreachable by them. Autos were my taste of freedom.

Sometimes, I’d ride them on lazy weekend afternoons, trundling northwards and leaving the city defiantly behind. I’d go a certain distance, maybe drink a coconut water, have phuchka, and then come back home. For a mid-teen by herself, it was quite an adventure. But the best auto rides were late on weekday evenings, when I was a little grimy zombie with aching limbs, from lugging a heavy bookbag all over the baked city for thirteen straight hours.

Stale and dead from the school/tuition nexus of evil, I would get off the jam-packed claustrophobic at the last big junction before my stop (this place was the confluence of several auto routes). At that point, I had probably been in that particular hot tin cage for an hour. I would get off it, step away from the traffic, and take a gulp of fresh, open air (even if it was laced with petrol fumes). Then I would wipe my face, neck and arms with an inadequate hanky, moist and blackened from my day in the sweltering city. Then, very slowly, as if I had all the time in the world and hadn’t been frantically rushing since 6AM, I would crick my neck and gently rotate my shoulders, trying to breathe life back into the exhausted shell. And then, feeling human again, I would crawl into the next auto in line, corner the corner seat, and be whisked straight past the laggardly, overflowing buses, with sullen, defeated people in their belly.

True, the filthy, cool night air bathing my face would leave it dark and greasy, giving me pimples, clogged nostrils and lank hair.

But after every strong burst breaking on my face, I would inexplicably be reminded of the soothing baritone from the then-current Raymond’s ad: “Feels like heaven, doesn’t it?”

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13 comments

  1. Classic Priyanka. ♥ We’ve had this conversation many a times, so reading this gives me strange little nostalgic nudges.

  2. I think for me and many other foreigners, zipping around an Indian city in an autorickshaw is great fun. The only time it isn’t fun is when you’re stuck in traffic behind the DDT-spraying mozzie-control truck. Or if – as happened to me once in Chennai – a bunch of goondas rush out of no where, grab your driver by the scruff of the neck, and beat him senseless while you yourself are ejected with the explanation that, “Sorry, sir, this auto is being repossessed….”

  3. Quite artistically written article about something fundamentally disgusting– commuting on public transport ,that being a woman. Your writing gives the reader the power to imagine, but who needs imagination when one has to go through the irky and stupid ordeal day-after-day-after-day.. I despise my city buses and the whole public-transport-commuting process. The most disgusting part is the sweaty men and women and having to be sandwiched in between them, helplessly,waiting to de-board the bus.

    I just walked a distance from my college after the college hours to have pani-puri as well. I feel like a teenager again.

    You are my inspiration and the standard in terms of writing, Priyanka di. *Bows down*

    • I love Rimi-O. Byas, notun naam. Also, notun gaan. O re Rimi, Rimi si guriya, haathon mein bandhen, prem ki puriya, etc.

  4. quite a terrifying experience, james w h, but you make it sound somewhat funny. i don’t know whether i should laugh or not. 😐

  5. @Steelhearts… the world of the taxi driver is rife with gallows humor. I drove a cab myself, once. I lasted two weeks. It’s an insanely tough job.

  6. Oh my lovely darling Rimi!!
    What a note to read u gimme!

    I was “transported” back to my good old JU days!!! ♥

  7. That was nostalgic. Reminds me of my trips to JU from my Garia P.G. during the undergrad days. Thank you 🙂

  8. Zen and Anindya, very happy to have triggered happy thoughts 🙂

    James, that’s one hell of a story! The essence of my auto rides back then was precisely that I always took them heading out of the city, leaving the insane traffic behind me. That was a large part of why I loved them so much.

    Steely, haha, I would edit, but I *love* Easter Railways. I’ll just keep that as-is and change the other one, all right?

    Kaichu, you are not allowed any more mauling of my darling nick. Stick to Priyanka, or I shall bash your head in. *flexes imaginary muscles*

  9. Priyanka, I love your backhanded serves, your condescension to those who deserve condescension, encapsulated within a mere phrase: “tented anatomy eager to make friends”; and your brief evocations “gauzy haze of our dupattas.” (BTW – and this is only my obsessionality speaking, the part where if I see a dogeared, upturned corner I’m compelled to straighten it – although you write that you won’t edit “Easter Railways” because you like it, does the same go for “reprive,” “seats significantly lowers,” “break,” and “started handle”?)

    • It certainly does not 🙂 Thank you for volunteering your editorial ink — I’ll make the changes straightaway.

      And thank you especially for the very kind words.

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