Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Marching Forth -- Are We?

Today is the last day of March and I waited 3 weeks to watch another commercial 'festival' unfold. Actually, the drama went on for 4 weeks, in spurts and breaks; with the peaks scheduled around weekends. You see, one needs some time to indulge in the favourite pastime of the globalised new world -- hanging around in shopping malls and checking out 'deals' during sales. And there were sales galore; all of them to appease one half of humanity that has an international day reserved for them. Every shop worth the neon lights that illuminate its signboard had large sign announcing gleefully SALE and all these sales were for women to shop and celebrate International Women's Day. The original political beginning of this day, marked to remind people of societal committment towards improving the lives of the women of the world, is completely forgotten. It has become just another celebration of spending power, akin to those hundreds of 'days' that keep the registers clanging at the thousands of Archies and Hallmark franchisees around the world.
The list of services offered at disocunted rates for women to celebrate their womanhood ranged from spa treatments to pedicures to getting dental plaque removed! The range of goodies women could grab at sales stretched from diamonds to underwear! And the gamut of experiences open to the adventurous included yachting and flying! The conventional lead story about the 'development' of women, however, made itself conspicuous by its absence. Every year, on reading that cursory gesture towards women by the media, I would ask myself whether any real stock taking happened around early March to note a significant improvement in the lives of women around the world.
Undeniably, we have more choices in terms of careers than our grandmothers did. Also, we exercise our right to choose more often than our mothers did, be it about our careers or our personal lives. But does that mean we have more real choices to make our lives more comfortable? Here are a couple of scenes from the lives of more than 90% of Mumbai's women:
Scene 1: A women manages to rush out of her flat, after finishing all the morning chores of cooking and packing lunchboxes for herself and her family, about 15 mins before the scheduled departure of her local train to work. She knows it takes about 5 mins to reach the station if she takes an autorickshaw. A slight drizzle starts while she is on her way to the nearest autorickshaw stand. To her dismay she finds that no autorickshaw driver will oblige her by driving such a short distance during rush hour on a rainy morning. She alternates between jogging and trotting to the station and manages to reach nearly 3 mins before the train is scheduled to pull in and realises that the train is going to be late that day. She is not sure if she should be relieved that she gets time to catch her breath or should be exasperated at the delay. As the seconds tick by she notices that the crowd at the station is swelling. The people who usually take the next train are already on the platform. The train pulls in and this crowd of women rush towards it to get in. The regulars as well as the newcomers. She resents the presence of these 'extra' passengers. She cannot empathise with their fear of getting delayed in case their regular train too gets delayed. She does not curb her impulse to snap at them and elbow her way into the compartment. Afterall, she has more of a right to be there than those 'newcomers'.
Scene 2: It is a bright october morning in Mumbai. The weather is on its best behaviour. A young woman walks smartly into the station and takes her regular position on the platform, in front of the pole marked with red and yellow diagonal stripes to indicate the place the first class compartment will be when the local train pulls into the station. She is smartly dressed and well made up. Looking as cool as the proverbial cucumber she digs into her extra large tote and fishes out earphones that connect to some kind of a music player. She seems oblivious to the bustling sweaty crowds around her. She glances disdainfully at young men eyeing her and blocks herself with the help of her earphones from the chatter of the mob of college girls around her. She dislikes them. She has a reason. They crowd into the already miniscule ladies first class and bunch up in gossiping groups till the terminus while they pay one third the amount she does to earn the dubious privilege of travelling in a first class compartment. It is a dubious privelege for it entails being cooped inside a compartment that is a quarter of the size of a regular train compartment with close to 200 women at any given point in the journey for the next half an hour or so. While she prefers the proximity of perfumed bodies to the sweaty bustle of the larger ladies general compartment, she has to admit that she thanks her stars each time she gets out of her first class compartment in one piece. Each time she feels claustrophobic trapped in the sea of strange human bodies, she mentally ticks off the advantages of a first class pass, the advantages of the local train and the advantages of living in Mumbai and holds her breath till she can jostle her way out at her stop and get some air, even if polluted with particulate matter, on the crowded streets outside the train station.

These two scenarios are not at all extraordinary or exaggerated. These are two glimpses of the real experiences of almost all Mumbai women on their way to work, every day of their lives. Undeniably, the Mumbai local train grind is not gender specific. And any Mumbai man who has ever travelled by either of the two offered classes of travel by Mumbai locals will rightly point out that the ladies specific comaprtment trains are less crowded than the ones the men struggle through every day of their lives. Once again true. However, most men do not need to calculate every minute of the morning hours to be able to hurry out of the house just in time to catch their trains. They mostly do not worry about facing a frowning domestic help if the fridge is not well stocked with vegetables or bother about saving time by using the commute to cut vegetables. While they share the women's taxing experience of the dreaded commute, most of them do not juggle with household chores during the few waking hours at home. In such a context, the real choice for a Mumbai woman is not choose between being a housewife and a mortal avatar of the multi-limbed Durga.
Mumbai women reel out comforting information about the 'social life' in local trains: train friendships, long gossip sessions, learning skills such as knitting, saving time at home by cutting vegetables during their commute and, the best of all, buying trinkets at unbelievably unMumbai prices. I can vouch for just the last one. I have done that, in the ladies general compartment at non-rush hours. They choose to block out memories of the painful elbow digs at various parts of their bodies, the rude abuses hauled at them, the risky jump onto moving trains and the frequent fights for space to stand inside the compartment. No one, of course, wants to think of the periodic tragic falls from local trains that newbie commuters suffer from, some times fatally. For if they thought of all these things they would be left with only one choice -- sitting at home. And the only acknowledgement the railway authorities occassionally make of the increasing number of women commuters is an arbitrary move of declaring a couple of compartments as reserved for women and requesting the male passengers not to enter them.
The first class ladies comaprtment, which is supposed to be an improvement over the general one, has only the range of perfumes to recommend for itself! The much-touted camaraderie of the ladies general compartment is non-existent. Rudeness and abuses manifest themselves in more 'sophisticated' forms and the density of people is much worse than the other kind of ladies compartment. This particular type of compartment was designed and launched about a hundred years ago. Probably it was a luxury then. I assume all the career women a hundred years ago in Mumbai got to sit during their commute to work if they could afford the first class pass. Isn't it time the concerned authorities woke up to the fact that the number of women who can and do commute to work by the first class compartment has increased by a thousand fold in these hundred years? Wouldn't the women of Mumbai appreciate such much-needed concern more than crazy discounts to buy diamonds that they can ill afford during a recession?

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