6th July 1997


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Mumbai Diary

Those faces we meet

by Kumudini Hettiarachchi

I meet them everyday- at the market, in church, on the road and in the train. The ladies' compartment of the train is the best place to observe them. They are at their freest in there- no masks, no facades, no airs.

Whenever I get into the women's compartment I like to watch the others. Depending on the time of the train, it would be crowded with office-goers or college students.

The college students are carefree, except when exams are round the corner. They love to stand near the compartment door and chat in small groups of two or three, with the wind on their faces and their untied hair flying all over.

But during exam time, they have their noses buried in large books- memorising... memorising.

The office-goers of course jump onto the compartment and dart a glance here and there to spot an empty seat. When they do, most of them sit yoga-style with their legs drawn up under them.

One can spot the newly-married woman with her glistening wedding ring and the expectant mother with such hope on her face. There are also the older women with worry lines all over their faces. Some read romance novels, others powder their faces and comb their hair, while some others pray with such intensity, that they are oblivious of their surroundings.

Once there was a teacher in my compartment correcting answer- scripts. There was also a "woman in white" with whom I used to travel regularly.

She would be in the compartment when I boarded the train at Bandra, a quaint suburb in Bombay. What struck me was that she always wore white- be it a salwar kameez, saree or skirt and blouse. Her beauty was enhanced by a sadness that lurked in her eyes.

One day I struck up a casual conversation with her and gradually we became friends.

Then only did I muster the courage to ask her why she was sad. She was married for five years and her first-born had been a beautiful son, with lots of curly hair and big brown eyes. One night the baby had started vomiting followed by severe attacks of diarrhoea. By the time they took him to hospital the next morning it was too late. He was dehydrated and died in her arms.

Yes, she had another daughter, but she missed the gurgling laughter of her little Arvind - and the tears flowed. What tragedy lies behind the faces we see.

The most interesting time is the evening, when all the gaily dressed women crowd the compartment. Some of them start preparing their evening meal on the train itself- cleaning and breaking leaves from bundles of "pala" they have bought.

There is general excitement and much bargaining when women who sell those "mottus" which can be painted on one's forehead get into the compartment. There are others who hawk cotton dresses and also food.

As the crowd eases around 8p.m. the first class women's compartment reverts to a general one allowing men to board it. But the men usually start jumping into the compartment at about 7.30 p.m.- then one can see the "deadlier' character of the fairer sex. They stand near the door and attempt, sometimes feebly, to physically obstruct the men. If they fail they shout at them.

They seem like tigresses, protecting their young and I do sympathise with them for it is their right to travel in comfort till 8 p.m.

If the men don't alight and the train starts off, as it happens more often some of the bolder women pull the chain. Others simply get off at the next station and board the second class compartment.

In a male dominated society which seems to have scant regard for women's rights what else can they do.

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