Training in Delhi

February 2nd, 201111:51 am @


While a lot of the attention during Delhi’s Commonwealth Games focused on the corruption, the late and somewhat shoddy work, the outbreak of Dengue fever and the general lack of anything approaching organisation, the games did leave the city one great legacy – an expanded metro railway.

Its extension across the city wasn’t without its setbacks – part of the structure near our house collapsed, killing six – but in a city where most infrastructure doesn’t work as expected, the metro is a revelation. The fast, frequent and clean trains put the public transport systems of many developed nations to shame. Yes, Sydney, I’m looking at you.

The first car of every train is reserved for women, which hasn’t gone down well with the city’s male-dominated population and cries of “discrimination” from men are bandied about with little apparent irony. Guards at each station vigilantly enforce the female-only status of the cars. I’m told the metro authorities specifically looked for older women who’d raised kids and wouldn’t take shit, and it works. They’ll hold the train at the station while they march through the carriage, armed with nothing but a booming voice, herding any miscreant males to the end of the car, where they cluster, looking back forlornly at at all open space from the overcrowded confines of the general carriages.

There are seats reserved for women in the general carriages as well, although these aren’t policed so they’re in play for any bloke who wants them, even when there are women standing nearby. If you want to see a case of mass narcolepsy, wait for a pregnant woman to get on a carriage full of Delhi men.

Every single man will mysteriously fall asleep in an instant.

I was standing next to two blokes occupying the seats reserved for women and wondered if they’d “wake up” and move for the pregnant woman. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t, so after a few minutes I nudged one in the leg one with my foot. He “woke up” ostentatiously and looked at me. I nodded towards the pregnant woman, then at the “Reserved for Women” sign above his head. He turned to look at his mate, who by this stage had also “woken up”, seeing if he would get up instead. His mate gave him a shrug that said: “Don’t look at me, he’s talking to you.” After realising everyone was watching him by this stage,  he gave a petulant sigh and stood up, only to have another guy standing near-by run to occupy the seat. Luckily he was stopped by other commuters so the pregnant woman could finally sit down.

Getting a seat isn’t the only difficulty. Getting on and off the train can be a challenge. As with most things here it’s a “last come, first served” situation. As soon as the doors open the massed passengers on the platform surge forward to enter the carriage, pushing against the mass of people trying to get off – in a sort of mediaeval mêlée, only without the weapons, obviously. The trick, I learned, is drop your shoulder, get your weight on your front foot and charge into the first guy trying to push his way on. Get him on the back foot and you can clear a path for yourself as he peddles backwards, pushing those behind him out of the way. Who knew that all those nights spent freezing my extremities off at rugby training would come in handy on the Delhi metro.

It’s not all misogynistic sleepers and aggressive shovers, however, there are those moments that India throws at you just as you’re about to give up and fly somewhere sane, but far less interesting.

My Hindi, shamefully, is sub-par; actually, that’s building it up a bit. However, thanks to the crystal-clear and well-annunciated bi-lingual announcements, I’m picking up some words through repeated exposure. Unfortunately, my chances of using the phrases I’ve learned are somewhat limited unless I can figure out a way to work “doors will open on the left, mind the gap” into a dinner conversation.

The stations, too, have their own announcements along the usual lines of not touching unattended baggage (or toys), co-operating with security staff and, somewhat enigmatically, “do not befriend any strangers”. This seems somewhat rough, after all, a stranger is just a friend you haven’t yet met.

Then there’s commuters for whom catching a train is a new experience. Surrounded by villages, many of Delhi’s visitors are from the rural outskirts, coming into the city for medical care, to trade or just to see the sights. It’s not uncommon to see people photographing their friends in front of the metro signs or even the escalators. I once waited behind a woman trying to work out the automated exit gate. After dropping her token uncertainly in the slot, she stared doubtfully at the freshly-opened gap in front of her. The guard leaning against the gates told her to go through. Still unsure, as though she were worried the opening would disappear at the last minute, she steeled herself and leaped through the gate like a long jumper, sending the guard into hysterics. Turning around and seeing the gate still open, she joined in.

At a station late one night a whirl of bright colour at the far end of the platform caught my eye – it was a group of Rajasthani women in traditional, brightly coloured chaniya cholis. As the train rolled into the station one of them put her arm out to flag it down, as you would a bus or rickshaw.

Seeing the woman’s arm sticking into the path of the train the driver braked. As soon as she noticed what was happening, the guard on the platform – there to enforce the no-men policy – ran towards the woman, berating her. Her friends fell into fits of laughter, pushing each other and giggling like children. With the woman’s arm out of the way, the driver sped up to carry on to the end of the platform. Thinking the train wasn’t going to stop, the women started shouting and running after it, until their friend the guard started yelling again. More giggling, more nudging.

I can’t remember the last time I had fun just because I was catching a train.

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