After almost two months of travelling between the sumptuous islands of Indonesia and the breathtaking South and North that make up New Zealand, I am back in the heat and throng that is India. This time starting in the East, Kolkata is our first stop. A typical major city in this land, it’s loud, busy, conjested and enthralling all at the same time. Having been to India a handful of times before, I am at an advantage to try and act as local as possible by speaking Hindi as well as my reference to Bollywood movies allows, expecting tiny cups of steaming tea at roadsides while you pick up laundry or buy an illegal SIM card. Unique to this great city are the beautiful, many tragically neglected and left to natural ruin, buildings evidently built in the time of the Raj and finger-licking mustard based seafood curries.
Kolkata is a big city, lucky for us we were quite centrally based, but in order to see the eponymous Howrah Bridge about 20 minutes away, we decided to board a local bus. Off peak hours of course. After asking a few questions, we venture to purchase a ticket. Systematic queuing isn’t a social norm in this country so even though we were stood in line, about five people found their way in front of us before we were told tickets are purchased on the bus. Of course they are!
Finally one of many rickety buses that looks about fifty years old, spewing grey fumes, pulls up to the side of the road. We board and sit on one of the small leather berks excited to see a different part of the city. One of my favourite past times in a foreign place perticularly in India, is people watching. Public transport in India, unlike queuing, has certain formalities the main being seating areas that are separated for women. Naturally we found ourselves on the wrong side as all the men that boarded were sat to one side of the train and women on the other. Quickly, more so not to offend anyone rather than overcome a feeling of threat, we moved over. Howrah is a beastly construction, now pictorially typifying modern day Kolkata with the equally charming yellow Ambassador cabs that beam through it along with the rest. Makes for fantastic pictures, which are by the way are forbidden on the bridge. Don’t tell.
I have read, heard and been told many things about travelling in India. It’s not safe, don’t trust anyone, never take anything from anyone, watch your belongings and for God’s sake don’t travel anywhere on you or own, especially not at night. That is just asking for trouble, right.
Bombay, one of my most favourite places in the world is so different from my last visit here almost 4 years to the day. The streets are cleaner, people are super helpful (we were constantly ripped off on my last trip) taxi drivers actually want to help you out and beautiful shops, restaurants, cafes, boutiques can be found everywhere. Of course street shopping is a delight here, where like much of Asia you can barter for the best deal and come away with small treasures at tiny prices.
After some yummy food and bags full of shopping at Colaba Causeway, naturally we end the evening with a trip to the cinema. For a standard seat, Rs 100 please.
Two hours and a bathroom plus snack interval later, it’s midnight. We are in South Mumbai and our hotel is in the North. It’s a pretty large city and you need about 30-45 minutes to get anywhere. A little dumbstruck and slightly apprehensive, my cousin and I wonder how we will make it back to our hotel in Juhu. To get to this part of town much earlier in the day we ventured down on the local train from Andheri. This was relitively pain free getting us across town avoiding traffic and car fumes. At the ungodly hour of 12.20am however, in my opinion, getting a train back was not an option. I mean, we are two females wanting to travel alone on a train in India. Nope, not happening. ‘Do you think the trains are still running at this time?’ my cousin asks me. My reaction is horror. Next thing I know she’s asking a group of local girls who are standing just outside the cinema entrance ‘Sure the trains are running, just cross over the road and get a cab to the station’ replies one of the girls. I’m still horrified and slightly amazed as I was expecting her to dissuade us, but we began crossing over to where fellow film buffs were attempting to hail down cabs.
Our destination station was Churchgate, which sounded simple enough. However after getting the same response from two cabbies – a shake of the head before quickly driving away, the sinking feeling that we were going to be stuck with next to no idea of how to get back to our hotel, began to take over. Further horror. We noticed a few others who were left waiting as we were. In front of us was a young guy with two older women who’d had the same luck with the cabs as us, until just then. They jumped in to their taxi. My stomach tightened. Would we end up walking the dark streets, alone?! Just as he was about to get in the front passanger’s seat, the young man looked at us and around at the street ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. Churchgate station! His head dissapeared behind the passenger door. My cousin beside me meanwhile, was running to an approaching taxi who finally nodded in acceptance at Churchegate station jawo ge, when the young man whose cab was just starting to pull away asked if we wanted to share a ride. We smiled and thanked him for the sweet gesture, relieved that our luck had turned and we were getting closer to home for the night. Chatting about it in the cab, we realised that with two in the back seats already, it would have been a tight squeeze had we taken up the kind stranger’s offer. Nonetheless it was a hugely pleasant surprise that we happily would have accepted had things not quite worked the way they did.
Churchgate station is a busy one during the day. At past midnight, the ticket stand area is lined with early morning staff who are sprawled out on blankets fast asleep and the very sorry looking dogs that are sadly too common a part of India’s streets, quietly sniffing around for scraps of food. We find an open counter selling tickets and there is a queue of about five people. Which train do we get onto for Juhu? Any train that is out there, we are told.
Quickly we approach the only train stood at the platform and board the 24hour Women Only carriage. Conviniently, it’s the one closest to the station. Through the bars of the window, we see a man in khaki uniform sat at the back. He’s the guard and shoos off two men who try and board, before plugging a pair of white headphones in his ears. This is slightly reassuring but still makes us a little cautious about the clientele of this hour. We take our seats by the front of the carriage and anxiously wait. Men walk hurridly on the platform beside us to the other carriages, many holding briefcases, others with friends including a few women. Shortly before the train departs, a young girl gets on sitting a few seats away from us. She is slight in frame and can’t have been any more than 23 years old. Politely she asks where we will be getting off. Andheri we reply, and yourself? Gurgaon she replies. It’s a suburban part of the city further north from Juhu. At the next stop, a group of about 6 women jump on, most of them older woman most wearing headscarves. I was amazed to see older women travelling alone at that time and again a similar conversation started. Where are you going, which is your stop. And you?
At first we weren’t paying much attention but quickly we realised one of the women would be on her own for most of the way as she was going the furthest. Phones are quickly whipped out and mobile numbers exchanged. Call me when you arrive, okay? Teek.
Andheri arrives and most of the women stand to disembark looking around at the others seated. One of the chattier women from the group reminds herself aloud of some of the stops the remaining ladies are due to get off at. As we start to walk towards the street, the women shouts to the carriage guard forcing him to remove his headphones, pointing at the girls ‘this girl is travelling to Gurgaon make sure she gets there safely. Stay with her and look after her okay?’.
Maybe we were lucky, some might say outright stupid. After midnight trains in most places around the world are not safe, perticularly for women. But we saw first hand how people this country are dealing with their circumstances. The Ladies Only carriage after hours turned into a community looking out for each other and it didn’t matter who you were, it is an unspoken formality to be responsible for one another. It was touching to see we had received help from total strangers that night, to ensure we would be able to get home safely. There’s no denying that there are dangers out there, but humanity goes a long way it was touching to see it in action on our midnight train home in India.