The unstoppable freight trains that women are

The gentleman asked, “Can you drive a train if you’re wearing a saree?” and in the next breath, he said, “No! You cannot!”
(Image courtesy: BBC)

The muggy afternoon was graciously transforming into a breezy evening. My watch crawled towards 5pm as the train chugged to a tired halt. Most of the passengers shuffled out, noisily and eager to step into the overcast evening and its crisp air.

In the previous station, two women had entered the train. I had the window seat near the door, so I watched them fight their way through the crowd to enter. I saw them squeeze through to find space to stand comfortably. They walked towards the door as the crowd in the train trickled out. They stood on the aisle across my seat, holding the bar above. One of them, in a bright pink saree with a silver sequined border, sighed loudly, “It’s so hot! Whatever did we do in our previous lives to deserve this kind of weather?”. On cue, the taller and thinner one, dressed in a green chiffon saree, said, “It’s getting cooler! Be thankful that I’m around. If I wasn’t here, you’d be inside a furnace, such is your karma.” Both of them guffawed merrily. They made no effort to shush. I noticed that they were carrying heavy handbags, the kind that working women usually do. The brown jasmine on their hair meant that they had stepped out of their homes early in the morning. Their tired faces, though, protested against any suggestion of exhaustion.

The old and young men around them were distracted by their phones, watching a movie, or were asleep. When the train halted at and continued from the next station, it did not resemble itself from an hour ago, when there was barely an inch of space between passengers and where five people shared a seat meant for three. But, even in such a state, the train was a cradle to the workers’ tired bodies.

The train was approaching the last station, after which it would return to the big city for the next trip. Slowly, the passengers woke up. Some were patted awake by friends, others were only half asleep anyway. The noise in the train picked up with small talk.

Amidst the daily chirping of the flock, I heard a loud voice ask, “working, is it, ma?” He was addressing it to a woman. The noise around me and the women suddenly mellowed. “What, Father?” asked the girl in the pink saree. By calling the stranger father she placed herself as a well mannered and respectful woman. She and her companion were still standing (even though they could have sat if they had asked the men to adjust). From the corner of my eyes, I saw the girl in the green saree stand straighter. The loud voice came again, “working in the city, is it?” I noticed, again, that the question was in Third Person. The question tried hard to be impersonal. “Yes, father,” came the reply. Curt. To the point. But polite. Although louder than necessary. Perhaps she was trying to sound brave.

I turned my head slightly to see who the inquisitive gentleman was. He was sitting on the aisle seat next to the women. He wore a faded white shirt and a faded black pant which was more grey than black after multiple washes. He held a lunch basket on his lap. His grey hair betrayed his age. His worn clothes and slippers told the story of his compulsion to work despite the age.

Smiling, he turned towards his co-passengers. A stocky man sitting across him smiled back with a quizzical look. “Did you see that, Sir? She’s working!” he turned to the women who were now looking at him with unsmiling faces. He asked the lady in the green saree, “you too?” Awake to the direction of the banter, she said, “Yes, father. Me too. I work daily. What about you?” Surprised by the question, he said, contemptuously, “isn’t that obvious?” “Why did you ask us, then?” she retorted.

“It’s not common to see women traveling to work, that’s why” he said, attempting a placating tone. “Hm-mmm,” she wearily shook her head, “But women are coming out to work, father. They will do anything and everything. Your generation’s thinking is gone now,” she breathed; the woman in the pink saree looked on, defiantly.

He squinted back at the women with no attempt to mask his shock at the irate women. “Oh that’s what they teach at the schools these days, is it?” he intoned, nodded at the man sitting in front of him and laughed. “Father, that’s the truth. That’s how it is,” said the woman in green.

The firmness in her voice made me look at her more closely. She was clutching her bag tightly. Her hair, disheveled, was tied up in a long plait that was adorned by the brown jasmine. “These days, women can do everything that men can, you know, father?” she said, her voice still calm. A smile was beginning to form on her lips. Her friend, the woman in pink, cut in, “Yes father, even your grand daughters will come out to work in the future,” she giggled. The echo of the joyous laughter of the women had barely left their lips before the gentleman said, “Not everything that a man can do can be done by a woman.”

The woman in green rolled her eyes, and said to her partner, “Oh, that nonsense again”. The woman in pink then said, “Father, I don’t know why you think so. But it’s no longer true that women are restricted by their monthly needs.”

Flustered, the man sat up straight (along with the rest of the compartment that was eavesdropping). “I didn’t mean that!” he said, with a high pitch. “Then what?” asked the woman in green.

He cleared his throat. “You see, now,” he looked at the man in front of him, who had yet to utter a word, and who was now devotedly looking at his mobile phone, presumably watching a movie on it, “look at how this man is dressed. He’s wearing pants, a shirt, and shoes. And consider this train. If this man becomes a train driver, he can handle every kind of situation. A woman like you who wears a saree cannot do anything! You will be helpless and you will need protection yourself.” His voice rose as he asked, “can you ride this train in the night shift?”.

Before either of the young women could respond, he laughed out loud. “No! You cannot! You cannot even dream of doing it!” he cried.

The man sitting in front looked up slowly. He unplugged a earphone and said, “They can.” Even though his voice was soft, everyone on the compartment heard him.

I looked at the women. They were staring back at me.

“What do you mean? Do you understand these women? They claim they can do everything it takes! My wife takes an hour to wash and comb her hair. Can working people afford to do that?” the gentleman asked. “They needn’t do any of that,” said the man sitting opposite; he was looking at his phone again, one earphone fixed to his ear.

“Oh sure, and look like eunuchs?” he laughed, looking at the others in the compartment. He looked at the women and asked, again, “tell me, you said you can do everything that a man does. Can you ride this train after 10pm?”

“I don’t know, father,” said the woman in pink. “But I won’t shy away. Is it not said — if not me, then who? If not now, then when?” she finished to dead silence. The electricity in the train compartment was palpable. Everyone was staring at her.

“Tell me, you said you can do everything that a man does. Can you ride this train after 10pm?”
“I don’t know, father,” said the woman in pink. “But I won’t shy away. Is it not said — if not me, then who? If not now, then when?”

“It doesn’t matter how we dress or what our circumstances are. Any woman to do that which any man can, provided she is given the opportunity” said the woman in green. The woman in pink stole a glance at me. My gaze was affixed on them.

The train whistled loudly as it entered the last station. I was almost sorry to leave the cramped compartment. Everyone stood up to leave. The gentleman stood up and declared loudly as he combed his hair with his gnarled fingers, “I don’t know where these girls get such ideas from. My point is that wearing a saree and working a hard job is impossible, and women without sarees are impossible to find. Women are not encouraged to take up hard jobs for good reason. It’s just better for them to take care of children. That’s good for the children too.”

The woman in pink said, with quiet dignity, “No, father, that’s just your opinion, it’s not the truth.” The train came to a halt. She watched as the men near the door of the compartment alighted. She made way for people to file past her. Some of the women smiled at the women.

“I don’t know where these girls get such ideas from… Women are not encouraged to take up hard jobs for good reason. It’s just better for them to take care of children. That’s good for the children too.”
The woman in pink said, with quiet dignity, “No, Father, that’s just your opinion, it’s not the truth.”

The woman in green did not move from her place even as the train whistled again. The gentleman, now restless, shifted on his feet behind her. “Move, child. Can’t you do this also?” he remarked. “Wait father,” she said. She beckoned to me to lead.

I was standing next to my seat with my back to the window. The gentleman looked at me closely for the first time. His mouth went dry. He looked at my khaki pants and leather boots. I saw a bead of sweat emerge on an eye brow. I smiled at him. From my briefcase, I took out my cap and wore it. My short cropped hair snugly hugged the cap.

A quiet oh escaped the gentleman’s lips.

I tipped my cap to the woman in green, and said, “thank you”. I nodded my salute to the woman in pink as I walked out of the station, with my back straight and head held high.

I’m a woman, I am a fighter, and I can do anything I want to.

Head held high.

Equal rights and equity of opportunities to all the sexes, male, female, trans; that’s equality; that’s feminism.

This story is a fictionalized account derived from true events witnessed on a train plying between Kolar Gold Fields and Bangalore. I don’t own khaki pants; I was wearing a pair of lose four year old faded unfashionable jeans pants. The look on the gentleman’s face was worth a million dollars, though.