During rush hour the ladies’ carriage of the Delhi Metro, for all its unsavoury implications, is a much less crowded and certainly better-smelling way to get around town for those of us in possession of a pair of ovaries. A tube of air-conditioned plastic and metal, the train looks more like a dentist’s waiting room than anything one might imagine when thinking of Indian public transport. The metro system is a new development, part of Incredible India’s ongoing project to rebrand itself as exotic yet reliable, spiritual yet technical, the land of ascetic Sadhus and economic booms.
The gleaming seats running the length of the carriage, each with an ergonomically perfect indentation for the modern Indian backside, are occupied by a mixed cast of characters, though leaning more towards the urban middle class as I enter at Hauz Khas station. The danger of eye contact between strangers has been cleverly minimized by the smartphones clutched in almost every hand.
Opposite me sit seven pairs of legs clad in skinny jeans, their owners apparently impervious to the fact that the temperatures above ground are well above forty degrees Celsius. They are chatting animatedly in Hinglish and consulting each other’s phones, giggling in that breathless blushing way of young girls discussing a boy. Further along an East Asian tourist, in hat and gloves, with a face mask around her neck, has chosen to wear pristine white and unmistakeably expensive sneakers in what I can only presume was a fit of delusional optimism.
At Jor Bagh station a young woman enters, wearing a green sleeveless tank top and short denim cut-offs showing off long dark legs ending in a pair of high-heeled, thick-soled don’t-fuck-with-me leather shoes. Her hair is expertly braided in two long French plaits and her face bare except for a dark red lipstick and a large ornamental nose-piercing in heavy yellow gold, like those traditionally worn by brides. In Delhi, where the female body is a battle-ground fought over daily, her bare thighs are a revolutionary manifesto, her traditional jewellery a suit of armour, the bra-strap slipping down her shoulder a noose with which to hang the patriarchy. I swoon in awe.
At Rajiv Chowk, one of the main hubs of the metro system, the crowd changes dramatically as many of the passengers squeeze their way out of the carriage, battling through the throng of people trying to enter at the same time. The western clothing and more practical salwar kameez become the minority with the arrival of so many sari-clad bodies, long flowing skirts, and a handful of women swaddled in black chadors. As more and more women fill the carriage I can only see snippets of the people around me, a collage of body parts: a toe-ring here, a cascade of long black hair there, a hand holding on to a metal pole, on the narrow wrist a beaded band decorated with a row of swastikas – the Hindu symbol of luck. A little boy, pressed against my knees and clutching his mother’s hand, still far too tiny, and plump, and innocent to be banished from the ladies’ carriage, stares at me with large green eyes.