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April 12th, 2005

Walking the Station with the Girls

(Practices of Marking at a Railway Station)


This evening, I have an appointment with Sushanti and Suparna. They are home guards at a railway station in the city. I have known them for sometime now. Earlier in the week, I had requested them to allow me to walk the railway station with them. “Sure, we can show you around the railway station, but anything outside the railway station, we don’t know much.”


Through some days now, I have been examining practices of marking at railway stations in the city. Marking takes place on the criteria of religious affiliation, economic class, criminality/non-criminality, abnormality/normality, traveling without ticket versus traveling with ticket and profession. Ticket Checkers indulge in marking; they need to determine who is traveling with a ticket and who is traveling ticketless. Home guards need to mark drug addicts and criminals and miscreant men. They also mark women, though that is not part of their job. Why is the railway station a site of marking in a city?


I landed at 8:30 PM at the railway station. Neelam, another home guard, is standing on the entrance of the first ladies compartment of the local train. As usual, I approach her to ask for Sushanti and Suparna. Neelima is married and has children and she tells me that she tries to balance home and work. After walking around the station a bit, we manage to find Sushanti and Suparna. Today is Gudi Padwa, the Maharashtrian New Year. Suparna excitedly comes and greets me, “Happy New Year.” I wish her the same. Sushanti tells me, “Today is a good day. There is less rush at the station because of festival and plus, today is Saturday. On a regular day, this station is madness personified. Till 8:00 PM, we keep standing. The rush of women drops after 8 PM which is when we take a little rest by sitting on the flooring of the trains that arrive here. Our work timing is from 4:00 PM until 11. By 11, this station is silent. Since all of us girls live in the same area, about ten minutes away from each other, we travel together. My father comes half way through the road to pick me up. We have been here since nine months and have not faced any untoward incident at night.”


Sushanti and Suparna are proud of their job. They feel this is desh seva . “There are so many facilities at the railway station, all for ladies. First, you had the GRP (General Railway Police, a force of the State Police) which used to patrol the station. Then, with the rape case in the train, GRP guards were made to travel in the trains with the ladies. Last year, the Deputy Chief Minister got 500 home guards to stand on the railway station and make sure that women don’t get harassed. All of this for ladies only.”


We start to walk the platform. Sushanti takes me to platform number 7. “This is the most danger area. On weekdays, during the peak hours (i.e. 5-8 PM), ladies are running like mad to get inside the train. All long-distance fast trains halt here. Even before the train has halted, these ladies will jump inside the train to get seats. It is so dangerous. Even the males are wonderstruck when they watch the ladies jumping like this in the trains. We have fun watching the women jump. That’s our only source of entertainment here.” We start to walk towards the end of the platform. “This is also a very danger point. The danger is because the thieves and the drug addicts stand right here and in the crowds, they use their blades to slit the bags and steal. Once, one of our GRP men got hold of two druggies stealing. They had a major fight. The druggies slit the hands of the guard with their blades. You have to be very careful of their blades. You can get AIDS.” Suparna adds, “Poison – the blades are poisonous. You have to be careful.” Sushanti concludes, “So, on a platform, we have the first point, middle point and the last point (corresponding with the first ladies, middle ladies and the last ladies compartments). There is too much stench around platform number 7. Very dirty there! That is the place where the druggies reside.”


I am going to eat dinner with Sushanti and Suparna. I am also embarrassed because I am not carrying tiffin with me. Hence I have nothing to share/contribute in their dinner fiesta. “We will eat dinner late,” Sushanti tells me, adding, “let us take the train and go to some stations. You ask us whatever questions you want. I don’t know what you would be interested in knowing from us.” I nod. We get inside the train. “How do you feel doing this job? Do your parents and family members support you? What about your social life? Do you have a life beyond the railway station?” I ask them as we are riding the trains. Sushanti tells me, “I feel tired at the end of the day. It is not easy to keep standing all the while on the platform. I have backache. But I take care of myself. After 8, I take rest on the station. Parents don’t have much problem with my work. You see, more than family members, it is the neighbours who like to gossip and question ‘where is this girl going? Why does she come home late?’ For us, as long as our parents trust us, it is fine. Our parents are assured that our daughter is not doing anything wrong. Till then, it is fine. As for social life, I don’t know about others, but I personally take out time to be with friends. It is important for me.”


As we are riding the trains, two of their colleagues, male GRP guards, inquire about me. When we get off the station, Sushanti introduces me to them. “You tell them what you are doing.” I try to explain to one of the colleagues. He asks, “Are you Christian?” “No,” I respond, clarifying my religious affiliation. “Okay. I have only started patrolling the stations since a month or so hence I have not much experience to share with you. Yeah, but I remember that some days ago, a woman was walking on the platform when a man from the general compartment, looking at her, said, ‘ kya maal hai? ’(i.e. sexy thing). The lady saw that we GRP guards were sitting there. She took riks (i.e. risk) on our basis and slapped the man. The man started saying that he did not make the remark and that the other fellow had. She retorted angrily. In the meanwhile, a bhaiyya (from Uttar Pradesh) bhel-puri hawker was showing his 32 white teeth and smiling at the woman’s plight. Hamne danda liya aur kaan ke neeche baja diya usko (We took our stick and gave him solid beating). These are two memorable experiences of recent times.” Sushanti added, “That’s true what he said. Because we guards are around, ladies take riks (i.e. risk) and are able to retort to the men. But there are times when ladies will ask us to threaten the men eve-teasing them. When we ask the ladies to come with us to the men, they will want to scamper away. How can we simply go up to a man and threaten him if the woman is not coming forward with us as witness and victim?”


Sushanti then introduces me to the home guard at the station we are on. Her name is Vijaya. “Meet Vijaya,” Sushanti tells me, “She is very fearless. She will stay alone at this station. This station becomes very silent after 9 PM. But she holds guard.” Vijaya excitedly shakes hands with me. “I don’t fear anything except for ghosts and uparwala (i.e. god),” she says. “But where are the ghosts?” I ask her. “Oh,” she says, “the lane where I live becomes very silent at 2:30 in the night. I feel afraid to venture there at that time. That’s when I feel there are ghosts there.” Vijaya is married. Her husband tells her that as long as she can pay equal attention at home, she is permitted to do this job. “I have always loved serving people. Since my youth I have been engaged in this kind of activity. Sometimes I defy my husband and come to perform duty here. I have three children. But I manage to balance home and work. Husband says that I should make sure that I am back home every night by 12:30 AM.”


We decide to take the train back to our original station. Sushanti starts to say, “This is how we perform our duty. It is tough. The harbour line railway stations are most dangerous. There we have only one home guard per point. But they are left early. Some of the harbour line railway stations are very dangerous, like Reay Road and Dockyard station and even Govandi.” “Why do you call them dangerous?” I asked her, presuming that her notion of ‘dangerous’ emerges from the close presence of slums along those two railway stations. She responds, “Oh, Reay Road and Dockyard are Muslim areas and hence the stations are dangerous.” “What about Govandi? Why do you call that dangerous?” I ask her. “I don’t know much about Govandi. I have never been there. But one girl used to work there and she used to say this to us. I don’t know much,” Sushanti says.


We return back to the station. I ask both of them to tell me if they have seen deaths at the station and how it makes them feel. “Yes, we have seen deaths. No deaths take place at junction stations like VT and Churchgate. But on other stations, people recklessly cross the station. The first death I had seen was of a 12-year-old boy. I am not sure how he became a victim, but his body was completely cut apart. I had seen his dead body. I just could not sleep for about two days after that. It was so terrible. Now, we are used to it. There is a fine for people who cross the railway tracks. It is a criminal offense to cross the railway tracks (and a social offense to travel ticketless as indicated by the notice boards on the railway stations) and the police can fine you for this. But people cross. On one occasion, a fat man was trying to cross the tracks. But due to his weight, he could not climb up. He tried and tried, but he could not get himself to lift up and climb back on the tracks. The mail train was fast approaching. I was standing there and watching, but I could not help him. Then, a group of 12 men came and stopped the train and helped the man out. When he got onto the platform, I shouted at him, ‘what mister, hasn’t the government made bridges for you to navigate the station? Why do you have to cross the tracks? What if you had died here today?’ He started saying ‘sorry, sorry’ to me. I told him, ‘you are elder in age to me. And you will say sorry and get off. Don’t say sorry to me. Resolve that you will use the Foot Over Bridge instead of crossing the tracks.’ Now you tell me, you must have been to foreign countries. How is the railway station there? We have seen images of the doors of the train close automatically there. But can you cross tracks there? Is the railway station like this over there too?” I am astonished as to how Sushanti knows that I have been abroad. Did I ever tell her? I tell her that it is a criminal offense there too to cross the tracks. It’s simply not allowed.


It’s dinner time now. Sushanti and Suparna collect their bags from their little police post on the station and we start to proceed towards the ladies waiting room which is where we will be eating our dinner. Sushanti says to me, “Children escape from homes and come to the station and fall in bad company and start to do drugs. Once, a boy came up to me and said ‘my elder brother is calling you.’ My colleague was also with me. I knew the boy was teasing us. I thrashed him and asked him ‘where is your elder brother? Take us there!’ He ran away. We knew that he was a truant boy. A few days later, we saw the same boy at another station. He was walking with an elderly man. We thought that this is the elder brother he is talking about. We decided to thrash that man. We went up to him and said, ‘are you his elder brother who wanted to meet us?’ The man said, ‘I am this boy’s father. This boy does not sit in school and runs off to the station to do drugs. I don’t know what to do with him.’ From his looks, we had determined that the boy was from a good family. We understand that it is easy to fall into bad habits, but difficult to get out. So we empathized with the father and said to him, ‘Now that we know he is your son, the next time we see him doing drugs on the station, we will beat him up and get him back to you. You don’t worry.’ I don’t like beating the children,” Sushanti says contemplatively and with a sense of sadness, “but this is part of our job. Initially, it was difficult. But you know, we have to be strict otherwise these people will sit on our heads. Even now, I don’t beat up. I just warn them and let them go.” “How do people perceive you?” I ask her, as she is reflecting on her everyday life at the station. “Some people are good to us and respect our duties. But a lot of women don’t see us with respect. If we are sitting for a while, they will say ‘look at them. Government servants and they are bumming around.’ Once, a five plus one, you understand know, that means six (eunuch), had boarded the train. He was old and wasn’t harassing the women. We entered the train. After a while, he quietly walked out. The ladies started saying, ‘look at you, home guards, you don’t do anything when these eunuchs enter the train. What use are you? We have to fend for ourselves.’ I got angry and responded to the woman who made the remark, ‘madam, just because you have money and that eunuch doesn’t, you can say these things. And he wasn’t doing anything to you. And, for your kind information, if I hadn’t entered the train, he wouldn’t have walked out.’ The woman got angry and she started yelling at me. I told her, ‘I am a government servant and not your servant. The government gives me money and not you.’ But she kept on yelling. I felt bad and told my seniors about this. They said to me, ‘you go on doing your duty. It doesn’t matter what the public says.’ That is how the public is here. They will not acknowledge what we are doing. And I am telling you, statistics have revealed that crime rates have come down by 80% ever since we were posted here. Now only 20% has to be tackled with.”


We settled down to eat dinner. Sushanti and Suparna’s colleagues are there. They ask me to take a bite from their tiffin. Sushanti says to me, “Here, take some vegetable and chappatis. Now, I don’t like to tell the other person ‘please, please, eat some’. If you like, take more from my tiffin. That is how I like.” We start to eat and as per her instructions, I dig into her tiffin whenever I need more. She feels happy that I have adjusted to them. “That feels nice. Look Suparna, she eats so well,” she says to Suparna. “So,” I ask her, “this waiting room is everything for you? I mean you change your clothes here and when you get back at night, you change your clothes here?” She replies, “When we come in the evening for duty, we change here. On return, we dress half-civil i.e. we simply change the top garment and retain the trousers. This way, people don’t see us with bad eye. In the beginning, we used to feel afraid returning back home. Once you are in plain clothes, you are just like the average public. The uniform has power. So when we used to go back home in civil clothes, public in the trains and on the station used to think we are dance bar girls returning. Now that we dress half-civil, people know that we are returning from our duty and we are not that type of girls.”


As dinner ends, Sushanti’s colleagues are curious to know more about me. “She is our friend,” Sushanti declares proudly. One of their colleagues, Sunidhi, comes up to me. She sees the Sarai Broadsheets which I am carrying in my hands. “What is this?” she asks. “Can you read English? If you can, take one,” I respond. She starts to open out the Broadsheet. “Oh, this opens out completely huh?” she says. Sushanti tells me, “You know, we can understand English very well. If someone says something to us, we can clearly understand. But it is difficult for us to respond. That is why, we would prefer if you speak with us in English. That way, we can learn something from you.” I hand over a copy of the Broadsheet to Suparna as well. She is having fun with the image in the middle of the inside poster. “I know this, I know this. It is illusion,” she shouts.


Sunidhi starts talking to me. “I want to start my own business. Now I am trying to. But until business starts, I want to continue in this job.” Sushanti once again asks my name. “Accha, so you are Muslim huh? Do you follow the Quran?” I tell her that religion is not a strict imposition in my home and that my parents have allowed me to do what I have wanted to. “Oh, that means there is love in your home,” she concludes happily. “We have made quite a few good friends here, at the station, in all these months of duty. We have met some really nice people. Now you are one of them. Do you do ghar-kaam (i.e. household work as expected of a girl)?” “No,” I tell her. “Yeah, when I saw you, I realized that you must be from a hi-fi family. So you must be having servants at home to do work. But it is nice to know some ghar-kaam . It’s important because even when there are servants around, husband likes it if wife does some of the household work, especially cooking, with her own hands.” I nod.


Something happens and we start to talk about different cities. Delhi becomes a subject of discussion. Sunidhi says, “It’s good in Delhi, I have heard.” I tell Sunidhi that Delhi is an unsafe place for women and there is greater liberty for women in Bombay. “Yeah, I would guess as much,” she starts saying, “Mughals had ruled Delhi and they would keep their wives inside their homes. Hence this culture in Delhi. I have loved Razia Sultan. Sushanti, you know that Razia Sultan was the only Muslim woman who ruled a kingdom. And the Muslim men did not like this and hence they killed her. I truly adore her character.”


We start to wrap up and walk back to the station. Sushanti, Sunidhi and myself are walking back. “Just a minute, we will keep our bags and join you,” Sushanti says. The station is quite empty now. As I stand by a pillar, I realize that I am now a visible entity. In the rush hours of the day and the evening, standing at the pillar on the station is a practice which is not marked because the individual is anonymous and invisible. But at 10:30 at night, this same practice creates visibility and perhaps could result in the ‘public’ marking me. Would I also be seen as a dance bar girl? Sushanti and Sunidhi arrive. I ask Sunidhi where her point is. “There, at platform number 7. It stinks badly all the time. I don’t like it there.” Suddenly, Sushanti sees a burkha clad woman and asks me, “In yours, do you wear burkha ?” “No,” I tell her. “It’s getting late now. You had better go. Your mummy will be worried about you,” she tells me with concern. I board the local train. “We know the time-table by-heart now,” Sushanti informs me while there is some time for the train to depart. “Public asks us about the trains. And some people, inspite of giving them the correct information, they will ask around with others to confirm again and again. I feel irritated that the public does not trust.”


The train starts to move slowly from the platform. We wave out to each other. I return …


  1. April 12th, 2005 at 05:24 | #1

    hii zainab,as always was great fun reading ur blog,takes a great deal of patience though but was worth ,
    i really liked the part where they spoke about the lady slaping the wrong guy and the UP bhaya
    puts a smile on my face not just that several things like the platfoem7 and gaurds fight,gharkam,burkha….was really nice blog
    i dont know if u thiught about it but u would be able right good theater plays,,,really

    And yes i am from mumbai surbarbs:) which part of town are you from?
    so long
    take care

  2. April 12th, 2005 at 07:29 | #2

    that’s good to know that government has put the guards for the safety of the women…

    hats off to these ladies(home guards) who are doing a great job…even in the late night hours