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#TrainDiaries: the private world of a ladies compartment on a public train

Anushree Fadnavis | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:42 IST

It's no secret that the locals are the lifeline of Mumbai. If they stop, so does the city. In this day-to-day travel many relationships are forged. Travellers who were strangers have become companions, acquaintances, friends, and extended family.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the ladies compartment - a world unto itself, a second home to all of us. Many women have spent years on the same train at the same time of day, as at home in this space as their own homes.

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And the trains have their own parallel world; where the women are inter-dependent. They knit sweaters from start to finish. They peel, chop vegetables so that by the time they get home they are ready to cook. Some change clothes in the ladies compartment. Most including me do our make-up while the train is running.

There are groups of women who travel regularly together - but who know each other only from the train. They're an extension of family. They tell me that here in the train, with the other women, they find peace and comfort. They forget all their worries and troubles and the fights they have at home. I have seen women laugh, cry, fight and love each other here. For all the visible chaos, there is peace here. Comfort in the discomfort.

My very first memories of the train and the ladies compartment are as a child, when I would travel with my mother from the suburbs to town for family functions. When I started college, the idea of being alone in the train was scary for me - I took my mother along. Since then, I have completed assignments, journals, shared tiffin with strangers, made friends and studied for final exams in the ladies compartment.

It's been part of my world, one I have always wanted to document. My project #traindiaries is a visual, virtual photodiary that I maintain where I document, photograph, note down memories and experiences. My own, as well as of others.

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Using a phone has allowed me to get closer to my subjects; I have got to know more about them as people. A cellphone is unintrusive and people somehow don't when I use a cellphone to take photos whereas there have been questions, and people are more conscious when I have used a DSLR. I am documenting a private space and a lot of people raise questions regarding this, but I also know that in time this will be an important part of history. It's hard to imagine a Mumbai minus locals but who knows what the future looks like - it may be the monorail, or the metro, and in time the ladies compartment might also cease to exist.


train 1

Shama a crossdresser poses for a picture in the Mumbai local train. As she posed, I noticed the others in the background were changing clothes. They usually do that on the train. I'm guessing to save time or they were tired of their party clothes. They were heading back from a party. They never give the details.

A lot of people ask me why I talk to them. My only answer is that they are humans too. Very few people talk to them on the train, most ignore them. I'd like to learn more about them and their community. It's a work in progress.

train 3

A man holds his ear and apologises to a policeman for entering the ladies compartment. It was after midnight and the man boarded just as the train was leaving. A lot of men do that, mistaking it for a general compartment because there isn't much rush late at night. They usually leave once they realise it. This man seemed drunk and he was talking to himself. Some other women also noticed this. I think he just wanted to test the policeman and see how he would react. He apologised, but to me he looked pretty unfazed.

train 2

A woman reads a novel in the crowded ladies compartment. I've seen women reading while getting pushed in the crowd. Reminds me of the time when I used to do the same. But now I'm busy moving around and searching for stories on the train, while people stare and ladies swear at me under their breath.

train 4

A woman sleeps on the seat while her child naps in a make-shift cradle in the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local train.

train 11

Meet Aarti. She's just 8 years old. She sells chafa, a type of flower that women adorn their hair with. It's also used to worship idols. She looked tiny and fragile and could hardly bear the weight of the basket. She was hesitant to talk but one smile from me did the trick.

Aarti has three brothers and she told me she goes to school, which I assume isn't true. I was so overwhelmed that I hugged her as she left. There are so many kids that do odd jobs on the train to support their families. Most are 8 to 14 years old. Activists in India are trying to amend child labour laws. But I think they need to first rehabilitate these children.

train 12

Children look on curiously as a baby goat is fed milk from a bottle on the train. The kid is 15 days old and got separated from its mother. A group of girls were taking the kid to Govandi.

train 14

Two girls are seen leaning out of the moving train in Mumbai.

train 15

A girl adjusts and sets her hair during the train ride.

train 18

Tired and weary, they rest on each other as the train chugs away. As kids we've all resorted to this at some point.

train 20

A lady changes into a sari in the ladies compartment. I got on the train only to be met by this woman who was handling some 6 metres of cloth on a moving train.

train 21

As humans we tend to make friends on the go. There are school friends, college buddies, office friends and so on. Well in Mumbai we have a concept of 'train friends '. It's bound to happen right? You share a journey on the train for almost two hours with strangers and that too women- who are known to be chatterboxes.

I've seen woman pour their hearts out to each other on these trains. There is some comfort in sharing secrets with strangers whom you may never meet again. But then there are times when these strangers become friends over time. I met one such group the other day. So happens they were celebrating friendship day. Each of them got on the train from different station. They decorated the place where they sat with balloons, wrote messages and tied friendship bands. They tied one on me too. This is Mumbai, where you welcome strangers with open arms!

train 22

Police women on a Mumbai train.

train 26

A girl hides her face while goofing around on the train with her friend.

train 27

A lady finishes up her meal on a local train in Kolkata, as we travelled from Howrah to Bauria, during my brief visit. It was exactly like the Mumbai local trains. The language for chatter was the only difference. These women were sweet, answered all my queries and helped me figure my way around. I even got to try a local dish called 'Ghughni', which was being sold on the train.

train 28

A lady touches her phone to her head while she prays in the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local train. I was sitting opposite her when she got up, took off her shoes, folded her hands and started praying. She read some scriptures off her mobile, possibly from some App and stood there for good 2 to 3 minutes.

Our busy lives have pushed us to find time to pray while we travel. I used to do it too. And I love the way technology has found its way into our most intimate moments. Earlier women would carry scriptures, holy books and small pics of their Gods. All of that has now been compressed into a mobile phone.

train 29

That's me. I took a selfie, as Vandana a fellow traveller, styled my hair into what she called 'Sagar-Veni'. A koli woman (fisherfolk) looks on. Vandana had a daughter who died at the age of nine because of some infection. This mother's strength to carry on really touched me.

Vandana and her group used to travel on the same train for almost six years straight. Then her office shifted. So today was her send-off on that train. The entire group gifted her a beautiful nose-stud.

I meet such amazing people on the train and their stories inspire me everyday. It teaches me that I have so much left to learn.

All photos by Anushree Fadnavis

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First published: 17 February 2016, 23:10 IST
Anushree Fadnavis

Anushree is a photojournalist from Mumbai with Indus Images