I’m a First Class (Compartment) Bitch

A confession about the silent classism that exists in the ladies first class compartment of local trains

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If you’ve travelled in Mumbai’s local trains for more than a year, you’ll know that there are certain unsaid rules you should follow, for your own good. No one really teaches you these things. The novice learns very early on that she should stand on a particular side if she wants to get down, or that she can “claim” a seat by asking someone where they are getting off. She realises that she shouldn’t board a Virar fast after 6 p.m, if she is going to get off before Borivali.

She also learns that ladies, especially those who travel in the first class, are very aggressive. They will shove you out of the way, just so that they can get the window seat. They are territorial, bordering on militant. They may be dressed in their Zara shirts and FabIndia kurtas, but man, can they put up a fight if they are provoked.

But there is a more vicious and subtle kind of aggressiveness; the kind that women exhibit when someone, who does not have a first class ticket, enters the compartment. When you think about it, what that person did is not really causing any harm or danger. It is a punishable offence, of course, and it warrants a fine, but does it warrant the looks of disdain and taunts that these “trespassers” receive?

Just last night, I witnessed discrimination of this kind. The train I boarded was relatively full (a majority of the seats were taken), until it reached Andheri, which happens to be a station where many people get on and off, irrespective of the time you’re travelling at. Amongst those getting on were four women and a child. This group of people had dark skin. The women had worn saris which looked faded and worn out. They occupied a considerable amount of space on the footboard.

At least 10 people apart from this group got on at Andheri, and there was a rush to find space to stand and sit. By this point, everyone knew that the group of five, who looked scared and awkward in equal measure, did not “belong”. “Yeh first class dabba hai, yahaan kyun chadhe ho? Khade rehne ka tareeka bhi pata nahi hai!” were some of the less caustic insults hurled at them.

The first class ladies’ compartment is the space of the upper middle-class woman who has a white-collar job. It is the territory of the educated, tax-paying woman who works because she has to, or because she has chosen to. She can afford the three-digit or four-digit price that the first class pass costs. You, who probably have a second class ticket or are travelling ticketless, cannot. And she will make sure to remind you of this.

Often I have seen women in the first class “gently” point out to others that they have gotten into the wrong compartment. Technically, all it needs is that one woman tell the person concerned that she shouldn’t travel in the first class compartment, else she’ll be caught and fined by the ticket checker.

Women in the first and second class compartments behave in very contrasting ways. Women in the first class listen to music, scroll through their social media feeds, and read novels to pass the time during their commute. Women in the second class compartment also do these things, but from the cushioned, prejudiced perspective of the first class, it can seem as though all they do is talk loudly. Whenever there is a ruckus in the second class compartment, a few women in the first class will definitely shake their heads and tut-tut at the level of noise.

I am guilty of partaking in this kind of classism too. So honed are my skills over the last five years that I can also differentiate between the kind of “trespasser” who is not aware that they have gotten into the “special dabba”, and the kind that just takes advantage of an empty compartment and no ticket checkers.

This discrimination also takes a more tangible form. A friend once told me the story of how a woman who “did not look like she belonged” in the first class compartment was treated. She was standing on the footboard with countless others, waiting to get off at Andheri. Her hair happened to fly into the face of the woman behind her. In response, this woman first made it evident that the other woman’s hair was smelly through gestures and expressions. She went on to spray the space between herself and the woman in front, in an attempt to reduce the “smelliness”.

But the prejudice doesn’t end there. Just a few days ago, a colleague’s train had to be halted because women in the first class knowingly and intentionally pushed a woman who did not have a first class pass. She was standing at the door, and the compartment was filled with people.

Simply put, women in the first class ladies’ compartment are nasty. The most surprising bit is that just as no one really teaches you how to travel in a train, no one has really taught us how to discriminate or behave in this fashion. It’s almost as though this behaviour is ingrained. The classism of the first class ladies compartment operates silently but powerfully, like a well-oiled machine. Just like a fast train zipping by station platforms.

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