I allowed way too much time for my journey, sure I’d get lost or confused along the way. I wanted to avoid a repeat of last night’s sweaty slow slog in a taxi, stuck in bristling traffic, so why not try the Delhi Metro? I’d only been on once before, a few years ago, when the five-line system was still expanding rapidly across the city. Online, the interactive map helped me figure out where to go, and that my journey would cost 19 Rupees (less than 50 cents). I headed out, and found overhead walkways to get me across the busy main street of Lajpat Nagar, no line to get my token, a quick pass through security, following the cues as everyone tossed their purses and backpacks through the x-ray machine and stepped through the metal detector. A woman in a sari additionally swiped me down with hands and wand. I barely had to break my stride to follow huge signs in Hindi and English leading me where I wanted to go. A broad clean platform had a sign perched above it, telling me it would be 4 minutes til my train arrived.
My friend Rashmi Sadana wrote an ethnography of the Delhi Metro, after she approached it the way one would a foreign land, studying it as its framework was being placed within the existing cityscape. She writes of the Metro as experience, as a means of identity for its riders, as a (for now) place free of eve-teasing, the Indian term for sexual harassment. She told me once that perhaps the Metro eases traffic, but that because of the demographics of its users, not really. These are not the little buses that serve as the public transport in places like the Caribbean island of the Grenada, where a fisherman might come and sit next to you after a day on the sea. The Metro has been deliberately branded as the part of the new India, clean and smooth. I see a sign that shows no spitting. I missed a sign that Rashmi writes about—things not allowed on train: dried blood, human corpse, animal carcasses, any part of human skeleton, manure. “These items arelisted as being not as dangerous, but as ‘offensive materials’,” she explains.
So now I will get to see who is using the Metro. I’ve been reading Mara Hvistendahl‘s book Unnatural Selection, a phenomenal account of sex-selection (guess which sex parents want most?) around the world, especially in Asia. She’s debunking a lot of the usual preconceptions about why there are large swaths of the planet where many more boys are being born than girls. With an immense amount of research, she puts together pieces of a puzzle involving policy, feminism, fear, health, forced sterilizations, borderline conspiracies that really aren’t, and the endless allure of technological wonder coupled with a complete lack of humble ethical inquiry and long-term social impact on entire societies.
But I digress. Who I saw on the Metro were mostly young men. Many, many young men. I know this is the tiniest of samples, one journey with one transfer on a Saturday evening at 8:00 pm. But in the two cars I traveled in, young men were 90% of the travelers, with a smattering of older men, older couples, and young couples. Men offered me seats politely. No one stared, too much. But with Hvistendahl’s book heavy on my mind, I kept thinking, where are all the women?
Only afterwards did a a friend inform me of the one fact I must have missed on the well-marked route from ticket booth to Metro car: the front two cars of every train are reserved for ladies. Where were the women? As we sped beneath the streets of Delhi, shaking the foundations of the homes above, I had no idea that they were just ahead of me.