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The 8:32 am ladies' special
It takes an extremely steady woman to paint her toenails in a moving train and an even steadier co-passenger to facilitate the phenomenon by holding the bottle upright. In the 8:32 am CST-bound ladies' special, however, such women are underrated. One of its 14-seater first-class compartments, after all, boasts of ladies who are dripping saliva in the intensity of slumber. They have managed to fall asleep despite the woman in the 'mango sari' nearby, currently coaxing her nails to dry. It's only when this self-confessed hyperactive lady (let's call her Pooja ), who calls the unconscious half of her compartment "my sleeping partners", stops talking, that one hears the shrill train horn go off.
Pooja is exactly the kind of woman who makes this feminine train, which chauvinists like to call the maal gaadi, special. She is one of its many occupants who willingly live the same life every day - wake up at 6 am, cook for the husband, blowdry their hair, find the time to wear a brooch over their neatly-pleated silk-cotton saris, team it up with matching metal bangles, pack the Hanuman chalisa and run to board the train which allows them to claim the attention of co-passengers by virtue of sheer verbal capacity. Every compartment of the ladies' special has a Pooja and almost every day her audience base increases by at least a couple of unintentional newcomers, like me.
Though journalists are not programmed to wake up before sunset, circumstances once forced me to board this mystical train, in which all men, except the earring seller, the motorman and the beggar, are disallowed. It was a life-altering experience. By the time I reached CST, I had begun to appreciate men.
Unlike the afternoon locals in which college students are perpetually mugging up for one exam or another, this chiefly bank-employee-witnesses shopping, gossipping, counselling, charity and job applications - all within an hour. As if egged on by the absence of men in the adjacent compartment, women here appear especially liberated, despite the flowers in their hair. Combs are fished out without hesitation. Sari pallus are adjusted between stations. Laughter is unusually highpitched. Singing is loud. A group of five Tamilians even recites the Suprabhatham (Tamil morning prayer) daily. The lids of tiffin boxes carrying oats and eggs are opened with a flourish. Jokes like the one about the temporarily defunct "video coach" - which is what men call the general compartment adjacent to the ladies' bogie that promises an evolving frame of pretty women - abound. And they are mostly cracked by Pooja.
She thrives on admiration. In another hour's time, this bank employee may become just another faceless sari on the Nariman Point work floor, so all her limelight must be aggressively claimed in transit. First, Pooja shows off her branded lipstick, inexpensive matching earrings, straightened hair and later fishes for compliments with her "I am not young anymore" refrain. Her group, meanwhile, passes a churidar catalogue around in which a pretty model is sporting around 100 ordinary designs that cost Rs 450 each. Our Pooja likes the blue-and-cream churidar better than the red-and-black one that her frail friend has set her heart on. She makes sure she repeats this fact as many times as it takes for the motorman to get it.
Pooja then goes on to chide regulars of the other locals who have strayed into this one. "Anyone and everyone enters the ladies' special now-adays, " she screams, hinting at her friends from the Dombivali slow but making all other newcomers conscious in the process. Every sentence uttered by Pooja is followed by cohesive laughter, akin to the canned laughter of the bride's friends at the beginnning of that Vajradanti advert.
Absent regulars are recalled in jest. "Is Aparna on leave?" Pooja asks, and answers herself. "She must be at the parlour, getting every possible thing done. " A young girl, who somehow doesn't seem to fit in with Pooja's laughter club, perhaps because she keeps quiet, is then made the target. "Sshhh. If you talk in train, they will pull chain, " Pooja teases the reticent girl, who shoots back with a meek "What was that?" The shifty girl then makes honest but weak attempts at fitting in. She selects an unremarkable pink churidar from the catalogue as her favourite, and Pooja whispers, a tad obviously, into the ear of a friend, in Marathi, "Our choices are so different, na? No wonder she doesn't feel like one of us. " Immediately, however, with the quickness of a TV soap vamp, Pooja adjusts her expression to smile at the same girl. "What happened to the post of admin that you said was vacant? How much will they pay?" she asks her, faking personal interest. "30, 000 for someone with five years of experience."
"That's it?" Pooja quips. "Okay. I'll let you know if find someone, " she says with a smirk, winking at her co-passengers who, once again, collapse into fits of unwarranted laughter.
As someone who has travelled in the first class general compartment enough times to notice its men playing cards atop briefcases, digging their nose and ears with separate fingers, sleeping oblivious to their open flies and even boarding the ladies' bogie by mistake in a state of inebriation, I thought I had lost all will in me to admire the idiosyncracies of the opposite gender. But despite these uncivilised distractions, I must admit that if I wanted to read a book in the general compartment, I could. In the ladies special, however, I had no option but to listen to Pooja and admire the endurance levels of her sleeping partners.
Of course, I have never dared to board the ladies' special since but the laughter, sadly, refuses to leave my imagination. I even had a nightmare recently. Pooja and her friends were now laughing at my evil attempt to read the newspaper in a ladies special. This time, she turned to me. "If you read in train, I will pull chain, " she winked, and passed me a bottle of nail paint. I don't remember the consequent chain of events but I do remember wishing she had pulled the chain indeed.
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