“Oh, are you a little girl? Leave him if he’s cheating on you. Be strong, and act fast.”
I hear these words as I wait for the train at one of busiest metro stations in Delhi. I am standing close to the “women only” sign, painted pink, on the extreme end of the platform. Surrounded by women - young and old - I hear laughter, whispers and a few loud words.
“Yes, you need to get a divorce, and of course you’ll get your alimony and maintenance. Remember, you don’t live in the Stone Age. You are a strong, educated and empowered woman.”
I hear the same voice again. And as I turn my head and look into the direction of the voice, I observe a tall, saree-clad woman, engrossed in the conversation on her cell phone. A huge round red dot gleams on her forehead and her face quivers with fury as she continues with her chat. Her loud voice turns into soft murmurs as she notices few amused stares, including mine.
Just then the train arrives. It is not the rush hour, and the platform is sparsely crowded, but as the train stops and the doors open, the scene turns into a wrestling arena, and the wrestlers follow no rules. Passengers waiting at the platform push and shove and elbow each other as they try to barge inside without letting people come out. The exiting passengers, in turn, use their entire might to get out of the car.
The jostling lasts not more than 30 seconds.
I am inside the “women only” car and it is definitely not crowded. Of course, all the seats are full, but there is enough space to stand and I make myself comfortable at one corner. The car bustles with giggles, soft murmurs and loud voices, and the sound of rustling cotton and silk. Some of those lucky enough to grab a seat are leisurely turning the pages of books or magazines. And almost everyone, with the exception of those reading or busy talking to each other, seems lost in their cell phones. A few, like me, are staring out into the world, through the glass doors and windows, or so it seems.
Train moves and within a few minutes we reach the next station. More passengers get in and out of the car.
“Madam, please let me sit, I am carrying my baby.”
I hear a timid voice. A woman, a tiny baby clinging to her chest, is asking a seated woman for the seat. She gets no response. She requests another woman, and again, receives no answer. Well, not even a look! I wonder, why? Did they not hear? The woman pleads again, but in vain.
I look closely at this woman. She’s small, reed thin, and clad in a worn-out but neat and clean saree. Her ill-fitting sandals appear much bigger than her tiny feet. She has her hair pulled back into a thin braid and her face seems to hide some strange emotions.
And suddenly I have an epiphany: why no one responds to her or reacts to her pleadings. She is invisible. Yes, I know for sure now. She’s an invisible woman. Peasant? Labourer? Househelp? Well, she could be in any of these menial jobs. Impoverished, illiterate, and poorly paid - these men and women serve our Indian elite and middle class directly or indirectly, but remain largely unnoticed. They are also invisible to our policymakers. They become visible once in a while, when a crime occurs in or around the area they live and police round them up for questioning, or when they catch the fancy of the DSLR-wielding foreign tourists.
And at all other times, they remain obscure and intangible. They just cease to exist. So this woman does not exist and therefore has no voice. When she pleads, no one listens to her because her voice is inaudible. Faceless and voiceless, she will be noticed only to be mercilessly shoved down and aside.
I notice she is unsuccessfully trying to hold a straphanger for support. An elderly commuter looks at her with disgust because the invisible woman just brushed passed her shoulders.
I look at her kid – a mass of skeleton with big round eyes. He’s becoming restless and not letting his mother stand straight. I wonder if this kid, too, is invisible to those seated.
Another look at the woman and her child, and I find myself requesting one of those seated to vacate the seat for her.
“Ma’am, she is holding a baby. Could you please give her the seat,” I ask a middle-aged woman, sitting on a seat reserved for old and disabled.
She raises her head from her cellphone, looks at me with astonishment. “Yes?” she asks. And I repeat myself. She doesn’t even hear the full sentence and buries her head into her cellphone again. “Ask someone else, I have a long way to go,” She says after a few seconds, without looking up. “Sure,” I reply as I read a message written in Hindi and English inside the coach. “Please offer the seat to someone who needs it more than you do,” it reads.
I request another passenger. Oh, she’s the same woman who was tele-counselling her female friend about women empowerment. She looks at me and gives a strange look to the invisible woman. “Actually, I have severe back pain. I can’t get up. Please ask someone else,” she says with a sneer.
“Wow, severe back pain, and still you manage to travel,” as I marvel at her and muster up courage to ask the third passenger, I see the invisible woman walking away. Oh, maybe she’ll get down at the next stop.
But she doesn’t stop at the gate; she moves past it. My gaze follows her going past the women compartment.
She stops right in front of a seat reserved for women in the general coach. One of the men stands up, asks her to sit, and moves away. The invisible woman sits, covers her shoulders with one end of her saree, and takes out a feeding bottle from a cloth bag I hadn’t noticed before. There is a faint smile on her lips as she starts feeding the baby.