Unlock 4.0 | Delhi Metro—memories from pre-covid times
As the Delhi Metro reopens, rides will likely be missing not just the jostling but the small talk, the opening of biscuit and chips packets in the ladies compartment and other rituals familiar to the commuter
I was headed to office in the Metro. Seated next to me was a young woman with a toddler in her lap. She took out a tiffin box and started feeding the child. It was Maggi rolled in a chapati. Sensing my curiosity, she looked at me and said they had to leave early in the morning, so she had prepared it in a jiffy.
Another time, a middle-aged woman reprimanded a girl who was combing her hair. The young girl got aggressive, things heated up and she asked the woman to shut up. The woman responded, “Bas yehi to seekha hai tum logo nay, shut up kehna (your generation only knows how to say shut up)," got up from her seat and stood near the door.
Yet another time, three schoolgirls were discussing their geography test paper. One of them had drawn a map of India with the North-East in the west. She quipped: "Pata hai kis kis ne mera copy kiya hai (do you know how many people copied my map)!"
All this was before the pandemic-induced lockdown. The Metro was closed for over five months. Like other regular fellow commuters, I have missed the hustle-bustle and the countless stories and observations that stayed with us as we got off the train. I miss the sound of heavy rainfall in the monsoon when the train doors open; the sun caressing your back through the huge glass windows; the running up the stairs as a train pulls into the station and still missing it by a fraction of a second; the joy of noticing a woman driver at the helm; and sometimes espying a former colleague standing at the other end of the compartment.
As the Metro reopens in a graded manner from today, it will be a whole new travel code.
For one, there will be no mom feeding her child and she will not be sitting close enough for you to observe the contents of her tiffin box. This eating in the Metro was largely a phenomenon you saw in the ladies compartment. Despite regular announcements of “eating in the Metro is not allowed", countless packets of chips, biscuits, chocolate would be opened every day, the empty wrappers neatly tucked away in the bag or backpack. Depending on the season, fruits would be peeled, especially oranges in winter, the citrus smell lingering in the air like a room freshener. In winter, many boxes would open to reveal home-made gajar ka halwa, and in summer, sliced watermelon, mangoes and cucumber.
I used to catch the train on the Violet Line around 11.30am on weekdays. Kalkaji Mandir, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market, Mandi House and Central Secretariat were the stations that would whiz by. The stations are also a pointer to the type of commuter on the train, besides the regular office-goer. So, at that time in the morning, the ladies compartment always had groups of women headed to the Kalkaji temple, Lajpat Nagar market and Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, and students to Lady Irwin college. Invariably, some student and her friends would open their lunch boxes. From what I noticed, it would usually be parathas/chapatis and sabzi (a vegetable) or fried rice for ease of eating. Yes, there have been times when I wanted to be part of that group, especially when hit by the strong aroma of mango pickle or lal mirch ka achar.
One time, this elegantly dressed woman seated next to me was headed to Bangla Sahib. We got chatting. She said she lived in Shimla and was part of a book club there—they were reading an Eve Ensler book at the time. She said she wanted to do things like write but wondered if it was too late. On her grandson's recent first birthday, she said, she had gifted him a story written by her.
It's easy talking to strangers on the Metro, revealing a bit of yourself, and then parting ways.
No longer, though. With schools and colleges closed and masks in place, there will be no small talk with strangers, no lunch boxes will be opened, and it is unlikely that people will comb their hair or apply a fresh coat of lipstick and spray deodorant all over themselves before getting off the train.
If going to office was an experience, coming back at around 8pm was a different one. This was the time people would be returning from the office, or from the gym or tuition classes. If it was the wedding season, there would be mothers-daughters-aunts returning from Chandni Chowk with huge shopping bags, discussing their lehngas, sandals and jewellery. In winter there would always be big packs of woolen blankets in transparent polythene travelling with you.
This chatter too will be missing. There will be no sitting on the floor in a circle around the shopping bags, like on a picnic at the park.
My biggest fear while travelling in the Metro was that one day a monkey might stroll in when the train stopped at an overground station. That could still happen. But many other things will not. No one will now ask you to adjust and make room for them to sit. No one will strike a conversation and ask what book you are reading or why you don’t colour your hair. Maybe with time we will get used to signalling with our hands and smiling with our eyes. We will continue to travel from point A to B but not carry tiny details and stories because we will be busy adjusting our masks, sanitizing our hands and hoping we did not catch the virus. But at least the wheels have started turning.