I vividly remember the first time I stepped onto a Delhi Metro train at Rajiv Chowk underground station in the heart of New Delhi at Connaught Place ten years ago. It was a shock.
The station wasn’t just clean, it was spick and span. There were no beggars. It was air conditioned. The train was not crowded. And in the carriage, the female voice announcing the stations was speaking received pronunciation, a cut-glass accent, the Queen’s English. Mind the Gap. I remember I went back for another ride just for the sheer delight it gave me. At that time, I think the yellow line was restricted to half a dozen stations on a north-south axis, with the red line running east-west. There are now six coloured lines, over 132 miles of track. And a new pink line will begin service next year.
Now that I live here, I am a seasoned traveller on the Metro. It is the cheapest way to get around the city, and during rush hour (7 – 11am and 2 – 7pm) it is the fastest. The female announcer’s accent has not changed, but the numbers have. On an average day, 2.8 million people ride the Metro, but this can reach 3.3 million on public or national holidays. Even though I usually join the yellow line train four stations after it leaves the northern terminus at Badli, there is rarely a free seat. Last weekend, at Central Secretariat station, I was actually lifted off my feet in the surge to get onto the train. We were packed in like sardines.
Before I saw the sign saying photography was forbidden, I took this photo of a carriage at “normal” occupancy.
There is a special “sari guard” on the escalators, to prevent ladies’ saris from being snared in the moving staircase. One carriage is reserved for ladies only. Any man boarding this carriage is liable to be fined. Given the crush of passengers, I can understand that women would not want to be groped by men in these conditions. There are also seats reserved for women in the mixed carriages, as well as for those who are “differently abled” or the elderly or even just people who need it more than you.
A month ago, I was standing, watching a little girl with her mum and new baby travelling on the Metro. Mum had a seat and the little girl had a problem with her shoe, which she couldn’t fix. Her mum couldn’t help as she had a babe in arms. I reached over and sorted out the lining of the shoe, helped her put it back on, and she smiled at me. A man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “For being such a kind gentleman, I think you deserve my seat.” Chivalry is not dead on the Metro.
There are very few white men riding the Metro in Delhi. I rarely see any. So perhaps that is why Indians often stare at me. I don’t find this upsetting, I just smile back and sometimes try to initiate conversation. I get out my Hindi cards and encourage them to help me with my pronunciation, or I show them photos on my cell phone. Sometimes I help them with their English homework. It is much more fun than travelling on the Underground in London.
Lots of Indians play Candy Crush or other games on their smartphones as they ride along. The latest craze is for Ludo, with couples or families playing while they travel. I like to watch other travellers sneaking a peek at how the game players are doing. It’s a bit like reading someone else’s newspaper on the Tube. Everyone does it surreptitiously. I sometimes cheat by looking at the reflection in the window behind them.
The carriages are air conditioned and often the air smells of deodorant. However, a recent article in the Times of India said that despite this, the air quality in the Metro can be just as bad as above ground. Sometimes it gets unpleasantly cold and it is a relief when the train pulls into a station above ground, the doors open and a blast of hot, humid air enters the carriage.
There are health and safety restrictions on the Metro. People suffering from cerebro-spinal meningitis, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox and mumps are not allowed to travel. I’m sure that all patients with meningitis or diphtheria would be too ill to even contemplate travelling anywhere apart from in an ambulance. People suffering from leprosy are allowed, if they get a note from their doctor saying that they are not infectious.
The Metro is incredibly inexpensive. There is a fixed maximum fare and, with a Metro card, I get 10% off this. I usually manage to do about 20 journeys at weekends for about £3 a month. There are plans to increase the prices, so next year this might cost me £4 a month.
Fellow travellers who have struck up a conversation with me always ask what I am doing here. I tell them a bit about my work with the survivors of sexual violence. I wonder if this entitles me to be called a “Metro-Sexual”, but MSF will still not allow me to ride the bus.
POST SCRIPT – Last night (Friday) was Dhanteras, the start of the Diwali Festival weekend. The Metro was so packed with people that it resulted in gridlock. Two stations had to be shut down for over an hour because of surging crowds at the peak of rush hour.