A city, as Patrick Geddes said, is more than a place in space. It is indeed a drama in time. But its most dramatic moments blend so innocently with the gushing tide of urban life that to discern them one must place them in context. The ‘ladies’ seat’ of a public vehicle is one such context. I travel regularly by the Metro Railway, and run instinctively towards the women’s seats as soon as I step in. I might have been underrating my gender in the process, but the experience has shown me the drama hidden within poised urbanity.
It would be too simplistic to think that drama is synonymous with the female gender. But women huddled in two rows of gender-specific seats, with the opposite sex closely watching, and sometimes invading, that space can generate enough drama to entertain full Roman amphitheatres. The Metro authorities need to update their records on the gender ratio in Calcutta. There are more women travelling by the Metro than the authorities apparently believe. Just two rows of seats fail hopelessly to accommodate all of them. Often, a vicious row over space-sharing starts, with gestures as weapons. The women occupying the seats spread as far and wide as possible to prevent others from squeezing in, trying to look oblivious to the seething discontent of their opponents. Those intending to squeeze in stare fiercely at the inch-wide gaps between two disdainful bodies and hold the fort despite evasive nods from the seated fortunates. ‘Polite’ requests to make room, betraying the tone in which they are delivered, only come forth when both sides are equally unrelenting. Towards midday and late into the evening, the trains get emptier. It is at these times that the ground is prepared for the battle of the sexes. Men amble towards the half-empty ladies’ seats with an unmindful air. Though some get comfortable easily, most seem to be constantly conscious of the impermanence of their seats. Their sense of chivalry, and of civic etiquette, tells them to stand up as soon as women arrive. But their bodies simply refuse to comply. Some go beyond reluctance, into denial.
Heated exchanges are not uncommon. Sometimes there are insightful debates over what should be the reasonable age for a male child to occupy a seat in the ladies’ section. It is interesting that despite such hurdles, women, like me, are instinctively drawn towards the ladies’ seats although the rest of the compartment is a supposedly gender-neutral area. Is it an overbearing social norm that has become a habit? Or is it a more complex desire for ‘protection’ — a sense of entering a ‘comfort zone’? Whatever it might be, the purpose, both social and individual, of shelter is often lost. Incidents of women being molested near the ladies’ seats in the Metro are hardly rare.