Thursday, May 14, 2009

Delhi Metro Love

I realize this is quite a segue from my recent posts about my kitchen and my garden, but I've been using my fabulous Delhi Metro bag as a gym bag for the past few weeks, and so every time I see it, I think of the Delhi Metro. (In case anyone missed it, I am re-posting a photo.)

And so, a brief history of why I love the Delhi Metro so.

When I first arrived in Delhi in 1989, the economy had not yet opened up. That meant that there were hardly any Western products available--no Coke or Pepsi, no fast food restaurants, no foreign cars except for a single approved brand. There are obvious arguments to be made that India might be a better place without Coke and Pepsi and McDonald's and Pizza Hut, but the economy had been stagnant for years, and it is certainly not that any longer.

Early on during that first visit, my friend Rasil gave me a public safety tip. She pointed to a red line bus roaring down the road and said, "If one of those buses is coming toward you, get out of the way. It won't stop." And sure enough, in the news every week or two was the news of a red line bus that hadn't stopped and had run someone down. It was, as you might imagine, rather terrifying. Eventually, despite that, I started taking the bus; partly, I figured that I'd rather be on the biggest vehicle possible on those roads. And when I came back to live in Delhi on my Fulbright a few years later, I kept taking the bus. Not everywhere or every day, but often enough.

But there is no way you can describe a bus in Delhi as a pleasant experience--they're mostly crowded and dirty and crowded and hot and crowded. If you're lucky enough to have a seat (and there is a small section of seats that are officially "ladies seats"), you will often have other people's parcels and bags and occasionally babies handed to you to hold onto while you are sitting. And if you are a lady, you may also have some overly friendly fellow pressing against you, and sometimes, the the bus will be so crowded that there is not even room to elbow him in the groin as he deserves.

Despite all of that, I do still occasionally take the bus when I'm in Delhi, for old time's sake (or because I don't feel like haggling with a rickshaw-wallah). And basically, over the past 20 years, nothing has changed about them except for the fares have gone up slightly--a ride that might have cost 2 rupees 15 years ago now costs 8 rupees. But the key thing to remember about the buses is that, until the Metro, they were the only public transportation in Delhi at all. Mumbai and Chennai, at least, have viable commuter trains, and even Calcutta has a Metro, but in Delhi the only options were bus, auto-rickshaw or taxi. (There are bicycle rickshaws as well, but they're only allowed in Old Delhi.)

Contrast this with the Metro, the lovely, lovely Delhi Metro, which has been in existence in its partially completed state for just over 6 years. Apparently, the person in charge of the Metro project would only take it on under the condition that it would not be business as usual--meaning, no patronage, no bribery, no baksheesh, no giving of contracts to a second minister's brother's company sort of thing. The result of this was that the first phase was completed within the budget and 3 years ahead of schedule. Imagine that.

The thing about the Metro is that, despite having been operating for more than 6 years, it still looks new. The stations and trains are clean. There is not that seemingly inevitable sense of collapse as there often is in India. It's shiny and easy to use and supremely functional. It's kind of amazing.

I have 2 brief stories to tell from when I was in Delhi in January. I only went on the Metro between a few stations, but I went through the Connaught Place station (where the terminal is called "Rajiv Chowk," after assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi) a number of times. It's the busiest station I saw, and as the train doors opened there, I was prepared for chaos. (On the buses--and other places--people just shove their way in without much consideration for anyone--really out of necessity.) Instead, the people getting on the Metro stood to either side and filed in that way, leaving a wide open space in the middle for people to leave the train. I was amazed. The one time I saw someone attempt to buck this and barge in through the middle, another passenger pulled him back. The next time I was waiting for a train, I happened to look down at the floor and found that, at the place where each car would stop, there were arrows painted on the floor for where entering passengers should stand so as not to get in the way of exiting passengers. And it worked.

The other Metro story also takes place at Rajiv Chowk. It was one of my last days in Delhi, and I had (of course) been shopping. I had multiple bulky bags with me, including a large bag containing more than 3 kgs of Assam tea. I was meeting Sunil and Navtej at a dance performance, and I had planned my itinerary such that I could hop on the Metro in Connaught Place and get off at Mandi House (not far from Bengali Market and close to where many of the auditoriums where performances are held are located). I hadn't really thought about rush hour, but it was about 6:30 by then, high rush hour. The line for the Metro trailed up the stairs and nearly into the street. I debated trying to find a rickshaw but thought I'd see how fast the line was moving first. I had only been in line for a minute when the man in front of me looked at me and gestured to me to go ahead. I wasn't sure what he said, and then I heard the magic words: "Ladies Line." And it was true, that everyone in the very, very, very long line was a man. Who was I to reject a ladies line that was offered to me? I walked down the stairs and through the corridor, past several hundred men, and got into the line that had approximately 5 women in front of me. (It was a line for the security check rather than a ticket line. As far as I could tell, there were no ladies ticket lines.) The young female army person checking the bags seemed startled to see me and all of my bundles. (She was even more startled that I could talk to her in Hindi.) I began to open them up so she could see what was inside--some shawls, some clothes, some fabric and multiple gold foil bags of tea. She looked at me quizzically when she saw all the tea. I shrugged. "I like tea," I told her in Hindi, and she laughed. The rest of my trip was quick, and although I wasn't exactly early for the performance, I wasn't late either.

But that very, very long line of men was like every other line I saw in every Metro station--mellow, patient, polite. The Metro, as far as I can tell, demands politeness of its riders, and the riders oblige.

It would be easy to go on about why it took so long for there to be a viable public transportation system in such a huge city, but really, I'm just happy that it's there now. And I will be even happier in September 2010, when the next phase (which goes down to south Delhi) is finished. I never thought I'd be so excited about a train system in a city I don't even live in, but what can I say--all of that time in Delhi has indelibly printed on me the challenges of getting around there, and every Metro ride (which means one bus or rickshaw ride that doesn't have to happen) still feels like a blessing.


Debi said...

Once again, thank you for such a finely drawn picture of India. They are such a gift.

Lisa said...

I wish they had those arrows painted on the floors of NYC subway trains. New York riders have no common sense, never mind etiquette, whatsoever.

For that matter I wish there were ladies' lines.

Sue Dickman said...

You know, both Andy and Sunil kind of rolled their eyes about the ladies line (because they, of course, would have had to wait at the end of the several-hundred-men line), but I feel like women in India put up with so much crap, especially on public transportation, that any small perk is well deserved. In my first couple of trips, I also occasionally availed myself of the "ladies compartment" on overnight trains, and that was good too. The commuter trains in both Mumbai and Chennai have ladies cars as well.

austere said...

Mr Sridharan would have been delighted with this post had he read it.

Mumbai doesn't have a "ladies line". You queue up like everyone else, but the trick is to get a coupon booklet: you could barge into a normal line and just say "coupon".