June 15 2021
In 2015, I first began traveling on Mumbai’s famed intra-city suburban trains, known as just “the locals”. As was expected, being a young single woman I chose to travel solely in the women-only coaches for reasons of safety and comfort. The non-segregated compartments were usually packed to full with men who resented women taking up what little space there was from them. It was here I first encountered the social worlds built within local trains. There were groups of commuters who knew each other from their daily travels and developed long-term friendships. I found myself being pulled into their conversations, being offered snacks, or laughing at jokes I had overheard. When I felt lost or unsure of my footing I turned to the nearest commuter to ask questions and was guided safely to where I needed to go. I especially enjoyed buying hot fried snacks or getting a good deal on some pretty earrings from the vendors who entered these trains during my journey back home after a long day at work.
This experience became the spark that led to a much longer obsession with Mumbai’s locals and the multitudes of social and economic worlds it sustained. I first located my Master’s project in the ladies compartment, interviewing women passengers who had been using the trains over decades. This expanded into my dissertation research centered around the networks, performances, and embodied histories of the women who ran the train markets. The theatrical scene below is an excerpt from my field notes during a fifteen-minute spell spent shadowing one such train vendor woman, Savita Maushi. A well-known and much-loved figure in the early morning rush hour world of the locals.
In this text, I use the medium of a theater scene to frame my field notes to showcase the appearing and disappearing of moving train vendor markets. Once the main actors enter the stage of performance, the ladies compartment, they begin to play out roles of the shrewd seller, the old and known friend, the aggressive bargainer, and the observing researcher. Each move feels learned and rehearsed and yet needs improvisation during each performance. Conversations between vendors and customers unfold as if on cue, each playing off the dialogic moves made by the other. This is not to indicate that vendors and customers are engaging in a ruse or putting up a facade. These scripts and their rehearsed anger and playfulness are part of learning to participate in the life of a ladies’ compartment and sustain its social and economic rhythms. As I immersed myself in the field, learning to move in certain ways within the crowds, developing a rapport with various commuters, and positioning myself to be useful to Maushi in a moment were all part of my own practice of becoming a claimant to time and space within this milieu. I end this here without any grand insightful claims or closure, merely a sad nostalgia for what no longer is possible for me to do in the standstill of the pandemic. The trains are running again, and the vendors risk their lives and health in getting back on them, but the worlds within have been dramatically changed.
The scene opens to the inside of a women-only train coach in a Mumbai local train that is pulling into a station. A wall of humans lines up right at the edge of the platform blurring in the slowing windows.
Inside, there is a slow-moving shuffle towards the entryway. Women call out goodbyes and crack jokes with other commuters. They move into position, part of a swaying and jam packed crowd flowing from the door into the aisle.
Before the train comes to women on the station hold the sides of the train, the handles on the door and begin to swing themselves inside the compartment. Someone is shouting in Marathi at the disembarking passengers through the window:
“Get off quickly….QUICKLY….what are you doing? Get off now! What is this getting off slowly slowly…look at them! As if we have all day!”
Women thump on the side of the train loudly to express their displeasure at the disembarking crowd, whose pathway these very women are blocking.
As the train slowly begins its journey again, passengers continue to fight their way inside. One of them is a woman with greying hair who extracts herself from the crowd and turns immediately onto one of the aisles. She has a big blue plastic bag in hand which she uses to shove women aside and make space for herself. She pushes it into the space between women’s legs.
This is a vendor woman, known to the commuters of this train. She is dressed in an orange saree and has a small bag slung across her shoulders. Another younger woman follows in her wake pushing a little less successfully among the bodies pressing in around her. She has short hair with pink highlights and is wearing a red kurta over black tights. In her hands is another blue plastic bag that comes to the attention of a seated passenger who asks to see it. She hands it over.
Women began to greet the woman vendor who had entered: “Maushi! You came! I was waiting for you.”
“Savita, it has been so many days! Have you forgotten about us?”
“I have to return something Aunty. I have been looking for you every day!”
The vendor woman, with many monikers is Savita Maushi. As greetings pour in around her, she digs into her bags and pulls out plastic wrapped women’s clothes that she begins to hand over to various women or dump into seated passengers’ laps.
Maushi: Yes. Yes. I am here today no! Now see this. I got new designs for you. Look look!
Ar ar ararara…. I have Kurta, tops, leggings. I have Lucknowi.
From the other side of the compartment, a tall thin woman standing between seats calls out to Maushi: Arey bhabhi (Hindi term for sister-in-law), how are you? Show us some of the clothes too. Look at this woman, she has been waiting for you to come for so long.
Maushi lifts up her head and smiles at the woman: Nandaben how are you? I am coming. Coming. Just wait one minute. Look at this meanwhile.
She turns to the younger woman and tells her to take the other blue bag to Nandaben. Some women start to rummage through the bags laid at their feet while others pass around clothes they have pulled out. The young woman who entered with Maushi is watching all of this with rapt attention. She sometimes smiles at the passengers who smile back. From time to time she offers help to the vendor woman by passing along clothes and relaying questions from passengers to her.
Someone taps Maushi’s elbow to draw her attention.
Commuter 2: Maushi, you did not come yesterday! The outfit I had taken from you day before did not fit me. Here, take it. I brought it even yesterday to return it.
Commuter 2 is a young woman, in her twenties. She has a backpack on her lap. She hands over a crumpled blue kurta back to Maushi, who drops into the blue bag.
Savita Maushi: The medium size did not fit you? Which size do you want? I can bring you the large tomorrow, should I?
Commuter 2: Yes. But I won’t be on the train tomorrow. Bring it on Monday.
Commuter 3, a middle-aged woman with curly hair, wearing a nose-ring and colorful jewelry: How are you Maushi? What new things did you bring?
Savita Maushi: I got some Lucknowi anarkalis, Vishakha. Here look at it. I saved this one for you.
Commuter 2 turns to the young woman with pink hair: Hi, you changed your hairstyle? It looks good. Your project is not over yet?
Savita Maushi overhears this exchange and responds: Yes, yes. She will write a book about me. You wait and see. I have promised her I will show her everything about this dhandha and how hard working Indian women are. She will tell the world about us. You also help her if she asks you anything ok!
Young woman smiles at the commuter and laughs at Maushi’s description: Ya, I got my hair cut yesterday after the fieldwork on the train. I need to keep doing this research for a while. I will be here for a year at least.
Meanwhile, Maushi draws from the bag two plastic bags that are thicker than usual. She pulls out the kurta and a lush georgette anarkali with intricate white embroidery fans out around her. It sways in the movement of the train. All eyes turn and lock onto this luxurious piece.
Immediately a cacophony of voices arises as women try to get their hands on a piece.
“Maushi show me that anarkali!” “Do you have it in other colors?” “What sizes do you have?”
“Give me a 42 in that!” “Arey Maushi why won’t you look here? I am asking you to show me that piece since five minutes!”
Maushi pulls out a few other pieces of the Georgette Anarkali. She has not carried many and she explains to some of the women making requests that she only brought some samples first to see how much interest there is from her customers. She will take orders today and bring more the next day. She hands the first piece to a woman near her and throws a couple more to two women who have been asking for the anarkalis for a few minutes now. One of these women quickly pulls out the kurta, and with clear appreciation in her eyes pulls it over her clothes. As she pulls it down over her head, many of her friends exclaim that it looks very good. She asks them if it looks tight on her. They assure her it does not. She then turns back to Maushi and signals with her hand to ask the price. Maushi has been watching her in between her other sales and bargains.
Immediately voices begin to overlap as women gasp at the price. It becomes evident from watching their faces that it is rare for Maushi to sell such expensive items on these trains.
“What? That much!?”
“It is a set with both kurta and shawl. And it is pure georgette. Look at the material. This is not the usual maal. I can’t reduce. It is very expensive to buy.”
“But it’s so transparent? Do you have a slip at least? Will you include that in the price?”
“I can get you a matching slip tomorrow if you are definitely taking this. That will be 200 rupees. I will give you both for 1300…..(seeing hesitation on the faces) ….ok 1250…..1150 is my final price. I can’t reduce beyond that.”
A few women who had been admiring the pieces from a few seats away now begin to look at it critically. One of them makes a face, leans in to her neighbour and discusses this new development.
Sita: I think she is asking for too much money no? I don’t think that is worth more than 900-1000.
Gita: What? I would not pay more than 800 for that. We are buying it on the train after all. How can anyone pay more than that?
Gita gets up, takes her bag from the luggage rack and calls out to the woman who is taking off the anarkali and folding it up inside the plastic bag.
Gita: I think you should only pay 800 for that.
The other lady looks at her and nods in agreement. Gita prepares to disembark at the next station. She tries to get Maushi’s attention, who is busy in negotiations with other customers over various pieces. Around five women place orders for various sizes and colors of the georgette anarkali. They tell her to bring it the next day. They don’t bargain right now for the price. These are women who have been buying from her for many years and some of them deploy that information.
Gita tries to inquire from these regular customers what price they have agreed to buy it at, but they ignore her. It is evident that Gita is not part of the inner circle of regular customers or part of their train group. They are not keen to reveal their personal equation with Maushi to others.
Gita to Maushi: Will you give it in 800?
Maushi shakes her head vehemently and begins to look away at other customers: No way. 1000 is my last. Do you want it?
Gita starts to remove money from her purse. She deliberately counts out exact change for 800 rupees: 800 is the correct price, just take it. I have to get off now.
Maushi looks at her counting and is already shaking her head and raising her voice: No, no, no. You give it back if you cannot pay 1000. I will not reduce it at all.
But Maushi makes no attempt to take the piece back nor does the lady return it. Instead she hands out 800 rupees and tries to put it in Maushi’s hands but Maushi fists up her palm and refuses to take the money continuing to vehemently refuse to accept this price. Gita is now pushing through the crowd in the aisle and getting ready to depart, she continues to argue with Maushi, looking back at her and trying to hand her the money.
Maushi: Listen, my final price is 950. If you want to buy it in that much you buy it. Anyway I have reduced my earnings by a lot. Just give it back if you can’t afford it (now she reaches out her hand for the piece). I am barely earning on this now. You can’t kick my stomach and try to buy this. I have to at least cover my costs.
Gita pulls out another 100 rupees: Ok fine, take 900.
Maushi seems to be ready to take the 900, she stretches out her hand but before taking the money says: You have to give 50 rupees more. This is too low. I am not going to make any profit.
Gita hands her the 900 and starts to move to the entrances: No no. 900 is fine. Take it.
As she leaves Maushi starts to put the money away in her purse and grumbles at the way some ladies will bargain. She looks around at the women surrounding her and complains.
Maushi: They want me to give away these clothes for free. This is why I can’t bring new designs. Nobody wants to pay the right price.
Soon Savita starts to wrap all her wares up. She starts to call out to various women to remind them she needs to disembark and check if other women are planning to make purchases. She turns to look for the young researcher woman with her and shouts to her across the aisles:
Maushi: Aditi, let’s go. Dadar is approaching. You have the other bag with you?
Aditi: Yes Maushi. I have it here.
A couple women buy other kurtas and several begin to place orders for the anarkali. She listens to them all and remembers their orders. She repeats them back to the various women. The researcher takes some notes on her phone. She starts to help Savita by grabbing clothes that women are returning and putting them in the bag closest to her feet. They surge into the aisle as all the clothes are collected and tucked back into the thela. A woman announces in a mellifluous voice in three languages that Dadar is the next station. Savita and the young woman shadowing her push themselves into the crowd in the gangway and reach up to hold the handlebars for balance. Some women behind them ask where they are getting off. They confirm that they are getting out at Dadar, which is the next station. The train pulls in and the crowd surges out as one flowing stream. Shouts begin from the outside as women demand that those climbing out hurry up. Those leaving the train begin to grumble and shout back.
Deboarding women: Let us get off!
“What is this behavior, like animals. Let us at least get out.”
“My bag! My bag! It’s stuck. Look where you are going.”
“How will we get off if you stand in the way like this?!“
Once the incoming and outgoing flows of passengers have settled, a relative quiet descends within the compartment. Women put away their purchases, a new group of women look for seats as others begin to get up and prepare for their own detraining in the next ten minutes at Mumbai Central. Conversations continue but in quieter tones.
If one looks through the window, Savita Maushi and her companion can be seen running towards the staircase. Maushi has her blue bag swung over her shoulder while the younger woman has it tucked under her arm. They are immediately lost to view as they merge into the heavy crowds ascending the staircase towards other destinations.
Aditi Aggarwal is a qualitative researcher and educator interested in capturing fun and adventure in women’s lives. She is currently an ABD doctoral candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has been conducting an ethnography of the economic and social lives of women vendors on Mumbai’s public transport system since 2016. In a time before Covid19 she enjoyed train journeys, discovering street foods, and the seaside.
Editors’ note: We would like to give a huge shoutout to Dipali Anumol, whose illustration we have used for this piece. Dipali is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. You can find more of her illustrations here.