It’s a whole new world out there — the ladies compartments in Chennai’s suburban trains are filled with interesting characters and stories, discovers Akila Kannadasan after a series of rides

There’s something strange about that woman. It strikes me the instant I lay eyes on her in the ladies compartment of the suburban train headed to Tambaram. Is it her strand of oddly-shaped beads? Or the way her eyes study every passenger onboard? Perhaps it’s her demeanour that seems to demand ‘what are you looking at’? And then I realise that it’s her right palm. It is green in colour. The train pulls into Kodambakkam when I ask her why it is so. “It’s because of the dye we use to coat mullai,” she explains.

Rani smiles as she describes a practice flower sellers such as her follow to keep the mullai nice and fresh. “We dip the buds in the dye so that they remain white for at least three days after they bloom,” she says. Rani’s thick voice attracts more listeners who peer inquisitively at her palm.

Hard work leaves a mark. While Rani goes back home with a green palm every day, gypsy-girl Nandhini finishes her day with pain in her shoulder — the result of balancing the heavy bag displaying her wares. These people work day and night to support their family — the ladies compartments of the city’s suburban trains are full of such women.

It is here that she unwinds after work; where she gets to sit still and do nothing. Once home, she will have to get the stove burning, feed her family and prepare for the next day’s grind.

Every woman has her own way of enjoying her ‘me time’ on the train. A college girl smiles to herself as she talks to her friend on the phone; a middle-aged woman reads slokas from a booklet; a grey-haired woman chats with her neighbour about the hefty dowry her friend was forced to part with; a young girl listens to songs on her mobile phone…the lucky few at the window seats simply sit and stare at the world go by like statues caught in a spell.

For some passengers who have been travelling the same route for years, the wooden seats are like the thinnai in the veranda back home. They sit cross-legged and talk animatedly with their friends who were probably mere fellow-passengers once. Some of these women fascinate with their multi-tasking — she strings jasmine, chats with a neighbour, and pops a murukku into her mouth simultaneously as she squats dangerously close to the exit. But she never falters; the speed does nothing to her. A visually challenged singer walks into the compartment, seeking alms for his voice that defies the sound of the engine.

It’s easy to make friends in these compartments — conversations flow in the evenings, when most women are in a good mood after tackling the day. So when Nandhini gets talking, she never stops. She sells jewellery and knickknacks she stocks from Parry’s. She can give you fashion tips — ‘Kumki’ anklets, she says, are a must-have this season.

Her story

Nandhini balances her wares on one shoulder, while on the other hangs a bag which has photographs of her loved ones for reassurance. “I mostly keep off the general compartments when they’re crowded to avoid lewd male commuters. I prefer the ladies compartment,” she says. Nandhini is working to pay off her brother’s debts. “Once it’s done, I will start saving for my marriage,” she blushes.

The ladies compartment wears a different look at different times of the day. During peak hours in the mornings and evenings, there’s barely place to stand — women with just-done braids and neatly powdered faces struggle to contain themselves in the coupé that’s about to burst. As the day wears on, hawkers walk in to sell their wares — there are pens with perfumed ink, hairpins, rubber bands, butter biscuits, flowers, cloth pegs, remote covers, greens, fruits and nail clippers. A woman with a duffel bag stuffed with boxes of ear studs and hairclips, seats herself at a far corner and passes the boxes around for a look. And so, the ladies compartment turns into a bazaar later in the day.

But when the sun goes down and the passengers trickle away, the coupé is something else. It is desolate, and sometimes intimidates with its silence. The floors are littered with dry flowers, a rubber band from an oily ponytail, pages from a notebook with words in blue ink, chocolate wrappers…I hear nothing but the sound of the wind piercing the open windows. Then there’s the music of the engine — ‘chuchuk chuchuk… chuchuk chuchuk…’