Delhi’s metro rail brings the idiosyncrasies of its patrons to the fore

Those of us who settled in Delhi after the metro arrived, plan our life according to the colour coded routes of the service. The restaurants we visit, the friends we choose to keep, our homes and workplaces, cinema halls and romantic interests are mapped on the metro lines of our minds. Many neo-Dehlvis, like this blogger, are fuzzy about the bus routes— even after spending almost three years in the capital. Have metro, have rickshaw will go.

One afternoon, last summer, I was surprised when a man asked me which bus from Rafi Marg, in the heart of the capital, went to Gurgaon in Haryana. I pointed him towards Central Secretariat Metro Station and asked him to hop on to the Yellow Line and take a train to HUDA City Centre in Gurgaon. But he insisted on going only by bus.

The man was from Haldwani in Uttarakhand. He had caught the Katgodham- Gurgaon bus but, for reasons unknown, had de-boarded some where in Delhi in the morning. After wandering around the capital, he ended up in Rafi Marg. I offered to accompany him to the train but he was adamant.

“Bus se hee jayenge,” he said. (I will only go by bus.) The underground was the abode of the unknown. He had been to a metro station on a previous visit to Delhi, but couldn’t muster the courage to buy a token.

I’ve met many people— clerks, peasants, housewives and, even paramilitary troopers on transit— who are apprehensive to take the metro in general, and go underground in particular. The reasons are many. People fear falling ill due to the “metro ki hawa” (the air of the metro) and getting lost. They prefer to get on the train and then buy a ticket. Most often they feel they can find their way by looking out bus windows. Metros are either underground or elevated. This deprives them of the familiarity of streets and shops.

After a Bahujan Samaj Party conference last year, I found three families of the party’s supporters standing in front of Patel Chowk station. From Jalaun in Uttar Pradesh, only two men in the group could speak Hindi while the rest only spoke Bundeli. They were being guided by a student named Nagesh from Karnataka. Nagesh struggled, in halting Hindi, to convince them that the metro was the easiest way to get to Anand Vihar bus terminus.

Nagesh told me that they were too afraid to enter. “They are scared of the police frisking them, even though they have nothing to hide. They’re scared of buying a token from the person behind a glass screen. They’re scared that sunlight doesn't enter below,” he said helplessly.

The kids however, were already playing on the escalators.

The automated fare collector (AFC) gates are a challenge to many. They also provide comic relief to the tube light wonderland of metro stations. AFC entry barriers open when the token or card is placed at a marked spot. Exit barriers open when a token is dropped into a slot, or a card placed at the required space. All the gates don’t work perfectly all the time. Some cards need a little more pressing and some gates take longer to register a movement.

In a group of new metro travelers, it is often the most dominating of the lot who take it upon themselves to show the others how it’s done. I once saw a matriarch of a family of seven, physically preventing the barrier from closing. She chided the men in the family for not knowing how cross a metro gate. “Gavaars,” (ignorant country folk) she called them.

The Central Industrial Security Force men, who guard the station, were in splits. They were laughing so hard that they couldn’t get themselves to explain how an AFC gate works. The lady was undeterred. She proceeded to show the family how to use an escalator. Unfortunately, she didn’t notice that the escalator was moving upwards towards them, and not towards the platform.

She grabbed the hand of one of the children and pounced on the moving plates of the elevator, almost as if she was breaking an obstinate colt. Pushed backwards by the escalator, she tripped and fell on to ascending passengers, who cushioned her fall. The child freed himself and ran down the escalator steps. Like the escalator, he too had a will of his own.

The most entertaining souls on the metro are the mobile phone Romeos and Juliets. Relationships are made, maidens proposed to, dates fixed and boyfriends dumped on the metro. All this transpires in full public glare. Thankfully, only one party is visible while the other is in ignorant bliss on the other side of a radio wave. These entertaining commuters have no qualms in spilling the most intimate details, loudly on a metro coach.

Once, a friend traveled beside a real metro cowboy, who successfully courted a girl and got her number in a short ride from Green Park to Jor Bagh. Before he got off, she asked his name. He replied just before the gates closed. “You can save my number as Liar,” he said.