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‘When we see other people’s stories, as we do on the Delhi Metro, we gain empathy and understanding’ – Scroll.in

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“Please don’t befriend any unknown person.” This announcement keeps ringing in the coaches of Delhi’s Metro trains on loop. But from what Rashmi Sadana observes on her many commutes on the Metro, there are various forms of befriending. The people in an enclosed space for a short duration of time do not know one another, but perhaps might like to. This is one of 75 vignettes, or episodic chapters, that make up Sadana’s book Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro.
Sadana – who is a cultural anthropologist and an associate professor of anthropology at George Mason University, Virginia – looks at the capital city’s mass transit system not only by means of a geographic compass but as a blueprint mapping equity and divide, transit and pause, event and happenstance. She spoke to Scroll.in about how the gangway of the Metro coaches is a metaphor for people navigating a city, why the idea of repetition intrigues her, and how her book isn’t a history of the Delhi Metro but a study of the commuters’ changed itineraries, their habits and their ideas about themselves and the city. Excerpts from the interview:
In an attempt to understand and inquire into the social mobility and urban landscape of the capital city, you travelled assiduously on the Delhi Metro for over a decade. What prompted this urge to explore the happenings on a public transit system – and the population’s daily pursuit of equality, of access and affordability – by using the template of, as you mention in the book, “a street-level ethnographic view of the city”?
The first time I rode the Metro in 2006, I knew it was going to have a major impact on the city, both in terms of people’s everyday lives and as a massive object on the urban landscape. I knew I wanted to track this transformation – not as a history of the Metro but as a study of people’s changed itineraries, their habits and their ideas about themselves and the city. As someone who knows Delhi well and had been getting around via so many types of conveyances for years, I knew I wanted to track this impact as it was happening.
Once the Metro took hold, we’d forget about the details of this transformation. I saw the Metro not as a standalone object but as a new entrant in Delhi’s transport landscape full of buses, motorbikes, auto- and cycle-rickshaws, cars and trucks. My “urge” was to understand whether the Metro was going to shake up or merely solidify existing inequalities along class lines, and how it was going to change the experience of gendered mobility, how women and men would use the system and what that would mean for their lives.
Each chapter in the book stands on its own, and one doesn’t feel the need to read it linearly. Was this how you planned it structuring the anatomy of the book?
Yes, the book is composed of 75 very short chapters or “scenes,” and I arranged them based on chronology, roughly synchronising with the first three construction phases of the Metro. But I also see the scenes as interchangeable since they are played over again and again in the Metro each day. I was interested in that idea of repetition over time, and that’s why in the introduction to the book I suggest to the reader that they can read the 75 scenes in order, or they can shuffle them and read them in an order of their own. I’m affording readers the possibility of making their own reading experience and their own journey through the city.
Considering that women usually seek safety in numbers, the ladies’ coach serves as a private space for them in public. In the case of Vanita, illustrated in your book, she realises only upon getting divorced that she had reduced herself to a complete state of dependence on her husband, including the matter of simply getting around the city. Based on your readings of the Delhi Metro, have experiments with subsidising the commute for women affected their commuting patterns?
I don’t really agree with the idea that the ladies’ coach serves as a private space for women in public. In the book I try to show that it is a fluid space since the fact that you can see through to the mixed coaches, and pass between them without any actual barrier, makes the space not private exactly. We have to remember that men also pass through the ladies’ coach to get to the mixed coach; this is very common when the platform is particularly crowded. On occasion, men also sit in the ladies’ coach before they are shooed away, and men in the mixed coach can look into the ladies’ coach.
In Vanita’s case, she started riding the Metro long before there was a ladies’ coach, which was introduced only in 2010. For her, the gendered aspect of the Metro relates to her own sense of independence she gets from moving through the stations and onto the trains on her own. Earlier, she always relied on her husband and their car and driver. The Metro, on the other hand, enables her to discover this new side of herself and these new abilities she didn’t know she had.
But, yes, once the ladies’ coach was instituted, women who hadn’t ridden on the Metro before started riding on it. So, in a general sense, the mobility of women in the city increases because of the ladies’ coach. The Metro is not subsidised for women; everyone pays the same fare.
While you mention instances alluding to a sense of familiarity among the commuters – two women on the coach who recognise each other and excitedly exchange greetings, or those wanting to befriend another despite the rather mystifying announcement, “Please do not befriend any unknown person” – were you also struck by observations of anonymity and alienation that a transit system as vast and intricate as the Delhi Metro might offer?
Yes, very much so. The Metro, like mass transit systems the world over, is an anonymous space. It is a concentrated version of the city as a whole, which is vast, and can be alienating. At the same time, as people began to get familiar with the Metro, and got comfortable riding it, these feelings of familiarity and comfort cut through the anonymity and alienation. People start to identify with the Metro and see their fellow passengers as, well, not quite kin, but as fellow city-dwellers. And I think this is the magical effect that mass transit systems can have, if the conditions are right.
I am particularly captivated by your exploration of the gangways of the Metro train as an “in-between space”. This space between the ladies’ coach and the general coach allows (or even disallows) a commingling and cohabitation of strangers, a fluid space that, as you describe, “changes as people step in and out of trains”. How did your observations of the in-between spaces act as evocations or provocations to dwell upon the larger urban condition of how people of various genders navigate public spaces?
The gangway is such a small space, and hence has this cosy, almost protected feel to it. It became a kind of metaphor for not only how people move through the city but also how they exist in the city. The gangway is an interesting space as it represents the barrier or cut-off point for women and men with regard to the ladies’ coach, but it’s also not so clear-cut as that.
What if you’re a mixed-gender family and you straddle the gangway with women on one side and men on the other? What if you’re a couple whose only space of public intimacy is the gangway? What if you’re a transgender person and the gangway symbolises your own in-betweenness but also your fear of crossing over to one side – will you be accepted? The gangway separates the ladies’ and mixed coaches, but I also saw it as a challenge to the binary understanding of gender.
Continuing the trope of the “in-between,” you also explore the economies that exist along the Metro routes as markers of subsistence – such as workshops for dyeing jeans in the neighbourhood behind Seelampur station, vendors selling gol gappa, or the largely migrant rickshaw-drivers essential for commuters’ last-mile connectivity. While arriving at this intersection of the Metro as a site of both livelihood and lifeline during your research, how were these service-providers, or “the eyes on the street,” viewed by those in a position of authority, such as DMRC officials, planners, or even those intending to, as you mention, “clean up” the city by getting rid of the vendors?
Most of the planners and officials I met were not so bent on getting rid of street life, though they didn’t always take into account how the street was actually integral to the Metro system. That when you step down from the Metro, being able to get a street snack and then hop on a bus would be essential to making your Metro journey complete. Any mass transit system has to connect to all the other smaller systems – that’s the nature of what it means to not only get around, but also get to your destination. While transport connects to other transport, it also connects to experiences of transiting, including needs such as eating and shopping.
With growing ambitions to expand the Metro lines, questions of dislocation and relocation of those living in informal settlements near the stations or along rail lines are inevitable. Have we then invisibilised an entire demographic in the making and remaking of a city?
Well, yes, the Metro is a lifeline for those who ride it, but it largely serves the interest of the working and middle classes – which is a huge demographic. It doesn’t address the needs of a major demographic that takes the bus exclusively, or that doesn’t take any transport because they don’t commute to work and can’t afford to take the Metro.
This is the invisible city, the city that doesn’t go with the “world-class” veneer of the Metro. And yet many of them – those living on the Metro’s path or those having shops along the path – were forced to sacrifice for the Metro. This is the problem with mega-infrastructure; it is not fully inclusive.
Throughout the book you chronicle what Georges Perec termed as the “infra-ordinary,” or those moments one would otherwise overlook. You are attentive to the way the human body manoeuvres; its gait, posture, gaze, gesture, speech, sartorial choices, even longing and desire. How did these observations help you construct characters that further probe the ways in which people use the Metro, given the predominantly classist, casteist, patriarchal and heteronormative structures that exist in our country?
Each of my observations in the book is based on real people I met or saw. I didn’t collapse any people together for the sake of a description. The characters emerged organically from my reams of field notes that I took over the years. In this way, the book aims to relay what “the ordinary” means on the Metro. But yes, if you take those observations together and put them side by side, as I do in the book, there are patterns that emerge: about class, caste, gender, patriarchy and so forth.
Would you consider the city of Delhi a participant in your book or a witness to the many snatches that play out?
I think Delhi is a participant – it is the backdrop to the Metro, it interacts with the Metro, it has been changed by the Metro, and it is also something that is imagined by every city-dweller.
What, according to you, does it take to make a city humane?
A humane city is one where people have empathy for one another. And that empathy has to move beyond our families and communities and extend to people across caste, class and religious lines. You can’t have a humane city without that. As an urban ethnographer, I feel that mixed public spaces are vital for the interactions that lead to people having empathy for one another.
The more the city becomes exclusive and privatised, the fewer spaces there are for this kind of mixing and creation of empathy. When we see other people’s stories, even snippets of them through our day, as people do on the Metro, we gain empathy and understanding. That is urban culture, or that’s the hope for it.
Did the research process instil within you a newfound way of exploring or getting around the city? Has it, in any way, changed the way you look at the city?
It has hundred per cent changed the way I look at the city. I have never interacted with more strangers in a city in my entire life. I got to know people I would not have normally got to know. I went out of my comfort zone but also experienced the joy of discovery and connection. I went to places again and again in the city that I never would have visited otherwise. For instance, I spent a lot of time at the ends of the Metro lines, and this made me look back and see the so-called centres in a new way.
Hypothetically, what do you think a city designed entirely by women would look like? Would greater representation of women in urban planning change cities for the better, making room for more inclusive and navigable spaces for people irrespective of their age, gender, sexuality, disability or ethnicity?
I’d like to think a city designed by women would have much better public bathrooms, more well-lit streets, better access ramps and childcare facilities – but for a better designed city overall, one that is more humane and inclusive, you would also need people of different castes and classes involved in urban planning. We need their visions of the city, but also for them to be empowered to enact those visions.

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