"I'm trying to fight for a little space, so I can stand and not fall, and then this girl in front of me is like, 'Can you just move a little? You're making me uncomfortable.' And I just turned around and looked at her. There's no place! I didn't wake up today thinking I'd come and sit in your arms. It gets that crowded."
Sushmita*, an assistant at one of Mumbai's premier art galleries, recounts the more intimate details of her morning commute to downtown Mumbai's bustling arts district. She always spends her train ride in the girls-only compartment, marked on the platform with pink arrows and a "Ladies Only" sign. Though the rest of the train is officially meant for the general public, it is heralded as a de facto men's section. With an incredulous laugh, Sushmita mentioned that, once, she saw someone get bitten for not moving out of the way when the doors opened on the subway.
Commuting women in India have many options available when it comes to transport: the local metro, private auto-rickshaws, city buses, and now Ola and Uber cabs that are often cheaper than prepaid taxis. Traveling solo while female is still fraught with the potential threat of sexual harassment (or worse, as in the case of the fatal gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus), leading to a boom in personal safety apps in the country. Still, this hasn't stopped thousands of women—both local and tourist—from crisscrossing their way across the 1.3 million square mile country.
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Shreya and Anvesha, two sisters in their twenties, talked to me about their experiences in Mumbai and Delhi. The sisters both commute to work alone with confidence but take precautions to be sure to "keep themselves safe" whenever they're out.
"We try taking the safer option," Shreya says. "If I'm going to a remote place, I take a private auto-rickshaw. At night it's better to take a safe cab rather than an auto. I send my parents or my friends the cab's code too." Sometimes, she added, she prefers to crash at a friend's rather than dealing with late night transportation issues.
But there isn't much bitterness in their voices when they mention that their guy friends never have to consider safety when heading out late. "They don't have to think so much about [safety], that's for sure. Comparatively it is safer for boys." Often, it's these guy friends that will drop off the girls at home after nights out. "If we come back at 12 AM our parents wouldn't want us to come back all alone. It's not safe. It's not a good idea," says Anvesha.
When I asked them if they've traveled alone much in India, Shreya replies: "It's not something that's on my 'bucket list'…if it's necessary we do it. If you need to travel from one city to another and you don't have anybody to go with you, then obviously you go alone." Citing necessity as motivation, Anvesha told me about the time she bravely ignored her parents' wishes to go to a university interview in Bombay. She was 20, and left without telling them. She seemed nonplussed that they weren't angry upon her return to Delhi.
At a hostel in Bangalore, I meet Erica, a Canadian, whose months-long backpacking trip was spurred by the end of a four-year relationship. The challenges she's faced as a solo female traveler heavily revolve around the question of her own independence. "I didn't realize how uptight I was about safety. The last couple weeks I just haven't trusted anybody. This guy I met through couch surfing wanted me to rent a motorcycle and he made me pay for it and I kind of wondered if he got a cut. And I just realized I've become very distrusting, [I wonder if] people are fucking with me, especially men.
"You don't want to be that paranoid person," she adds, "but there are bad things that happen to women when they travel alone."
Over the past week, she's been deciding whether or not to go to Mysore, where she spent a lot of time last year practicing ashtanga yoga. "Because I've been sick and tired lately, I've definitely relied on other people and it's kind of a myth that we go at it alone. You're not really alone, or, at least you don't have to be."
On the train from Bangalore to Nagpur, I speak with Kajal*. She confesses that she's taking the train alone for the first time due to a family emergency. Her assigned seat was a few booths over, but she spent most of the 24-hour journey in our unofficial girl's only booth because she felt safer with women around her.
She explains her unease at sitting with the men in our compartment with her experience of the sleeper class. "Drunk men will come and lay in front of you and sit very close. You can see them quite often, standing at the doors to the bathroom, harassing people who pass."
Kajal appreciates the relative ease and safety of taking airplanes around India alone but remarked that train travel was more of a headache. "The state of India is such that whether you're a man, a woman, a teenager, or a child, everyone has problems traveling alone [with the train]. It starts with a taunting tone, and goes from there. That's why there are emergency numbers you can call if you have a problem."
On a local train, Kajal once had a man try to touch her from under his newspaper. She shouted at him, "Sit properly! Please behave yourself!" He stopped sheepishly. Despite her negative experiences, she maintained that there is nothing to fear on public transport: "You shouldn't be scared. If you feel uneasy, you have to say something. If someone is sitting too close, you have to protest. Men don't say anything to other men. You have to shame them in front of everyone and then only they stop."
An older woman, Karishma*, shares our booth with us. As the matriarch of her family, Karishma's train journey is punctuated by hourly phone calls from her children and her grandchildren, who had booked her train for her. "My family calls me all the time to check on me," she says with pride. "They bought the ticket on the net. They're good at using the internet."
She tells me her kids wanted to buy her a plane ticket, but she said no. "The ticket costs 8,000 rupees [around $117] and the kids work hard, I don't want to waste their money. It's not urgent that I get somewhere, so I can take a train for two days, what do I have to do so urgently?" And so, in the safety of the women's only carriage, Karishma and Kajal spend most of their hours on the train staring serenely out the window, watching the panoramic view go by.
* Some names have been changed