You may have read comparisons between Delhi and Mumbai (nay Bombay). You may have argued that Dilli had a bigger dil or that Bombay was the only truly cosmopolitan city. You've heard that Mumbai is safe for women and Delhi is aggressive.
I like to believe that there's no real difference between North, South and the Deccan. But we are products of conditioning and, as far as social behaviour goes, we are moulded as much by infrastructure, design and technology as by anything else. I've lived in Mumbai and Delhi and have observed both cities change over the last two decades along with their public transport systems.
Mumbai was not easy to live in but it had a decent combination of transport services used by people of all ages, cutting across classes (barring the very rich). There were BEST buses, taxis, autorickshaws, and a vast suburban railway network that almost never failed you. Trains, aligned all the city's length, ran from four in the morning to nearly two in the night. Taxi and autorickshaws also plied all night.
It was these services that gave the city the freedom to become "the city that never sleeps" and also what gave it the "safe for women" tag. Poor and middle class women could get around at all hours if they needed - or wanted - to, without feeling utterly isolated. There were always people around and you were never too far from a railway station. On one of my first reporting jobs, when I got lost in an unfamiliar suburb, a kindly gent advised me that I must always orient myself to the nearest railway track; I would always find my way back home.
Not that the tracks were shorn of risk. Even 15 years ago, trains were overcrowded. During rush hours, catching a fast train was next to impossible. Everyone risked their lives as they pushed, elbowed, lunged in order to get the tiniest toehold and hand-hand at the door. Yet, millions of us took the risk. Most of those millions were not above elbowing another citizen in the ribs as they fought to get inside a train.
When I moved to Delhi, I missed Mumbai's local trains sorely. There were buses but not enough of them and no trains. There was, however, a "Metro" that promised to be a world-class thing - high-speed underground trains. Like all of Delhi, I waited to experience this wonder and when I did, it was everything it promised to be.
For one, it was clean - cleaner than any public transport avenue we had seen in India. Besides, there were escalators, CCTV cameras and air conditioning inside the whole train. Some people cynically wondered how long Delhiites would take to destroy the metro; they anticipated spit and the stink of urine within days. That did not happen. Confronted with a clean new system, the vast majority of Delhiites managed to swallow their spit.
I, coming from Mumbai, was marvelling at something else. We could get into trains in a civil fashion. There were announcements asking passengers to stay away from the edge of the platform and to let passengers alight first. By and large, they did.
In Mumbai, although railways would make half-hearted announcements to this effect, everyone knew that it was a question settled by whether the crowd waiting to get off the train was a mightier force than the crowd waiting to board. For years, I had braced myself twice a day, trying not to get killed by a stampeding crowd that was not just impatient but often hostile.
In the Delhi Metro, there was no hostility. There was a tentativeness at first. People were obviously at ease; they didn't hurl themselves into the compartment as if their lives depended on it. There were good reasons for this - they knew the train would not leave without them. They could afford to wait until the passengers disembarked. There was no need to elbow someone in the ribs or dig your nails into someone's forearm. The train would not move until the doors had closed completely, and the doors would not close as long as people were still trying to board.
This reassurance was wonderful. The sense of ease lasted only about two years though. As more and more people used the Delhi Metro, as the metro network expanded to include far-flung suburbs, we all began to experience the same sort of enforced intimacy that Mumbai's trains impose upon citizens. Bodies pressed up against bodies, dozens of bodies touching as people moved from seat to door. People were telling each other to move, or snapping back that there was no further possibility of movement. Inevitably, women asked for a separate Ladies compartment, like in Mumbai's trains.
In Delhi's Metro, however, people were learning to accept the limits of a system. If a passenger was too close to the door, the sensors would set off an alarm. Now there are two options. One, everyone shifts so the passenger can inch away, the doors can close and the train can move. Two, the passengers nearest the door sees no further crowd adjustment is possible, steps back on the platform, so the doors can close and the train moves.
This acceptance is not stereotypically associated with Delhiites on the move. They remain fairly aggressive on the road, while driving cars and bikes, and even the law or the presence of policemen could not stop them from driving in a lane meant for bicycles. The Metro, however, left them with no choice but to cooperate, and they did.
In Mumbai, the Metro was built after the open-door train system. It came to people who are used to a different commuter psychology. Their instinct is to rush forward, tumble in anyhow, willing to push and shove. Part of it comes from the fear that the train will start moving before you've had a chance to board, and the other part is a desire to secure a seat, especially the prized "window" seat, which would allow you a bit of fresh air when the crowds swelled to unbearable limits.
Even though the average Mumbai metro commute is quite short, and though it is equally air-conditioned in all parts of the train, the attitude of rushing in and grabbing a seat has not changed yet. A year of the Mumbai metro's existence has not taught passengers to relax. During rush hours, people are still behaving as they do in the open-door trains - not letting people get off first, pushing and jostling.
Conversely, some of Mumbai's train habits have slipped into the Delhiites' commute. Because commutes were long and because nobody had the time or energy left for socializing after, Mumbai learnt to live in the train. People ate in the train and on the platform. Many napped. Women shopped for items as diverse as underwear, sewing kits and mobile phone covers. Some read. Some knitted or crocheted. Some told beads or chanted mantras. Some sat on the floor if they couldn't get a seat.
Last I was in Delhi, I was amused to note quite a few similarities. People were not just travelling but living in the train. One filed her nails. Another wept on a friend's shoulder. Many sat on the floor. Strangers were willing to strike up conversations. Women, I noticed, were walking different - their steps quicker, their body language more confident. There were at least a handful of women out and about at night, thanks to the Metro and thanks to their presence, I too felt safer.
What was most amusing, though, was to overhear on staircases and security check gates a certain tone of voice that I associate especially with Mumbai - an impatient click of the tongue followed by an "Ae, chal na!" Except, it being Delhi, it was "Oye, chal na!"