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22.02.2018

If you live in Gurgaon and commute to Delhi, you don’t really belong to either city. You’re a resident of the Yellow Line. As all public transport, the Delhi Metro is detested by, and essential to, the lives of millions. But for a generation of Gurgaon kids who grew up in a world circumscribed by family cars and school buses, without public transport or footpaths, it represents a very unique freedom.

The Delhi metro didn’t extend to Gurgaon until 2010, spurred on by the Commonwealth Games. The event may have been a financial disaster for the country, but suddenly teenagers across the state border found that our (limited) means were enough to get us to Delhi. We flocked to the stadiums in herds, whimsically made and then changed plans, and hunted for food in old Delhi before Instagram told us where to go. We discovered the city as a living, breathing entity. As a friend put it, “The metro is my Faraway Tree.”

I fell in love with the metro at 17, just out of school, with a heart that had broken for the first time. The Yellow Line was my magical ticket out of misery. I escaped into Delhi for hours, getting off at random stops, walking around, hopping back in. If my parents asked, I’d say I’d been at a friend’s place and if a friend asked, I’d say I’d been at another friend’s place. The metro and I had a secret called Delhi.

Over the decade, the Yellow Line changed the way we picked colleges, choose jobs and find romance. A direct line from Huda to Vishwavidyalaya allows North Campus and its glories feel as accessible as the relative proximity of South Campus. Jobs in Delhi don’t feel unachievable for lack of a safe, reliable commute. Young travellers now get on the metro and immediately whip out their phones, plotting dates in the relatively anonymous romance-friendly parks of Delhi. (In the summer months, the cool interiors of large stations themselves become venues for romance.) Frantic phone conversations subside abruptly at Saket as the metro slips underground and phones lose network; everyday, for these few minutes, we find ourselves refreshingly untethered from the world.

The long commutes, which last anywhere between 40 to 90 minutes, have nursed several abandoned reading habits back to life. An unlikely camaraderie forms: we must be the the NCR’s first commuters who actually talk to each other (and not just to say ‘please adjust’ and wedge into non-existent slivers of space – a feature unique to the women’s compartment). In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya protests, a lawyer delivered an impromptu lecture on women’s rights to a packed compartment, inaugurating - at least for me - a grand tradition of discussing feminism on the metro in which a stranger almost always joins in. Another time, a carriage full of people helped a friend through an anxiety attack – offering her everything from cold water and life advice to numbers for their local babas.

Returning from a Hauz Khas bookstore one night, my friend and I found ourselves in a palatially empty carriage and she decided to fill the silence by reading out from a book of poems she’d just bought. It was more space than most 16 year olds are used to, so we spread ourselves both physically and metaphorically. Nobody told us to shut up; instead a couple women from other compartments joined us. The bookstore is long gone, but the metro carriage still remains.

Over a decade after its arrival in our lives, the metro remains a reliable accomplice, allowing us some well-calibrated shut-eye, shuttling us to dates, classes, protests, jobs and sometimes even our families. On Bhai Dooj and Rakhi, the metro’s gender ratio seems to invert as dozens of women and children, dressed in their finest, make the trip to see brothers and cousins, for once not reliant on their husbands to take them. Despite the vast numbers who use the service, spotting a first time user still makes us feel as if we’ve let someone in on our little secret.

Most remarkably, many women who can afford the choice tend to prefer the relative autonomy of the metro over the confines of an Uber. There’s great comfort in our mental map of metro stations and their surroundings, because it makes it easy to plot an escape. As one commuter put it, ‘I think I trust the metro more than I trust men’.

We’re the women who understand the city’s geography not through its roads or its neighbourhoods, but through metro lines and stops. We reserve a particular distrust for places that aren’t accessible by metro because if it’s not on the map, then does it exist at all? The metro breathes life into Delhi, giving us a vocabulary to navigate the city. Without it, Delhi may as well not exist for Gurgaon.

This story was contributed by Nehmat Kaur, a culture writer based in Gurgaon and New Delhi.

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