Oct 12 2018
The Home Guard
For women, leaving home after dusk implies an automatic invitation to danger and societal censure. Some people have even justified sexual assault and rape on the premise that women out late at night should expect aggression.
Amidst this, four women — a cab driver, a bouncer at a popular club, a bar dancer, and a home guard constable guarding the women’s compartment in the local trains — have been defying societal constraints and patriarchal mindsets each night when they go to work. These four Mumbai women work through the night, breaking boundaries that society has traditionally set on women’s mobility, morality, and sexuality.
Here are their stories.
This episode follows Suvarna, a home guard constable who rides the rails to make sure other women get home safely.
SUVARNA, THE HOME GUARD
Hindi News Anchor 1: There was an attempt to rape a 22-year-old woman in a
moving local train in Mumbai.
Hindi News Anchor 2: An American woman was not just mugged but her throat was
slashed by an unknown man in a local train in Mumbai.
Suvarna: My name is Suvarna Dilip Kharat. I am 38 and I have been working for the
Home Guard for 10 years now.
Suvarna: My work starts at 8pm in the evening and ends at 8am the next morning.
The biggest priority for us, posted in those ladies’ compartments, is that no man
should enter, especially those who are high on drugs. So, let’s say my train starts
from CST to Badlapur, I stand at the train’s door for the duration of the journey till
we reach Badlapur. Till the time there are women in the compartment, I don’t sit at
all. I am always fearful that men could come into the compartment at any time and
something untoward might happen. If that happens, I will be in trouble. After
reaching Badlapur, our role doesn’t end — we have to get the train back to CST.
Basically, we have to be in the same compartment through both these journeys till
the time the train retires for the night at around 2 or 2:30am to ensure that all the
women who travel in these trains are safe.
Suvarna: Once, my friend and me, we were in the train going from Badlapur to CST.
There were four druggies who forcibly entered my compartment at Ghatkopar. I had
nothing but a baton and a mobile. I was perplexed about how to handle the four of
them by myself. As soon as they entered the compartment, I told them if they came
even one step ahead, I would push them out of the train without caring for the
consequences. While I was doing this, I told my friend to call the control room. By
this time, we had reached Matunga station when the cops came in and took them
away. Imagine if there were women in the compartment and these druggies would
have attacked them. If we were around, we would have surely protected them, but
what if we weren’t around?
Kunal: Were you not afraid of the possibility that they could be armed?
Suvarna: Before I could process the fear, I started thinking of my colleague. She was
in uniform, but she was a young girl, who was young and yet to be married. What if
they would have tried to do something to her?
Suvarna: We basically just stay at that last station at the end of a journey. So, let’s
say if we get the train back to CST from Kasara, then we simply stay at the station
platform in CST because there are no facilities for us — neither to sleep, nor to sit.
We work with the police, but the police don’t provide any of the infrastructure or
facilities that women need. You must have been to the CST station and noticed the
space at the ticket booking office? That’s where both, men and women, sleep in the
But, the CST station is better because at least there is space near the ticket booking
windows. Vashi station is terrible because there is no place to sleep or sit, except on
the platforms. So, in the night, platforms are filled with us home guards sleeping all
the way till the tracks! The place is full of mosquitoes and we all have to sleep there,
out in the open.
Suvarna: Last night, we reached Thane at 1:30am and we saw all the police men
were sleeping and there was no place for women to sleep. So, we had to sit next to
a toilet. We asked them if they could make some space for us women, but they flatly
refused. Men always get space to sleep in the night, but women are never provided
any such facility.
Suvarna: I don’t sleep a wink in the nights because I don’t like sleeping in public. My
women colleagues ask me, why do you not sleep? Now, men and women have to
sleep together. I am not comfortable with that. At the very least, I feel there needs
to be a separate room for women constables.
Suvarna: Often, when Home Guards does something, no one recognises it as us
doing it. It’s always the police that gets all the credit. When we do something, the
least that people can do is at least give us our due credit.
Suvarna: We don’t get a monthly pay, or even a weekly off. We don’t even have
standard 8-hour shifts. We are constantly working for the police, come rain or sun,
and even through festivals. Despite this, we are treated very shabbily.
Kunal: You don’t even have a weekly day off?
Suvarna: We don’t even have a weekly day off. If we take even a day’s holiday, our
pay gets cut. This is wrong. We have worked for 10-12 years. I have been working
since we were paid Rs 90 per day. I would get Rs 3,500 each month. I’ve been
working since then. What have you given us for all these years of service?
Kunal: How many hours would you have to work to earn 90 rupees?
Suvarna: 12 hours!
Suvarna: Everyone is made permanent and given jobs, but we are kept temporary in
such precarious work conditions. Just because we are supposed to be a ‘voluntary’
force? The question is, are you making us work like we are a voluntary force? No,
right? Then how can you not make us permanent?
Suvarna: We go to the first class compartments too. But, the women in those
compartments never feel like we are one of them, or co-operate with us. They never
do! Women in the first class don’t co-operate with us as much as women in the
second class compartments do.
Our duty requires us to stand at the door because our supervisors at the station
check our attendance by checking the doors from the platforms. So, when we are in
the first class and if women are standing there and we request them to move, they
question us. They say we are making them move so that we can stand by the door
and enjoy the breeze! Don’t we all want the wind, they ask us rudely. These women
don’t think or realise that we are not there to enjoy ourselves, but to protect them.
In the second class compartment, on the other hand, all the women co-operate with
us and are very nice to us. They also struggle and work like us, unlike those first
class women who work in offices and act snooty. There is more solidarity here. They
are much more empathetic and know what it feels like to have to stand for hours on
end. They come to us and offer their seats and tell us to sit. Even when we refuse,
saying we can’t, they insist on us sitting for a few minutes. They say, we won’t
complain. No one would do this in the first class.
Suvarna: I was going to Badlapur in the first class compartment one night. It was her
last day at work, so she had received a bouquet of flowers. She didn’t say a word
until then but when the last station came, while getting off, she came to me, gave
me a rose, a chocolate and even offered a salute. She said it was only because of
me that she could travel all the way to Badlapur in the train by herself. She said she
was feeling very proud of herself. I felt very good about it, the fact that there is
someone who wants to salute us. It felt very good when she gave me the rose and
the chocolates. I told all my friends about it.
Suvarna: I was not going to join the Home Guard. In fact, I had always wanted to
become a police officer. I tried 2-3 times, but they kept rejecting me because I was
not tall enough. Someone I knew told me that the Home Guard was recruiting. So, I
thought to myself, I will be able to don the khaki with the Home Guard too, so why
not? The thing was, even at the Home Guard, in the initial training, I was not
selected. After 4 days of training, I was rejected by them because I am not tall
enough. That day, I cried a lot. I told people I had trained hard. I would wake up at
3:30am, leave home at 5am and come back at 8pm and sleep at 1am. I had
struggled a lot, so I told them I will not leave, even if everyone else leaves. They
told me that they could not take me, so I asked them if that was the case, then why
did they even select me for training in the first place? So, I remained stubborn and
then, they finally relented. After that, I even became the commander of 71 other
Suvarna: Lots of them told me. Even my family told me, why are you doing the night
shift? This isn’t even work. I told them, I said you come with me and see what it is to
work in the night and what my role is. Don’t believe what society tells you. You see
it for yourself. I’ll take you along. You can pretend to be a passenger in the train and
I’ll anyway be doing my duty, like I always do. So, you will see what it is to be
working in the night and how I feel, donning the uniform at night. I told my family all
this, especially my mother, my sister and my uncles. All of them were unhappy with
my night shift. But I feel like that was the best decision I made.
Suvarna: Earlier, I would often think, what will society say if women like me stepped
out in the night? But then it struck me, why do I care about society so much?
Because when I am at home starving, does society come to check on me, to see if I
have eaten or not? Then, why must I give it so much importance? I will do what I
feel is right. I know my life best, I know what is right and what is wrong. You don’t
need to tell me what is right. Who are you to judge me? Who are you?
Today, because I am working the night shift, so many women are able to get home
safe in the night. Those women and I know what my job means.
Suvarna: We must support women and let them go out, explore the world. Unless
they step out, they won’t learn anything, they won’t learn the ways of the world.
Women who are always holed up at home and protected from everything start
crying the second something goes wrong in the real world. They don’t know how to
deal with difficulties or situations. The helpless can make them follow any man who
offers them even some support. But, women like us, who go out, won’t do that. We
would give such men a tight slap, because we are not innocent kids who don’t know
the ways of the world. We don’t need them to ‘rescue’ us, we’ve seen enough of the
I have always believed that one must never follow a man. One must be so far ahead
in life that the man has to follow you. I might not be earning much, but I am very
happy. I earn for myself and not for anyone else. I am not dependent on others for
my existence right now, nor will I ever be. I have saved enough for my future. I have
never believed that my son or his wife will take care of me in my old age. And I am
not even going to tell anyone how much money I have saved. It is none of their
business. Whether I am having fun with this money or donating it to a charity,
society doesn’t have the right to ask me, in my belief. This is for my future.
Dilip: Earlier, she didn’t know Mumbai too well so she would be scared to step out.
Even if she had to go to Dadar, Sion or wherever, she would be clueless, she had no
experience. But, now after her work, her experience has increased. She has even
done election duty and helped conduct polls in Antop Hill, a very dangerous area in
Mumbai, working till 2-3am. That is how her courage has grown. She had to face so
many difficulties and dangers, but she didn’t dither even once. This is how she has
gained rich experience.
Dilip: The uniform is outside the house. When she is donning the uniform, she must
exert the influence and power that it carries. But when she is at home, she must live
by the rules of the house.
Suvarna: When I first came here, I felt, this house, my children, I should never leave
this and go anywhere at all. And that all that I do should be for them. But then,
wherever I look, I see how children are dumping their parents, they don’t take care
of them. Over the years, I’ve learned this much at least: everything has a place in
life, be it family or anything. But one must live for one’s own self. I have lived
enough for others. I got married and lived for my husband, then lived for my
children. But, where is my life in all this? So, if I am still not living my own life, after
having lived for everyone else, what is the point of my existence? Then, my life is a
zero. That’s why, I want to do something for myself.
Suvarna: I have changed a lot. I was not so forward before this. (Laughs)
I had never seen Bombay before I got married, so I was content being the lioness of
my area. But, now, I feel like I am the lioness of Mumbai too.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.