The occupation of space, hierarchy and intersectionality in Mumbai's suburban trains (completed)

Annelies Kusters


Deaf people in the Mumbai metropolis travel in train compartments reserved for the disabled, chatting and exchanging news and information. These spatial practices are facilitated by the peninsular geography and train infrastructure of Mumbai. In order to produce deaf spaces where deaf sociality and sign-language use are the organizing principles, deaf people strategically board particular trains and particular compartments, and sometimes remain in the train beyond their original destination. Mobile phones are used to coordinate these meetings. The diversity of people meeting in the train is high – for example, with regard to gender, age, religion, caste and class – and divisions are either perpetuated or abated. Because these compartments provide a diverse range of deaf people with a space for daily meetings on the way to and from their (mostly hearing) work places and families, they are very important spaces in which to maintain and expand networks in the wider Mumbai deaf community.

These compartments for disabled people are also characterized by frequent encounters and interaction between deaf and non-deaf passengers. The compartments have increased in size over the years, and consequently the body of travellers has become more diverse, such as an increase in the numbers of women, but also of unauthorized travellers such as senior citizens, transgenders, schoolchildren and large numbers of male, able-bodied encroachers. Passengers produce hierarchies based on need, physical differences, age differences and physical appearance, determining who can enter the compartments and who ca not, who can sit and who should stand, and where they should sit or stand. These hierarchies are mediated, but not dominated, by medical and disability certificates which are, in addition to a valid ticket, the documents that entitle people to travel in the handicapped compartments. Hierarchies are influenced by sexism, classism and audism and partially overlap but are also competing, as in the case of the deaf, who argue for the right to occupy seats and at the same time struggle with how to balance this quest with the need to act morally towards fellow travellers who are seemingly suffering. In short, the research provides insights into encounters within urban networks and of the process of negotiating the diversity of travellers.

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