I MET HER AT THE SAKET METRO STATION, where she bought a small, black plastic token to travel to Rajiv Chowk. After passing through two rounds of security, we reached the row of small gates where passengers get their Metro cards and tokens scanned before proceeding to the tracks. She seemed confused as she tried to find a slot in which to place her token, and she could not persuade the gate to open. A few awkward seconds passed and she turned to a young man walking through the gate to her right, but he had zipped through too quickly. In a final attempt, she turned round and asked a man standing directly behind her how to work the gate. He gestured for her to place her token upon a small, demarcated rectangle in the shape of a Metro card. And once she did, the gates swung open. She was ready for her first-ever Metro ride.
When Rini Simon Khanna reached the large, airy platform, she started listening attentively. “You can barely hear the announcements,” she said in disappointment. It wasn’t that she was concerned that she would fail to catch a potential delay or a change in service—it was the announcement itself that she was waiting to hear.
Our train came in a few seconds and, positioned just at the edge of the sliding doors, we were among the first to board. “Please stand away from the doors,” announced a voice from inside the Metro car. Khanna flinched. She wasn’t amused. “That sounds different than me.”
Yes, you guessed it. Rini Simon Khanna, my travel companion for the afternoon, is the owner of the voice instructing Delhi Metro passengers in English to ‘mind the gap’, and she had just boarded a Metro car for the first time, more than eight years after the network’s first line opened.
Khanna is a former Doordarshan newscaster and is now best known as a voiceover artist, scriptwriter and compere. She has recorded prompts for scores of Metro stations, many of which she hadn’t been able to locate on a map. Although in person she has a deep voice, her Metro announcements sound sharp, almost metallic. The enunciation is precise, the diction erudite. Her voice commands that it be heard. The first time I spoke to her on the phone I felt embarrassed about my oratorical shortcomings. But, contrary to the headmistress-like stern temperament projected by her announcements, she is a cheerful person, with large, bright eyes and short, curly hair that rests just above the collar of her kurti.
The announcements sounded robotic. Understandably, they lacked the modulations of colloquial speech, but Khanna described the disembodied voice she heard as if it was a few degrees of separation away from her own. Comfortably perched on one of the two-seater benches at the ends of each car, she started critiquing some of the nuances of her speech: “There is too much gap between the name of the station and the word ‘station.’”
Initially, she had seemed wary of riding the Metro. Aside from a bus she would take to her college in the 1980s, Khanna hasn’t used any form of public transportation since she learned to drive at the age of 16. She now goes around in a fuel-economic Honda City—there isn’t a Metro station near her home in Vasant Kunj, and the schedule doesn’t suit her working hours, which often extend late into the night. She feared the Metro might be too cramped. Or that the body odour of her fellow passengers, a distinct recollection from her bus-travelling days, would repel her.
“This is like a song, compared to a bus,” she said excitedly, after a cool breeze from the air conditioner vents swept away her earlier apprehensions.
When we reached Rajiv Chowk, the largest and busiest station on the network, she was amazed by the sea of passengers rushing in and out of the trains: more than two million people use the Metro every single day. Khanna wondered aloud if anyone had imagined even 10 years ago that a public utility like this would one day exist. It feels safe for women, liberating for youth, manners-inducing for the masses—a commendable feat by Metro-maker E Sreedharan, she proclaimed.
As she marvelled at the cavernous architecture of the station while we stood on a platform, a train halted and, suddenly, a new wave of passengers swarmed around us, rushing out. “And none of them know it’s me they hear every day?”