|Madhuri Vaidya's spangled silk sari would make you believe she is off for a ritual for Vata Purnima - a festival where a woman prays for her husband's health and long life by fasting and tying a thread around banyan tree which is worshipped. But instead of making it to a banyan, she makes a dash for the 8:17 ladies special local train from Kalyan.
She is greeted with giggles the moment she enters A Reserve Bank of India employee, she has taken the same local for over a decade and has her pre-decided compartment and seat but the familiarity is not the only reason. Her choice of jewellery is. After all it is Vata Purnima.
"I haven't fasted. I've had my fill of poha in the morning," she says amid more titters and asks, "isn't it enough that working women keep in touch with tradition even while contributing to the family kitty?"
She opens her purse and begins the ritual haldi-kum kum ritual. After the banyan twig is worshipped the women apply vermillion and turmeric on each other's heads. "I believe that rituals like these don't take me back. They are my way of reaching out to my sorority and establishing a connect," she says and quickly adds, "We don't force anyone to participate. But see how everybody wants to be part of this."
As the women jostle to make space for new arrivals from the crowded suburbs of Dombivli and Thane there are many who greet Madhuritai with a wave of hand here and a nod there before joining the ritual
"We have so much to do in one day. Both at home and at work so we try to make the most of our travel time together," says Vasudha Patil who has got chips to munch on. "Everyday someone gets something for the group. We sing, laugh and talk our way through the one and a half hour journey both in the morning and evening."
Vasudha (35) knows what this informal 'centre for women in distress' means to her.
Only last year her she lost her husband in an accident and was shattered. "I would just sit in a corner, look out and the tears wouldn't stop. I was scared about shouldering the responsibility for the family," says the mother of two who also has an old mother-in-law to care for.
"Madhuritai and the other women not only gave me pep talks but also practical advice on what to do with my husband Dilip's provident fund, how to counsel my truant 14-year-old son and also in helping me find alternative accommodation two months ago when repair work in my building began. In fact when the deposit fell short they all contributed and lent me money."
There are many like Vasudha who have shared the space of the local compartment with their "train friends" and come back lighter, pacified and hopeful.
Jayanti Nair (26) would lie everyday that the brusies on her body were the result of her falling down. Till she once came into the train with a buckle mark etched on her face. "I didn't know whom to tell since I was scared my husband would pack me off back to my parents in Kerala," she points out and adds, "when Madhuritai asked me repeatedly about whether I was being abused I broke down. A group of 15 women came to my house and shook him up with a warning that they will beat him to pulp if he raises his hand again. And he never hit me again."
"Of course it helped a lot that he soon got a job in the Gulf and comes home only once or twice a year," says Madhuri who along with other regular travllers in the compartment have decided to ensure that they are always there to support each other.
They may not go around the banyan tree hand in hand beseeching the Gods for help but just like the aerial roots of the tree they are strengthening their belief in themselves and each other.