Both short and portly, the two are barely as tall as the average Mumbaiite’s waist. Holding hands affectionately, one grabs the railing, pulling the other as she takes baby steps on the crowded railway station’s foot overbridge. Standing 3.5-feet tall, Mahendra Vinayak Agavni, 45, finds even the six-inch steps to the overbridge a daunting task.
But actually, getting to the local station’s platform is not the worst part of his commute. Getting into the train is.
“Look at us. we are so small. I get scared of being crushed in a local train’s crowds,” says Aarti Agavni, 37, with a nervous laugh. She is 3-feet tall. She makes paapad at home, and makes it a point to avoid commuting as much as she can. Her husband Mahendra, however, has to commute daily between Kurla and CST stations for work.
Over the years, the dwarf couple has learnt some tricks. “I hold on to the strap of someone’s bag or trousers, and allow myself to get pushed inside,” says the clerk with a government organisation.
The two got married in 2005 after both had almost lost any hope of finding a match. A colleague told Mahendra about an acquaintance in Kalyan who was also dwarf. Despite belonging to different castes, he knew this was his chance. “He pursued me for two months. I am a Brahmin. I asked him if belonging to a different caste matters and he was alright with it. We told our families and they agreed,” says Aarti. Just 15 days after both families gave their nod, the wedding took place.
A decade since they got married, the couple says infrastructure development for the physically challenged is still slow on the Indian Railways.
Mahendra, a heart patient, travels at 6.45 am from Kurla to CST, then takes a bus to his office at Lion Gate. He returns by 6 pm, right amid rush hour. Keeping in mind the time it takes to climb the overbridge and the margin of missing a few crowded trains because he’s unable to step in quickly enough, he says he leaves home early so that he reaches work on time. He’s also now habituated to being slapped around by the bags other commuters are carrying or being nearly trampled when passengers rush past him without noticing his presence.
“I can’t even reach the overhead handles for support,” he says. Still, the couple is jovial, having accepted the gaps in amenities for dwarfs.
He has fallen several times on railway platforms, as has Aarti. “Once at CST station, I was trying to board with the crowd when I fell and hit my head. Two men helped me. But by then the train had left,” Mahendra says.
At major terminals like CST, however, at least a train’s footboard is at the same level as the platform. In other stations, there is a gap as large as six to eight inches. For dwarfs travelling at rush hour, this gap could mean one missed step, possibly fatal.
“Such passengers form a minuscule population. We have not received a complaint as far as I know on this issue,” said Narendra Patil, Public Relations Officer (Central Railway). According to him, there are three types of platform: high level, medium level and rail level. “In rural stations, the platforms are at rail level, which may make boarding difficult for people with short height,” he said.
For the Agavnis, help comes on a few occasions when passengers actually scoop them up and help them into the compartment. The coach for disabled passengers also has no built-in step to climb, rendering it mostly useless for a disability like theirs. “We can’t even see the station signage when the train approaches a station,” Aarti says. Mahendra adds, “But there are people in worse condition, ones on wheelchair. We at least have legs.”