By Anushree Gupta:
It was 11 at night when Sanjida and Sabiha wished me goodbye at the Kamlapur Coach Station. Another humble friend, Mahdy, was there to accompany me until the bus arrived. I was travelling from Dhaka (Bangladesh) to Agartala (India). Around 1 a.m. (Bangladesh Standard Time), while the officials at the station were half asleep, the coach arrived, and it was quite perplexing to know that I was to be the only passenger travelling that night. It had been different on my way to Dhaka as there were about 19 of us in the coach. This time, the coach driver, the supervisor, the bus conductor and I made up the entire squad.
The coach service from Kolkata to Dhaka to Agartala was recently introduced after the Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh and both the countries extended a friendly gesture. The travel ticket was amazingly inexpensive (which somehow struck me as a warning sign and reminded me of some of the choicest horror movie scenes where people hire a coach but never reach their destination). The estimated travel time was to be a grey area as the traffic in Dhaka had a significant part to play.
Although being from the land where sexual violence and instances of rape are as common as a bug bite they say, I did not take a step back on realising that I’d be a lone traveller that night. I somehow surpassed that feeling of discomfort which surrounds one when the mind is burdened by a million ‘what ifs.’
There is no denying that if I had told my parents, my boyfriend or my friends about making this move, it would have been a big NO, and at some point, I did realise what a risk I had undertaken. What if the coach was raided? What if something uncouth was on the cards? Sexual violence, murder, rape, theft, loot – all sorts of premonitions popped up in my head simultaneously, but there was also this other side – what if none of this happens? What if everything goes well?
Soon after the bus ride began, we stopped at a tea stall. I rushed out to get one last glimpse of the town. It was a small place. Mostly a pan shop with about ten men having tea, smoking, and laughing their hearts out. All of that stopped as soon as they took note of my presence, as maybe it seemed unusual for them to see a woman at that hour. In another five minutes, we were back on the bus, and I occupied the seat near the door. For a while, it felt like I owned the bus, yet, I was all ears, over-attentive and highly observant of every minute detail. While most of the time,
the driver, conductor and the supervisor, conversed in Bangla, I made every possible effort to derive context from their discussions.
Eventually, I lay my head by the side of the window pane and relaxed into the seat. My fear and watchfulness moderated, I went on to collect memories from the trip.
I thought of how Bangladesh never made me feel insecure about being in a foreign land. The heat of the sun; the serenity of the evenings; the cheer across the city; the commotion of traffic; the street side grocery vendors attempting in their high yet sober tones to attract more shoppers – all that I had come to know so well.
As my thoughts wandered, an involuntary smile took over my relaxed face. Effortlessly, I could relate to Bangladesh and also knew that the people thought of me as one of their own. It was wonderful how they could all understand some part of the Hindi language I spoke.
I tried to look outside and saw my own reflection staring back at me on the window glass. I felt a sudden surge of excitement at being a woman, travelling alone in a bus, and crossing international borders. I realised that my suspicions were melting away as the miles passed by.
Time passed as I engaged in some conversations with my three male companions in the bus. Around 4.30 in the morning we reached the border and had to wait for two hours before the immigration office opened. The anxiety of passing this time made my eyes grow big again. Was it a plan to wait for this long in the dark? However, the road on both the sides was lit brightly, and I could see some security men at the gates. The driver and the conductor made their way to the back seats and soon I heard them snoring quite distinctly while the supervisor slept on the front seat. I, however, switched on my cell phone and kept searching for network every 5 minutes.
It was still dark at around 6.15 a.m. when the supervisor requested for my passport. The process at the Immigration offices (both in Bangladesh and then in India) was quick. I was in India soon and arrived at the Krishna Nagar Coach Station in Agartala. Sat Sri Akal, Allah Hafiz and Namaskar were my last three words to my travel companions – the driver, the conductor and the supervisor.
Crossing international borders is a different story altogether when compared to day-to-day bus travel within cities. Travelling alone in the South Asian region, for women, is not considered safe by any standards. But then I saw another side.
It is not only men who see women as objects. It is also women who have been taught to live this way, in fear, in inferiority and conformity with men being the protectors, providers and also the predators.
I believe, that a child remains a child until its ears are pierced and decorated with shiny jewels at a very tender age, beyond which that child is labelled a girl. She is made to wear vibrant, colourful clothes and therefore she begins to appreciate such attires as she grows up. She witnesses her father and brothers make all the major decisions for the family, and thus she makes herself comfortable with the reality of her own subjugation and surrender knowing that no one from her gender ever speaks up or demands or decides.
It is not only rape that happens every time, but it is that insecurity that makes women believe that rape is the most probable thing that could happen. This fear and insecurity bind them as victims for life.
The societies in the South Asian region are so overly gender governed that most of what an average female does in her routine life is what’s expected of her and not what she desires. The impact is so horrific that a present day woman denies acknowledging the compromise she has made, and instead recognises it as cooperation, responsibility and duty. This constant fulfilment of societal expectations has given rise to a bottomless reservoir of unnoticed deprivation, violation of rights and breach of personal identity for women.
It must not always come down to blaming men, rather such issues must be addressed with the understanding that men, women, and people of all genders have their own personal needs which must be respected by the society. There must be an attempt to see beyond pre-defined gender roles, thereby inculcating thoughtfulness among people, and channelizing the idea of social integration instead of reducing millions of lives into compromises and surrenders. With social support and encouragement, women must actively demand space to engage as builders of society, family integrators and skill generators.
I had this wonderful experience, which could have been completely different in a negative way. But maybe things are not always as bad, or maybe there are more good people than we estimate. However, there is no denying that it is time the youth of our communities and societies play their roles in empowering women, and in spreading awareness of their rights and also by raising their voices in not letting any wrong go unnoticed.