I remember an evening in Mumbai when I went for a party, got completely hammered, and was chatted up by a guy, who looked like he would ask me for my phone number, any minute. I was conscious of my inebriated state, and for just a split second, was wary that he would take advantage of the situation. I could barely stand, and he insisted on escorting me to a cab, and saw me off. He did not ask for my number and told me to “travel safe”. The cab driver started the 45-minute drive back home, and mid-way I requested him to stop the cab so I could throw up. He obliged. Once done, I felt much better and got back into the cab, and was in bed, safe and sound within the hour.
In 2008, I got a transfer to Delhi for work and was warned by friends and family that this is just a bad, bad city for women. Nevertheless, I was curious to explore a new city and took the plunge. The night before I flew out, the news channels were flooded with stories of a young woman who was kidnapped from outside a mall in Noida, taken to a remote location and gang raped. My parents were mortified that I was going to India’s “rape capital”.
Though I felt for the young woman, despised the perpetrators of the crime and judged the city that looked on as apathetic bystanders, I still did not feel fear for my safety; living in Mumbai, a city where I could reach home safe and sound in a yellow and black taxi at 3 am, had nurtured a grand illusion of safety in my consciousness. Yet, the news flashes, coupled with the appeals of friends, put me on high alert.
The day I arrived in Delhi, I sat in the backseat of my cab with one hand on a bottle of deodorant, ready to strike at any minute, in case of any funny business. My first stop in Delhi NCR was Noida. I had still not succumbed to the Delhi mindset of having my own car, and would travel in autos be it for house-hunting or to and fro the office (in 2009 there was no metro).
With time, Noida made me more and more uncomfortable. I could feel the gaze of all kinds of men – watchmen, men in nearby offices, neighbours, shopkeepers. No one would make a move but the gaze was stark and audacious. It never shifted.
So, I decided to move to South Delhi, considered the safest quadrant of Delhi from what I understood then. I lived on the first floor of a “kothi” (bungalow), and the landlord was least concerned with who I brought home as long as his cheque arrived on time every month. However, my surroundings started to make me feel more and more uncomfortable. I changed the way I dressed. From walking the streets in knee-length dresses and shorts, I started wearing clothes that covered my legs, shoulders and cleavage. No one asked me to. But I would do it to avoid “the gaze”. What I was going for was complete inconspicuousness. The opposite happened with a friend who moved from Delhi to Mumbai. From covering herself with layers of clothing she moved to shorts, dresses and pretty much, whatever the heck she felt like wearing.
For me, the transition was sub-conscious but the damage has been done. From being a girl who walked the streets with gay abandon at night, I don’t walk on the streets, almost at all. I might travel at 2 am, but only in my car with the windows auto-locked. I don’t speak to strange men at pubs, unless it is in broad daylight with many people in sight. I feel #UnsafeInMyCity, period. You may think I am exaggerating but that’s what an unsafe city does to you. It makes you uncomfortable with your own movements, and every step is guarded, calculated. It also makes you want to get out less and avoid crowded spaces (especially New Year crowds). Of course, not all women have the luxury of choosing how and if they should travel. If you have to take the bus to work, then that’s what you need to do to earn your keep. It’s a necessity, not an adventure, and you deal with the consequences because you have no choice. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
I was put in such a situation once during my first job in Mumbai. I left work at 9 pm and hopped into an auto rickshaw. It was raining cats and dogs. The auto stopped short on top of the flyover just before Goregaon on the Western highway. Nothing could be done to revive the vehicle. I stepped out to flag down an auto with an umbrella in hand. Every auto was of course, full. I then waved to cars with some women in it, but nobody would stop for an unknown young woman on the highway. Finally, a black SUV pulled up next to me, and inside was a young man, who asked me where I needed to go. I took a leap of faith and got in. It was already 10 pm. Since it was raining, he had to roll up the windows. Being in a new city, in a car with a complete stranger after nightfall made me feel uneasy. But what transpired is that he dropped me in front of my house and asked me to take care. I thanked him profusely and sprinted up to my flat.
Would I have got into such a car in Delhi? I don’t think so. Would I get into such a car anywhere in India, today? I don’t think so. Life is different now. I am different now. The city has changed me. It has made me more suspicious and unbelieving in the goodness of strangers, especially men, and that’s a mindset that’s hard to reverse.
On December 31, 2016, a mob publicly molested women in Bangalore. This isn’t an isolated incident. Only the nature of violence changes. At some point in our lives, all of us have been put in a situation where our physical or mental safety has been threatened. All this in the city or town we have called home. If you have felt unsafe in your city, write your story and share your experiences to highlight how safety in India remains a big concern for all of us. Use the hashtag #UnsafeInMyCity in your post. Break the silence!