It was just past 12 am when I reached Sion train station. Sion is a tiny town in the valley of the Alps mountains in Switzerland.
It was the first time I was going back to India from Switzerland where I was doing my MBA. My flight from Geneva airport was supposed to take off around 7 am. I was a lonely student with no car of my own hence I decided to take the midnight train so I could reach Geneva at about 4 am and have plenty of time for boarding.
It was a December night and as you can imagine, December in Switzerland is no joke. The temperature was way below zero degrees and the night was dead quiet due to snow.
As I reached the train station I struggled to find the right train time and platform number that could take me to Geneva. New country, French names and unfamiliar towns were all too confusing for me.
I slowly dragged my luggage to the glass waiting rooms first in order to warm up a little. There was absolutely no one around to whom I could ask for any information.
About ten minutes later I noticed a man walking towards the waiting room. I got a little nervous as all the alarm bells began to ring.
White men are all dangerous.
Night time – akeli ladki khuli tijori (a girl out alone is like an open safe)- thought from “Jab We Met”.
Never interact with strangers.
All men are rapists.
Never trust a man in a lonely circumstance.
All of these thoughts began dancing in my Indian head as he opened the glass door and smiled at me while he settled on the cold steel chair.
My heart was racing like a NASCAR driver and I dared not look at him. I simply walked past him and went out to look at the schedule once again. Failing miserably I decided to ask him. I gathered a ton of courage to approach him. And he replied politely in his French accent. He was waiting for the same train. And for Geneva, I had to change trains from the next station or wait for 80 minutes for the next.
We began talking and I learned that he is studying carpentry and he makes those authentic Swiss wooden chalets we see in Yash Chopra’s Bollywood movies.
The train arrived and he gave me a hand with my luggage to board it all on the train. I talked to him, but I couldn’t trust his intentions and especially not his advice about taking the next train with him.
He sat far away from where I was.
An hour later our station arrived. We both got down.
I saw him run to the opposite platform for the next train that was about to leave in a few minutes. I pushed myself so much but my Indian paranoia didn’t allow me to take the train he was taking. What if the train led me to an isolated train station?
What if he injected me with something? What if all those scenes from Indian movies that I saw came to life?
I remained behind. He never even looked back.
I saw another human at that ungodly hour and decided to ask. The human didn’t know English but did understand the words Geneva and train. He said you can take either the one that is leaving just now from platform 9 or wait another 80 minutes for the next one.
That’s when it dawned on me – the sweet helpful Swiss guy was not a creep and his advice was not a trap. To add to my misery, there was no waiting room on this side of the platform and it was not possible for me to carry all this luggage to the far off one.
Hence I had to wait for 80 minutes in minus 15 degrees on a freezing December night at a lonely train station in Lausanne.
I sat on one of the steel chairs and soon realized my backside was completely frozen despite the heavy coats and thermals. As I wiped the cotton-like snowflakes from my now frozen nose, I realized how our minds are framed. How us Indian women perceive white men and the messages we receive from family, society, and media about them.
I’ve been in Europe and UK for the last ten years now and for some miraculous reason, I’ve not once been harassed by a non-Indian. I’ve worked in the retail and hospitality industry in my early days and later in academia and the corporate sector. And I can barely remember an incident where a white man did something that caused me enough trauma to remember it.
I’m not saying that by any means harassment and assault do not happen in Europe and UK. But from what I expect coming from an Indian life, it’s heaven.
Another incident I recall is once when I was returning home from work around midnight and I had to cross a sparsely lit alleyway. There was a group of guys smoking and drinking on both sides and I had to pass from the middle. That night my pulse may have stopped when I saw them because imagine that situation in India… midnight, lonely street, guys smoking and drinking and a lonely girl crossing the street and coming out alive in one piece.
I said some silent prayers, put my head down and looked straight on the street in order to avoid eye contact as I got closer to them. I kept walking and my fists were tight and hard, ready to take action any second.
I got closer and their voices lowered and slowly subsided for a few seconds. As I passed they continued to chat and laugh at their regular tone and I felt like I was invisible to them. As if they didn’t see me at all. There was no catcall no nasty comment no groping no whistles no one came in my way.
It was absolutely astonishing for me to experience this. I couldn’t believe that a woman could walk through a bunch of drunk men without being assaulted. It was revolutionary. It was something that never happened to me before.
I compare this to one of the times when I was harassed in broad daylight in the middle of a busy crowded market in Lucknow with my mom right next to me.
It was pretty packed and a man coming from the opposite side did his best to grope at my chest. Alert as I was I had held my shopping bags against my chest as if I were hugging them and his attempt to grope me failed. But I turned around instantly and knocked my elbow hard on his back as he tried to disappear into the crowd quickly.
Another time, just 5 feet away from my home, a bike passed by me pulling my dupatta bad enough to create a knot around my neck and cause a severe strangling jerk. His intention was to snatch my dupatta completely but he didn’t realize it was wrapped around my neck so his pulling only tightened the knot. That also happened in broad daylight.
For someone who was harassed in broad daylight with her mother right on her side and so close to home, imagine how scary that lonely cold night in Switzerland might have been.
Our perception of men tells a lot about our past experiences with them. The messages we get from our parents, society, the tons of news stories about rape and assault, are all enough to scare the heck out of us. Being 21 and alone in a foreign country was not easy for me while I carried this baggage of men’s image.
And now when I ponder over it, I am shocked at my shock because that Swiss guy that night didn’t do anything shocking. In fact, that was the default behaviour for a human being, that is how men should be at all times. It is not normal to expect men to be perverts but that idea is certainly normalized by force in Indian homes. And despite this normalization of ‘men are perverts and pigs’, and girls being super cautious about their decisions, rapes still happen. Simply because there is no link between ‘being careful’ and rapes. No matter what you do, no matter how much self-defence you learn, there is no guarantee you won’t be attacked. They could use a gun or knife to threaten you, they might blackmail you, you may freeze with fear… anything can happen.
And the highest number of rapes occur in marriages where the rapist is the husband. All those self-defence lessons and arguments about ‘how women can prevent rape’ will fail when the rapist is a husband or boyfriend because these are people you trust and are vulnerable to. But marital rape is not even a recognized crime in India. So when a stranger rapes you out on the street it is your fault for not being cautious enough but when the rapist is your husband, you just deal with it because he owns you! Wow!
Women in India live in constant fear of men attacking us. Sad but true reality. And if we don’t, our society and family want us to because they feel that is how we may remain safe.
But a country cannot be made safe by locking up girls instead by disrupting the idea that men are rapists by nature and teaching sons to act rationally when around women.
Don’t respect us, don’t worship us, don’t bother us. Just leave us, women, alone and the country will be safe.
PS: This is in no way a generic viewpoint but a cautionary tale from the life experiences of one single person. How my past experiences framed my thinking about men in general and white men in particular. Just how once bitten by a dog that person is always wary around dogs, so was I.