After having lived at the same place in New Delhi in India for over a decade, I was happy when I moved to a part of the city where my college friend was my neighbour. If I drive to her place, it doesn’t take over five minutes. One night, I was leaving her house around 12, grinning from ear to ear after hours of laughing at her slapstick jokes. My car had just about touched the gravel of the road when a bike dashed past me, the driver hatefully spitting out these words: “You are roaming the streets at midnight?!”
I am always over-conscious about following the rules while driving because women drivers are summarily ridiculed while men always beat them when it comes to rash driving statistics and the overconfidence that it takes to leave a car parked in the middle of the road, or the sense of entitlement needed to graze your car and stare at you blankly when you look to them for an apology. This time too my first instinct was to check if I had been in the wrong. But I couldn’t figure out what had inspired him to curse when both of us had enough space to co-exist on a broad two-lane, and my speed wouldn’t have made a cycle rickshaw insecure. There was hardly any traffic.
The sad and simple explanation was this: Years after the rape and murder of the student on 16 December 2012, whom the country had decided to call Nirbhaya, the city felt just as repelled by the idea of a woman on a night street.
In college too cowardly bike riders were a common pestilence, even as early as seven in the evening, uttering inane jibes and scurrying away cockily. It was not acceptable to us to remain helpless so we took to walking with stones clenched in our fists. Hearing an occasional pebble hit the spokes of their wheels made us feel we had been able to answer back.
This time I was in a car, supposed to be safer for women compared to public transport or walking. My hands were empty, and I threw them up in the air to ask the bike driver what he meant by his rudeness. I don’t know if the motorist saw me. Once again, I tried to gulp down the feeling of having been attacked and not having been able to retaliate.
People often enquire, “Don’t you feel scared, going around everywhere alone?” When one has to feel scared without having done anything wrong, the fear eventually bursts giving way to the molten lava of anger. The sense of injustice that jabs at the heart every day becomes sharper than fear. It becomes a question of living with dignity, with your head held high, rather than surviving each day curled indoors and inwards like a foetus.
The one riding the bike that night was merely a face I could not even see clearly. But his arms and shoulders, giving strength to him, were huge sections of society. The rebellion against all of them churning in my stomach made me resolve that now I would actually roam and not rush back home fearful.
I started driving at a leisurely pace. There were other people, rather, other men on the roads . . . strolling, chatting, buying ice-cream without looking over their shoulder, while it is a fantasy for women to enjoy such nightly strolls on the streets. I wanted to be able to pass them peacefully without another fight, another encounter. I wanted to own the streets as rightfully and confidently, as do those who think of mothers while cursing and of fathers when asserting their right over the street. Nobody asks, “Does the road belong to your mother?” It’s always the father when it comes to property ownership. What falls in the mother’s share is the home, and only till they promise to remain the sacred tulsi plant in the courtyard, quiet and uncomplaining.
Having arrived at my place, hardly a kilometre away from my friend’s, I calmed myself down as I unlocked my door and thought of how the bleak situation seems the same even after all the uproar over the assault on Nirbhaya. But what kept coming back to me was the outrage and insecurity in the mototrcyclist’s voice, which showed he was not able to digest a woman a) being out b) at night c) driving a car.
Those who have been raised to believe that being a man is to be everything a woman is not would have difficulty swallowing when they see women in “manly” roles. But this change would not seek the permission of such men. Nor would it quietly wait for the police or the administration to get their act together. It is true that women like Nirbhaya have been going through brutalities in villages and cities. But voices suppressed for ages are also revolting. The torment that had to be quietly borne but could not be named is now being spoken of in debates, discussions, protests, FIRs and courts.
Women have battled oppression for years. We are perhaps too cynical now to dream of a magical revolution overnight. To live a life of self-respect, however, we cannot afford to be resigned either. It’s hard to say about the country but its women are changing. The roots of this change sprouting within us are claiming the streets, and the land beneath.
First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 18 May 2018.