Monday, January 28, 2008

‘The auto slowed down on an isolated stretch. My heartbeat quickened’

It was January 2005, a cold winter’s night.

As the train sped along its tracks from Dehradun to New Delhi, I settled myself a bit more comfortably in my seat and delved deeper into the book I was reading. The gentleman sitting next to me was a nice enough person, a salesman on his way back to Delhi after at trip to Dehradun on work, just like me. As dinner was served, we struck up a conversation. Having travelled around the country alone quite a bit and having seen my share of strange people, I was not particularly receptive in the beginning, but I soon felt he was not exactly a stalker and relaxed. The older gentleman on my right (I was sandwiched in the middle, the bane of train and aeroplane travelers alike!) soon joined in our conversation – he was going to see his daughter in the city. When he heard that I was travelling alone and planned to take an auto-rickshaw home when we reached Delhi, he insisted that I take a prepaid auto and not hail one from outside the station, for my safety. As the train pulled into New Delhi station a couple of hours later, the salesman and I headed off towards the pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand, from where we could catch our separate autos home. The older gentleman had his daughter waiting for him. I thanked my travel companions for their assistance and concern and soon found myself in a prepaid auto headed towards Defence Colony, where I lived alone in an isolated little room on top of a house, my ‘living quarters’ (as they say in India) that I rented from a very nice Punjabi family.

The time was 11.30 PM. In my backpack, I had a sachet of desi chilli powder. A laughable aid to any possible danger, I agree, but all I wanted then was some sort of security. When I was leaving for Dehradun, I’d thrown in the chilli powder at the last minute, sort of as an afterthought. I’d heard far too many stories about untoward incidents being perpetrated upon women in the capital, and I didn’t intend to become just another statistic. I suppose I should have carried pepper spray, but somewhere we all think we are invincible, don’t we? We all think, when we read the newspapers, that ‘that kind of thing’ can never happen to us.

Five minutes later, on an isolated stretch of the road heading towards India Gate, the auto started slowing down. Thudthudthudthudthudthud. My heart started beating at double its normal rate, and my hand slid into my backpack. The rickshaw driver took out a beedi, lit it, and continued the journey. I could almost hear my heart rate slow down: thud-thud-thud-thud-thud. All I wanted was to get back to my room.

I did get home safely that night, but that was not the only time I felt unsafe in Delhi. A year later when I was returning alone at 9.30 PM from the airport to my paying-guest accommodation in Bangalore, I felt a similar (though less intense) feeling of fear when the auto had to take a detour along a less crowded road, thanks to some ongoing repairs. Time obviously makes you braver, as does experience. This time, there was nothing handy in my backpack. This time also however, thankfully, nothing happened.

I have lived, prior to and since then, in London, Brussels and New York. I have been to places from where I’ve returned alone at night in all of these cities. In none of them have I felt as vulnerable as I did in India. I have often asked myself what it is that makes it so difficult to be a single woman in urban, modernized India – I have even asked friends who’ve been in similar situations.

They have formed their own support systems, living as they do away from their families – when one of them has to return late, they make sure that she calls one of the others and gives them the auto’s registration number, and preferably talks to someone through the journey, if it is not too long. The recourse to public transport, like the tube in London or the subway in New York, which is what I have used in the past (and still do today, in New York) is not there in India at all. That is why in India, young working women are left to the mercy of auto-rickshaw drivers, many of whom refuse to take us where we want to go, or ask for sky-high fares. Let’s face it: if we could pay those ridiculous amounts, we wouldn’t be forced to take an auto, would we – we’d buy our own cars.

I didn’t tell my parents about the incident in Delhi that day – I didn’t want to worry them. Today, I worry about my younger sister as she travels around India. I want to ensure that she is always safe. The truth is, I can’t. I can only hope that she exercises her common sense. Just like my parents probably hoped I would.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol. 5, Issue 4, dated Feb.2, 2008