Thursday, February 01, 2007

How safe is my alley?

When you consider the safety factor in a city, there are two things you look at – its reputation and its reality. The problem with Bombay, I think, is that it has become hostage to the ‘safe city’ badge it has brandished all these years. So every time a woman’s modesty is outraged, there is an immediate furor to do some damage control of its image, and not necessarily the situation.

A few weeks back, the Mumbai Mirror carried an article about a woman who got roughed up near Vikhroli station. Some residents were interviewed. All of them severely criticized the perpetrators for ‘spoiling the reputation of the city.’ The two constables who apprehended the molesters stoutly claimed that ‘Mumbai is still safe for women.

Interestingly, this kind of vouchsafing is more disturbing than comforting. At some level, I think, there’s a belief that rape is the most shameful way to indignify a woman. Anything short of that, such as pinching bottoms, groping, touching breasts, bumping ‘accidentally’ yet forcefully, is within limits of ‘dealable’ misdeeds. Hence, it is not reason enough to work a sweat about. Especially if it doesn’t harm the persona the city assumes in the world.

However, the reality in Bombay is a little different from what some people would have you believe. Although roaming alone in the city after dark is still not akin to suicide, the careless abandon of Heidi in springtime won’t exactly cut it. (Except in Bandra, which is the most delectable little suburb in all the worlds – traffic and bad roads notwithstanding.)

There are men in buses who stand too close to women who sit by the aisle, such that their crotches graze the women’s shoulders. It is pretty disgusting. Then, in places such as Vashi, you contend with interminable stares if you are doing something outstanding like, say, buying bread in a skirt. Or you have to deal with cars slowing down (near Nariman Point) if you are seen walking around 9 p.m. (This happens very seldom. Because it’s Bombay, see. So, if there is no traffic, there are potholes. If there are no potholes, there are jaywalkers. If there are neither, then chances are the car is not really on a road; it may be on a strip of loose pebble and dust; that means, it may be around Andheri. So most times, drivers just want to get away from such undesirable stretches as fast as possible. Female booty can wait.) But surpassing all this is the infuriating manner the autorickshaw guys keep fiddling with the rearview mirror. They fiddle with the mirror and look at it shiftily to see what exactly it is reflecting. If it’s the road, then it’s no good. If it’s the lap of the female passenger, it’s better. If it’s somewhere higher, it’s going to be a good, good ride.

Now, with regard to eve-teasing, I found Bombay to be remarkably similar to Pune. The eve teasers are pathetic, pusillanimous specimens of manhood. They will only try something in a crowd or when they are in a group. And most importantly, they don’t expect a woman to talk back.

For example, if a man is invading a lady’s space, he expects the woman to squirm and somehow keep giving way until he has practically taken over. If he is staring at her in a crowded train, then he expects her to keep her gaze averted. If he is following her (as it happened with me in Pune), he expects her to walk nervously and faster.

What works really well in the woman’s defense is her simply asking him ‘What’s your problem?’ She needn’t be loud. She needn’t get abusive. She needn’t slap. She just needs to look the guy squarely in the eyes and ask. In Bombay, this tactic is usually met with a sharp sense of amnesia. The guy immediately starts looking around as if he doesn’t know how he got into the bus/ train/ road in the first place. Other times, he backs away stung. But sometimes he genuinely looks confused – like the flasher I encountered at Kurla.

Kurla station, in the best of times, looks like those butchery landscapes Victor Hugo novels are set in. In the worst of times, it looks like a mass of walking male carcasses waiting to feast on women’s flesh to get stronger. So, I, who had hitherto been spoiled by traveling by Western railway, had to change trains at Kurla one evening. I walked down an excuse for a staircase, practically floating on a strong waft of armpit sweat.

I stepped on the platform and saw a sea of men. No women. Man, man, man, man, man. Here man, There man. Everywhere man, man. Men.

I was a little unnerved. But most of them were spitting here and there and didn’t seem to notice me. I walked further and waited for the train to pull in.

Now, what I had noticed but not paid much attention to, was a scraggly, drunk zigzagging in my direction. I glanced at him when he was at an arm’s distance from me. Before I could turn away, he had pulled down his pants.

What stunned me was not so much the act, but the total absence of any warning that this might happen. I don’t know, maybe I was expecting some sort of a prelude or a glowing introduction of what this fellow was so keen to exhibit. But there was nothing. He had seen me, he had come closer, and he had dropped his pants. I was disgusted. And stunned. And slightly nauseous at being in the face of something so puerile and not knowing how to react.

So I simply sputtered, ‘Problem kya hai?’ (Huh! Like I cared.)

The man stared at me as if I were the dark side of the moon. I suppose he was expecting a slap or a shriek or something, but not a penetrating query such as mine. A few doubtful seconds later, he pulled up his pants and walked on. As if nothing had happened. Around me, other men continued to spit.

In Pune, the walk from German Bakery to Lane 5 was usually uneventful. On some occasions, I stumbled into a pothole that had a dog curling inside it. Besides those freaky, bizarre moments, the walk home was pleasant; even at midnight and later; even alone.

But once, I met a slightly defensive fellow. He had quite the gall since he had been following me for a while. Of course, I hadn’t noticed him until I saw him stop when I stopped. I saw him move when I moved. I saw him cross the road after me, etc. etc.

So, irritated, I just whirled around like those tornados they show in cartoons, and confronted him. He looked wounded. He snapped, ‘Why should I follow you? I am not following you?’

‘Then get lost!’, I said. (‘THEN get lost!’???, I wondered to myself. Like the only reason I was telling him to get lost was because he wasn’t following me? The correct thing to say would be ‘Get lost’. Not ‘Then…’ Very pedantic, I know. I irritate myself sometimes.)

So, he did get lost. For all his talk of not following me, he turned the other way and went after my slightly incorrect reproof.

In a little over a week, I will shift to Delhi. If any place comes with a notorious reputation, this is one of them. I personally have not felt unsafe there, but then I have never been unescorted. Although I did witness a particularly disturbing bit of road rage at Janpath.

Maybe, my sensibilities are still raw with the prospect of living in the capital. But I don’t know what to make of this advice, ‘Delhi is a beautiful place…just don’t go out alone after dark.’ To me, that detracts from everything that can be beautiful about a place. How can you possibly suppress desires for a stroll in the moonlight or an evening show alone or a quiet cup of coffee by yourself? How can you not be able to do that? How do you learn to live with this feeling of being under siege all the time? How do you shake it off? How do you get used to it?

And that’s why I feel sad about the deterioration of safety in Bombay. There’s no point in being complacent about it. There’s no point in saying that Bombay is still ‘safER’ than other places. That’s not good enough. A city needs to be safe in plain, simple, and absolute terms.

For that alone, I am so grateful I was brought up in this city. I know what it means for a city to be safe. I have traveled as a teenager from Churchgate to Bandra at twelve at night without incident. I have gone for coffee alone after dinner without people asking me if ‘I was depressed.’ I have been with my girl friends at late night shows at Sterling and not felt uncomfortable at all. All this time I took all that for granted. Today, I realize that a generation of women was going about their lives without being guarded about their breasts.

Probably because of those early years, I carry on this solitary tradition in places such as Kanjur Marg, Vashi, and Mulund. Where it’s not ‘okay’ to be seen alone. But so far, it has been more than pleasant. For a crowded city, Bombay understands remarkably well how much a person values her space. I think this is what has spoiled me for life. I will never be able to understand (and I hope I never am) why a public space should become a ‘men’s only’ club after dark. And it’s not just me. It’s a central aberration every Bombay girl takes with her as a legacy when she moves some place else.

And this once, I feel sad that a tradition is threatened.