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.

18 comments:

Jay Sun said...

Delhi is not safe...am afraid it can't be put more bluntly...please be careful...

Sanjay said...

Be carefull will ya? Every time we visit Bombay or Pune, I notice how men stare at *A*. She has told me about this when she has been out on her own too. It's always a shock coming back despite knowing this happens.
I am so sorry about your experiences.

Rajesh said...

I have been living in Delhi for five years and must admit that strolling around town after nine at night isn't the recommended thing for single women. Couples and groups are fine and there is rarely a problem. Since you will be initiating a "redefined existence" in New Delhi we obviously wouldn't want it to be undermined in any way. Thhe long and short... please take care of yourself and good luck with the upcoming event.

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

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.

Just those words- took me down the memory lane of the life I once led. It is sad that Mumbai is deteriorating like that.

Looking squarely in the eye and retorting does help. I think also arming oneself with self-defense lessons and perhaps pepper spray? Best of luck in Delhi.

Very well-written post- every word hit home.

impulsar said...

I used to live in Mumbai and someone I love still does.
I must admit I believed the "safe city story". I dismissed Sunil More case as an unfortunate but isolated incident.
Gateway of India incident got me out of denial.

As for Delhi, quixotic to go out alone after dark.

M... said...

"...‘Delhi is a beautiful place…just don’t go out alone after dark.’...

You can replace Delhi with any other metro in the world - New York, Chicago, Detroit, London - why, even Sydney and the advice given by sensible people still remains exactly the same. There are a$$hole$ in every damn corner of the world and urban centers and metros are the most impacted. Unfortunately - this is the world we live in. Neither the Delhi police nor NYPD have had or will have much luck doing anything about it.

Good luck in Delhi.

eM said...

as a delhi person recently moved to bombay, the fact that i can take public transport after dark still thrills me. but, but, don't let the stories about my city get you down. you need to be street smart, sure, most homes or nightclubs or hotels you visit will have the local cab stand number, these are safe, i know coz i've taken them piss drunk in the middle of the night. the dtc buses, if you're planning to travel by them, have special ladies seats up front, but it's a lot easier to get around delhi, mainly thanks to its shape--being circular has its advantages. DON'T be aggressive late at night with delhi men, this will only backfire. look confident, keep your chin up and give my love to my city :)

Matt said...

I am a Bombayite of 12 years, who moved to Delhi a few months back.

As a guy, I would say, staring in Mumbai is no big deal. Ignore it or stare back if you want, and the problem vanishes. If all women in Bombay decide to stare back even if only when they are not alone, the problem would go away in a week's time.

The drunk guy at Kurla - lets ignore that. Drunks everywhere are unpredictable, and may do anything. But yes, Kurla station by itself is a groping opportunity, as is Dadar, and most crowded areas in Mumbai. If a woman ends up in a crowed place, she will get groped. Remember here that 'crowded' in Mumbai is thrice as 'crowded' in Delhi. In those crowds, even men get groped deliberately and sometimes by mistake.

Generally, the city is safe, and night is not a problem, as you have the safety of people all around you there.

Delhi works differently. It is a macho city and there are the associated dangers. It allows you, somewhat, to create your own bubble. If you unerstand the city, it is possible to always be in safe places in safe transportation. Having money means you can avoid buses altogether, the Delhi alternative to Mumbai local general compartments.

But in Delhi, after dark, people on the street vanish. Sure, they are all around but in their cars and scooters and autos, and street crowds thin down drastically - a recipe for trouble if you are in the wrong place too.

Another thing is that things are slowly changing in Delhi. There are more women in skimpy attire, and people are getting used to it. It shows more leg and more cleavage, and in many parts of Delhi, no one would even notice. I have noticed this change in Delhi over annual trips here over more than a decade.

Mumbai's troubles have always been there - it is just that more crowds, more people, more women, more ruffians, more hopeful gropers.

Overall, Delhi is less safe than Mumbai but in both cities, you have a some control over how much safety you want in your life.

Matt said...

I am a Bombayite of 12 years, who moved to Delhi a few months back.

As a guy, I would say, staring in Mumbai is no big deal. Ignore it or stare back if you want, and the problem vanishes. If all women in Bombay decide to stare back even if only when they are not alone, the problem would go away in a week's time.

The drunk guy at Kurla - lets ignore that. Drunks everywhere are unpredictable, and may do anything. But yes, Kurla station by itself is a groping opportunity, as is Dadar, and most crowded areas in Mumbai. If a woman ends up in a crowed place, she will get groped. Remember here that 'crowded' in Mumbai is thrice as 'crowded' in Delhi. In those crowds, even men get groped deliberately and sometimes by mistake.

Generally, the city is safe, and night is not a problem, as you have the safety of people all around you there.

Delhi works differently. It is a macho city and there are the associated dangers. It allows you, somewhat, to create your own bubble. If you unerstand the city, it is possible to always be in safe places in safe transportation. Having money means you can avoid buses altogether, the Delhi alternative to Mumbai local general compartments.

But in Delhi, after dark, people on the street vanish. Sure, they are all around but in their cars and scooters and autos, and street crowds thin down drastically - a recipe for trouble if you are in the wrong place too.

Another thing is that things are slowly changing in Delhi. There are more women in skimpy attire, and people are getting used to it. It shows more leg and more cleavage, and in many parts of Delhi, no one would even notice. I have noticed this change in Delhi over annual trips here over more than a decade.

Mumbai's troubles have always been there - it is just that more crowds, more people, more women, more ruffians, more hopeful gropers.

Overall, Delhi is less safe than Mumbai but in both cities, you have a some control over how much safety you want in your life.

Matt said...

I am a Bombayite of 12 years, who moved to Delhi a few months back.

As a guy, I would say, staring in Mumbai is no big deal. Ignore it or stare back if you want, and the problem vanishes. If all women in Bombay decide to stare back even if only when they are not alone, the problem would go away in a week's time.

The drunk guy at Kurla - lets ignore that. Drunks everywhere are unpredictable, and may do anything. But yes, Kurla station by itself is a groping opportunity, as is Dadar, and most crowded areas in Mumbai. If a woman ends up in a crowed place, she will get groped. Remember here that 'crowded' in Mumbai is thrice as 'crowded' in Delhi. In those crowds, even men get groped deliberately and sometimes by mistake.

Generally, the city is safe, and night is not a problem, as you have the safety of people all around you there.

Delhi works differently. It is a macho city and there are the associated dangers. It allows you, somewhat, to create your own bubble. If you unerstand the city, it is possible to always be in safe places in safe transportation. Having money means you can avoid buses altogether, the Delhi alternative to Mumbai local general compartments.

But in Delhi, after dark, people on the street vanish. Sure, they are all around but in their cars and scooters and autos, and street crowds thin down drastically - a recipe for trouble if you are in the wrong place too.

Another thing is that things are slowly changing in Delhi. There are more women in skimpy attire, and people are getting used to it. It shows more leg and more cleavage, and in many parts of Delhi, no one would even notice. I have noticed this change in Delhi over annual trips here over more than a decade.

Mumbai's troubles have always been there - it is just that more crowds, more people, more women, more ruffians, more hopeful gropers.

Overall, Delhi is less safe than Mumbai but in both cities, you have a some control over how much safety you want in your life.

khait said...

i've been here (in mumbai) for only 3 weeks, and i still keep getting the feeling of something very odd happening in what we might call the gender relations. but as my experience in such issues tells me - the blame can't be put on men only. first of all, there are more men in the streets and transport - way more, and they all look totally similar. thus a woman in more or less bright colors is always some change. secondly women do stare too (thank god i had the wit to cut my mohawk, or else the matters would be much worse), but as soon as i stare back they get it as some sort of insult or something like that, although there is nothing more then a wandering look around.
as refering to those too unpleasant situations - well those things happen, there sure are a couple of bastards in 17 mln people. i took some late night walks in colabe, and take it from me - mumbai is way safer then moscow. delhi is a capital, so probably less so. but it will get better: the country is on the rise, men will get richer, and behave better

by the way (sorry for going off topic), since you have "watching plays" in your interest, can i ask you to recommend be some good ones to watch here? if they're in english - good, otherwise - it's not a problem. thanks in advance :)

bluespriite said...

Be aware and even in delhi things will be ok... its also comfort factor. Since u have been brought up in Mumbai, Delhi will seem strange iniitally but dont be scared adn sit indoors too.. ull figure out a balance... not to worry.

Anonymous said...

khait i think it was who said "men will get richer and behave better". Hate to make personal digs, but this is exactly the kind of thinking that helps us turn a blind eye to child sexual abuse as stuff that doesnt happen in "OUR social circle". The inclination to Harassment is as social-class specific as drinking. The brand might vary, the language might vary, but a rich drunk is just as bothersome and just as disgusting as a poor drunk. And a rich man is just as likely to be a rapist or harasser as a poor man. The rich man's crime is less visible because he has the luxury of taking the victim home and perpetrating his act there.
-h

Anonymous said...

The reason why I like America is they dont have any such timings for men n women...this place is safe.....if you get any doubt just dial 911

100 doesnt work sometime......:(

am coming back in May for 2weeks..

-pravin

The Mad Momma said...

welcome to my city and i hope it doesnt scare you.. will echo bluespriite.. its only the comfort factor of being in your own home. i got eveteased more in the one and a half years i lived in mumbai than the 10 years i have lived in delhi. yes.. its a beautiful place and yes, its not safe. but every place comes with its pluses and minuses. we're strangers but i would be happy to help in a second if you need to just get to know ppl and get a feel of the place... congrats on the wedding bells that are about to ring...

Nonentity said...

are you ever going to come back to the blog M? :)

~J

Khakra said...

the last thing i'd want to do in bombay is believe the words of a pandu with a beer belly and a shivaji moustache. yuck.

evolving_everyday said...

Nice post - thankyou

Your post echoes the sense of loss I feel about my city. Yeah, I still consider it my city though I have not lived there since the past 15 years. Now when I visit Bombay, I no longer feel safe even in the ladies compartment. There is a certain hostility in people’s eyes. As if they have to fight for the little bit of space they have in this space-starved city. The faces of the women are really stressed. Sometimes the catfights and the yelling in the compartment is unbearable.

When I took my computer course, I travelled to Khar from Andheri after work. So it was usually around 10 pm when I returned back. Getting an autorickshaw driver who agreed to take me to far-off Sher-E-Punjab was next to impossible. I hoped I would find the helpful traffic constable at the rickshaw stand who would bully the rick guys into taking me to my destination.

I have had the same horrible feeling when I have had to use Kurla station. The station, the surroundings and the general public over there just make you want to leave the place as soon as possible.

A couple of times when I had to use the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, I really had to grit my teeth and make the trip from the local Kurla station to the passenger terminus. The path to be taken over railway tracks and through filthy neighbourhoods was enough to make me vow – Never Again.

Nice post - thank you

Hope your stay in Delhi has many many pleasant moments which outweigh the unpleasant ones (if any).

Just a thought – are you aware of the BlankNoise Project - http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/