Sometimes a single journey can tell you a lot about society’s, in this context Indian society’s, view of women. A journey from my home to a friend’s house using three different modes of transport revealed conversations and encounters that give an idea of how women are seen. And it was not just the male gaze that was guilty.
The most illuminating was a conversation in the Metro where three women were talking among themselves. One was talking, the others were mostly listening. This woman, sporting red bangles that suggest being recently wed and a mangalsutra, was comparing two girls in terms of the number of ‘rishtas’ they were getting. Because clearly a woman’s worth depends on how many men want her. She then went on to tell the others of a ‘ladki dekhna’ experience where the would-have-been bride had said, with a lot of ‘attitude’ apparently, “Main nahin poocchungi main inko pasand aayi ki nahin (I won’t ask whether they liked me or not).” The woman relating this story imitated that girl’s sing-song tone at least twice. Apparently, it was still hard to digest. She then went on to talk about how the girl was short and had a crooked face.
Her further words revealed something about herself and the level of importance attached to her health and well-being. She mentioned to her companions twice how she often feels tired and weak and discussed with them the possibility of getting off early from work. As the train approached Rajiv Chowk and I readied to alight, I saw the three of them gathered around eating oranges in the train and not caring that some of the fibres flew down to the floor. One can of course say that Indians as a whole lack civic sense, but I wondered if they would have tolerated this on the floors of their own houses. God forbid, if the girl with ‘attitude’ had let that happen.
To get to the Metro, I had taken a cycle-rickshaw. There was an argument en-route on the rickshaw driver taking a route I feel safe on. He got angry on having to pedal extra due to the route I wanted and shouted at me. In that moment I lost my temper and shouted back. The act of shouting was something I felt proud of. Having grown up hearing from my mother to not let things get out of hand on the streets (Baat aage mat badhne do) I felt this was a rare moment, fuelled by a fever that had perhaps switched off the worrying about consequence section of my brain. But, I wondered, why is shouting back a rarity with me? Why am I required to be submissive? Sadly, it is a trick that works sometimes.
My experiences of being a woman travelling alone did not end as I got off the Metro. To reach my destination, I took an auto. One whose driver wanted to get chatty and did not stop trying to make a conversation by asking questions. Some quite pointless ones. I was immediately suspicious, followed by the realisation of how the multiple rapes and cases of molestations on the streets had made trusting anyone a risk, even if he might just be a chatterbox and nothing more sinister. My hand went up to fix my neckline and I called up my friend for the ‘I am on my way’ call meant to let the auto driver know that someone knows where I am so don’t get any ideas.
Why is the situation such that an inherent distrust of men is a survival strategy? Finally, reaching my destination, the auto driver decided to prove my suspicions right by asking if I was a resident of the area. I was able to tell him that he was asking too many questions, but somehow didn’t have to courage to look him in the face. I had also taken the precaution to get off a little distance away from my actual destination. But the question remains, Why do I need survival strategies on the streets of my own city and country? And why does the girl with ‘attitude’ have to hide her spunk and pretend to care what others think of her?