The home, the commute and the streets

There are more things in heaven and earth Delhi Metro, that you can protect women from.

There are more things in heaven and earth Delhi Metro, than you can protect women from. (Picture source)

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?


Snapshots of my commute


On the platform – Mute man and woman chatting most excitedly in their own language. In between the conversation, she makes him have some water from her bottle, later forces a small pouch of peanuts into his hand. Meanwhile, flies continue to prance around and I try to catch some glimpses of them by pretending to look in that direction. Not staring etiquette versus curiosity.

In the train – An unexpected empty bunch of seats, on moving closer that’s because a suspicious looking paste of refuse is stuck to the floor, flies around it. Women around covering their noses is amusing. With so much filth around does this bother because of the proximity? The city doesn’t care much for cleanliness. Have seen a bus conductor drop extra paper from ticket roll on the bus floor itself. It’s not his bus after all. Back in the crowded train I wish for a back massage. As the station arrives, the crush of women behind me turns into the handbag pressing but not digging into my back. Perverse wish-fulfillment.

Off the train – On the overbridge I cross the beggar woman with wounded knees who has become a permanent fixture, with a soot-black baby next to her. Wonder if she can become a landmark, “Take a right from the beggar with wounded knees”. Couple of days ago a neatly dressed woman was talking to her, sounded like hope. The next day the beggar was at her spot but better dressed than usual and looked ready to go somewhere. Seemed like hope. Today she is back to her usual appearance, with the baby, and the extended hand.

Out the station – My head lowers on its own as I cross the station’s entry/exit. Is it my way of going pushing through the crowd? Out the station, dodging taxis and assorted fruit sellers, I ignore the usual coconut water seller as I am late. Late, late, why am I always late? Briskly walking on the footpath, snaking in and out when it is occupied I reach the crossing near my office. A two-wheeler passes with the pillion rider turning his neck 180 degrees to look at me. Yes buddy, why won’t you stare at a well-dressed woman? That is what we are for, isn’t it. I can’t do anything but make a face, hope he notes my displeasure and cross the road to finally reach the office. Daily breads have to be earned and rents have to be paid…

Observing him…

Grey-green eyes, milky skin and wavy brown hair. Individually these features would be considered beautiful on any face lucky enough to have them, but somehow combined on his they didn’t seem to make for a handsome visage. Not even by chocolate boy standards. And as she observed him, his near-complete subservience to the woman he was with made him all the more unlikeable to her. In her quiet way, she was both laughing and pitying him as she observed the woman walking an unnoticeable step ahead and almost barking instructions to poor Mr puppy-dog eyes. But while she was observing, she was being observed too… and she didn’t know that.

Romancing the night

Those headlights afar…

Look like eyes of a monster

gaining up on me

Scurry like a rat out of its way girl

did you really think this is your city?

You’re not Cinderella to be out till 12

let not the darkness set its eyes on you as well

The moon in this city

makes wolves of all

Any walk is loiter

when it’s after nightfall.

Why put in danger too

your knight in shining armour

The biggest crime in this city

is your public ardour

The provocations of your presence

removes masks off men

Why don’t you stay

in that coach in the front-end?

Not for you is the street’s nightly breeze

From walled compounds romance the night all you please

(A small poem on how it feels to be out after dark in this city)

Ye kya jagah hai doston…

Musty smell,

Saraswati photo high up on wall

But book stacks thrown up the almirah next

Plaster threatening to peel off walls in some places

Following up on the threat in others

Just like the missing panes of the false ceiling

Pan stain on the wall behind the chair

Dust coloured carpet torn around legs of the glass topped table

A seat of learning?

Ye kya jagah hai doston…


Note: Most of what you are about to read was composed when my head was underwater so do remember that if you find something amiss.

I have started taking swimming lessons at a nearby pool recently. Now I know words like ‘pool’ and ‘swimming’ bring about images of itsy-bitsy swimming costumes and gorgeous women slowly rising emerging out of water with drops of water glistening on their bodies. Well in real life, its nothing like that.

On my first day I was wondering if I would stand out as I considered my swimming costume quite conservative. I used to call it a burqa as far as swimming costumes were concerned. I mean it reaches till my knees and it has sleeves for crying out loud! And also I am a little fat so I thought will I be sticking out like a sore thumb? Turns out I had nothing to worry about. The hour that I chose for my classes is one designated for children under 10 and ladies (the brochure’s language, not mine. There is nothing ladylike about flailing around in a pool that is just 3 feet deep), so most of the ‘ladies’ in the pool are middle aged mothers of these kids. All of them much, much fatter than me and in even more conservative swimming costumes than mine. I even noticed this one woman in a two piece that consisted of a shirt and a pyjama! And this was in swimming costume material. I am guessing some smart businessman has discovered a niche market for conservative swimming costumes for middle aged women (now won’t that make a good USP!)

Anyway, so I started taking swimming classes, for the first few days I just practiced floating and things like that. There is nothing that hurts your ego more than watching little 7 year olds splash past you while you are holding on to the bars at the side. I reminded myself that this is just my first week and at least they are with me on the shallow end of the pool so they haven’t progressed that far. Today I saw them on the deep end of the pool; little rugrats can probably read minds now too, its too bad you can’t kick them under water! There is one little girl that I like though, she has invented this little game where she throws her swimming goggles into the pool and swims to wherever they land. (I am thinking definitely an introvert)

As this is a public pool there is just one instructor and a number of swimmers so many of us keep coming in each other’s way sometimes avoiding a collision, which is bound to happen since this is Delhi and when people don’t give each other space on roads, expecting that underwater is too much to ask.

Remember how I said about the mothers in the swimming costume, they were all much fatter than me so I thought I had nothing to worry about. That was until THOSE THREE came along. These three are new girls who had arrived in the pool they must be in their late teens probably. Not only were they slimmer their swimming costumes are more…  ehm, revealing, than the rest. I can just imagine what must be going on in the minds of the other women “kids these days, no sense of shame, is this the way to dress. I mean, I know this is a pool but still…”  I know this line of thinking because I have a number of similar women in my family too. They can serve as good material for a satire some day.

When I caught myself staring at these girls I wondered at how perception matters. Compared to the rest of us at this particular pool, their costumes were revealing. But when you look at the costumes that are usually part of mass media, in Bond movies, or in pool parties in those model-y shows, these girls’ costumes would considered quite conservative and they would be looked down upon for that. Makes me wonder if there is any absolute or if all perceptions and value judgements are relative to the immediate surroundings?

Delhi ki garmi

Summer has arrived in Delhi. Now let me get something out of the way first. Summer in Delhi is not pretty. Its like that senile relative of yours that you have to bear in your home once in a while so you resign yourself to his or her presence. In fact, this year that summer has arrived late I have heard people wishing it never came.

But it is here, the sun bakes down the whole place, it seems the moisture from your very pores is being taken away. Delhi and its adjoining areas were earlier protected from the life-sucking winds of the desert of Rajasthan from the Aravalli range. But now that the battered and heavily mined Aravalli range doesn’t stand up that much its like the desert wind is coming straight at us.

Soon there will be stories of taps running dry, power cuts and fights over water in some poorer parts of Delhi while in the richer areas people will waste what water they have (yes, people are sick like that).

Now the lucky ones can disappear in their air-conditioned offices for most part of the day but its the ones who are not so lucky and have to roam the streets who have my pity. Sattu-drink stalls will soon pop up with those beach umbrella kind things on them, and so will roadside lemonade stalls with dubious water that the middle-class won’t even touch but I suspect they are the only relief to the poor who have no choice but to fight the baking sun.

However, this piece isn’t about class wars, its about Delhi’s summer so coming back to it, it has some unique shenanigans of its own. Schools are supposed to have summer vacations that they try to delay by at least mid-May but soon kids start fainting in the outdoor assemblies held every morning and the Delhi govt declares schools shut. I suspect a lot of the teachers too secretly laud that decision even though outwardly they crib about less teaching days to finish their syllabus.

Many people have ACs turned on by now, but you know what I prefer – indigenous ‘coolers’ as they are called. Its a rectangular device with walls padded with some kind of grass like thing and a pump and fan. It has to be filled with water and it cools down a room pretty well, what I like the most about it (apart from the cooling) is the earthy water-on-mud smell that comes with it. Needless to say it is a fail in humid areas, but a boon in the furnace like conditions Delhi will achieve in the coming months.

Now that it has been installed in my home too I can sit back and not lament it so much that summer has arrived in Delhi…

Malls, malls everywhere…

It’s quite an experience to see a building being built from the ground in front of your eyes. It has happened with me too, everyday when I used to go to work, I would see this structure being built bit by bit – soon it turned out to be a mall. Then another one, then another one… and then it got boring. So when I began passing another building being built with what looked like a different layout, I began hoping that this one won’t turn out to be a mall, but alas, that is what is being built.

Does anybody feel that our cities are getting too many malls these days? I for one would love to see a building grow into something else, something different. Is Indian architecture limited to malls and multi-storey housing? Can’t we build anything else? The last two malls I have seen being built have been right next to slum clusters and the dichotomy always strikes me. If construction on the vast open space was to be had, couldn’t it be something more interesting… a community centre, a sports complex, an ampitheatre or even a low-cost housing project. Nobody’s going to argue that affordable housing is more necessary than a place to shop. But yeah, who will get any monetary gains from that?

On the subject of shopping, does anyone really shop extensively at malls? I find most things there unaffordable unless there is a sale, and that happens only once or twice a year. The rest of the time the food court is the only place where I can afford to buy anything. So really, who are we building all these malls for??