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Safe in 21st Century India? A Tale of Four Cities

Last Updated: Friday, January 3, 2014 - 13:46

Authors: Reema Moudgil, Nilanjana Nag, Devjani Bodepudi, Averil Nunes

Four women give us an inside account of the relativity and reality of freedom and security in their hometowns—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — Charles Dickens` words seem as true of 21st century Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata as they were of 19th century London and Paris.

Outrage in East India

The conch shell hails a new day, in the complex where I stay in Kolkata. Kali Baris have opened their doors to welcome the faithful throngs on their way to work or school.

I sip my chai. The climate is already sultry, already oppressive, as I glance at the morning’s headlines; `TV anchor, friend molested in Howrah`. I feel the disgust rise within me as I read the details. The paper tells of other cases within the last week, including that of a female ‘techie’ jumping from a train to escape an attack and a 2½ year old girl being raped by a man in his twenties.

I am filled with a rage, something that is other-worldly and dangerous, and I know I’m not alone. I talk to other women about how they feel. My own housemaid shakes her head and ties the end of her sari around her waist as she explains, “It’s always been this way, for us. It’s what men do, Boudi”.’ She avoids the early morning local train for fear of being molested or groped.

Megha, a 26-year-old chef and social activist in the city, paints a different picture. It wasn’t so bad before, according to her. She feels her freedom has definitely been encroached upon now. The simple act of staying out late and taking public transport in the city has become a daunting prospect for young women these days.

What we wear, as women, has always been an issue in India, but there are many in the city who feel that Kolkata didn’t really bat much of an eyelid until recently. Women have to yell at security guards for staring at their legs. Loose fitting t-shirts, which only hint at your curves are also an invitation for looks that make you want to run back home and take a bath. The inevitability of being eyed like a piece of meat, every time a woman steps out of her home, is infuriating.

One woman, who grew up in Mumbai, had heard stories about how safe her native Kolkata was. She eagerly moved back to the city only to find that it now resembles purgatory. “How long will this go on?” she asks, exasperated. ‘I’m sick of it!’

I haven’t lived here long but I’m sick of it too. I feel hopeless and just plain angry. However, recently, I’ve come across women who are taking a stand, producing their own pepper spray, no less! They believe that if we retaliate, we will no longer be seen as the weaker sex. I’m sending my daughter to self-defence classes and I’ll be getting some of that pepper spray too. I refuse to be cowed!

Perhaps the women of Kolkata will reclaim what is rightfully theirs—the freedom to live, wear and walk as they choose. Perhaps the Goddess resides within us and not only in the temples we patronise on our way to work or school.

~Devjani Bodepudi, who lived is Canada not too long ago, is slowing getting used to the ways and wiles of Kolkata

The Capital of Callousness

Light peers through the window panes of my air-conditioned drawing room in Dubai, its reassuring warmth reminding me of my many beleaguered years in Delhi, where I grew up.

Don’t get me wrong; my adolescence was well provided for; I spent my school-years nestled in the posh, leafy, upmarket surroundings of Lodhi Road. Soon, I was a proud teenager, who had earned myself a seat in one of Delhi’s premiere educational institutions, Lady Shri Ram College for Women. One was taught to think differently there. Words like emancipation, gender stereotypes, feminism and sexuality turned into concepts we discussed over tea breaks. I found myself sharing a newfound, empowered sensibility with my same-sex peers.

I remember a chai-break spent recounting how I ran kurta-salwar clad after a man who pinched me and sped off on a bike. “Thanks to the traffic lights, I caught up with him and slapped him so hard, he fell off his bike,” I told my gaping audience, who burst into applause.

I made a lot of friends that day.

But outside the unyielding red-brick college walls lay a certainty I couldn’t blind out: no matter what, an empowered mind isn’t all you need in Delhi. Armed with chewing gum, I would step out of college every single afternoon, determined not to fall asleep on my bus ride back home. You see, reserved seats in Delhi buses aren’t always a blessing, especially when men take turns to stand “next to” your aisle seat. And your granny’s ‘remedies’ – “you should always keep a safety-pin handy” – don’t help much either. A nasty look at the perpetrator is your best retort in Delhi.

Much like its foggy winters, the city thrives in a kind of somnambulant indifference to women. “Koi-baat-nahi,” we are told for every complaint we try and make. “He was just staring at you; he didn’t molest you or anything!”

Of course, if you are gang-raped, abused and thrown out of a bus in the middle of the night, you earn a pseudonym. “Nirbhaya”, the country calls you proudly. After the ordeal, you become an international cause. You are the ‘daughter of India’ the news channels tell your father. People pour out in millions protesting against the cruelty. Some of them even become YouTube heroes while fighting tear gas cans thrown at them. And in some days, you die.

No, not in vain. The mob flares up after your death, shouting slogans of capital punishment, public castration. The government, its judiciary, its laws are all declared archaic and ineffective. The time for change has finally arrived. There is hope.

My friends and I were watching this spanking new effervescence in people on the news in those days. “I just hope something useful comes out of this hullabaloo and the laws are changed,” I said to them, “only then will these molesters stop and we will feel safe to step out of our houses.” I wasn’t prepared for my friend’s remark. “You don’t have to step out of your house to be molested.”

~Nilanjana Nag is a writer, who lived in Delhi for many years before she moved to Dubai.

Sleepwalking in the City of Dreams?

She slips off her diamond earrings and slides them into her purse. Drapes a simple stole over her bare shoulders. Knots up her hair at the nape of her neck. With one last glance in the washroom mirror of the high-end restaurant she just ate dinner in, to ensure that there`s nothing about her that says, “rob me/rape me/whistle if you like what you see/ogle” she is ready to head home in one of India`s safest cities. There is no chauffeur-driven car waiting outside for her, or she could have avoided this charade.

Could she call a Meru and reach home safely? Of course. Does the ladies compartment have passengers at this odd hour? Definitely. And even if there are no more than two women in the compartment, there`s always the trusty constable, who takes up his position the minute the clock strikes nine. Will there be transport available the minute she gets off the train? Most likely. She`s no stranger to travelling late. Are there people on the streets and in the shops? Yes. Yes. This is Mumbai.

The city of dreams. The city that never sleeps. It makes the most generous contribution to India`s GDP. It has the highest number of homeless on its streets. It`s one of the safest Indian cities for a woman to live and work in. She can wear what she pleases, but not always. She can rent an apartment and live alone. She can live-in and the neighbours may or may not raise an eyebrow. Yet, she will do all the little things necessary to not draw unwarranted attention to herself. She will travel with a companion as far as possible. If it`s too late at night or too early in the morning, a brother, father, boyfriend or significant male other may be dispatched on bodyguard duty. Of course, even male company is not enough to deter anyone hell bent on causing trouble. She can party all night long but will stay over at a friend`s place or avoid certain streets if she decides to drive herself home. Why? You ask. Why not? Why take a chance? Why tempt fate?

Yes, Mumbai is safer than Kolkata and Bangalore, and undoubtedly safer than Delhi. And therein lies the trouble. The relativity of the word `safer`. Just because one city is safer than another does not make it safe. So yes, she will travel alone, but she will also memorise the registration number of any rickshaw or taxi that she gets into and read it out aloud over the phone, or chat with someone till she reaches her destination, just so the chauffeur/driver knows there`s someone at the other end of the line.

Yes, her faith in this city and its people is unshakable. She can walk home late at night, knowing that there are always people awake and no farther that her voice will carry. This is Mumbai. Safety is her birthright here. She`s grown up here. She knows these streets and the people too. The question is... will they come if (or when, given the rising crime rates) she screams? Or is she just sleepwalking through a nightmare waiting to scare her awake in the City of Dreams.

~ Averil Nunes, lives in (and loves) Mumbai, potholes et al

Standing Strong in the South

It`s only when random violence, or something close to it, invades your life and your seemingly invulnerable security bubble vanishes, that you realise you are a woman in a big city. Like I felt recently, in Bangalore, when a couple of men jumped in my home-bound auto and I jumped out, not knowing what else to do. I don`t know if women feel safe every minute of the day, every day of their lives, anywhere in the world. In some places, they are more equal and safer, but inevitably the bubble is bruised if not burst by a comment, a brush against a body part, a gender-specific accident.

In a smaller city like my hometown Patiala, the 80s and early 90s were about the challenge of being a fearless teenager in the face of eve teasers, wearing jeans in the university and later going to vote rebelliously, though there was a terrorist diktat against both. In a bigger city, like Bangalore, where I moved when I was 25, the challenges were different. There was the matter of being beaten up in a bus by a conductor, and the acute depression that followed because I felt bereft in a city that seemed too big and alien.

Everything I learned as a small town girl in a big city, adds up to this: Power and powerlessness are a choice. If an acid attack victim can go to court and rally for a safer world for other woman and a young girl shot through her head for daring to go to school can ask for education for every child in the world, most of us can get by with a song and a smile.

No, I am not trivialising our struggles or the invisible glass ceilings, but yes, over the years, I have figured that women don`t HAVE to put up with anything they don`t want to. I have fought many battles, but the ones I look back on fondly are the ones where I refused to back down and be cut down to size. Standing up to a sexist bully in an office, never playing the victim card to get anything in life and always depending on myself to pick myself up and start another day unvanquished, make me feel proud to be a woman, who is not perfect but who is on her way to get it right, one little step at a time.

No matter where we live, we are in the end as vulnerable or as strong as we believe ourselves to be. Women cannot be foolhardy but yes, they can act from a place of self-interest and self worth, be it at work or in life. You must be willing to feel vulnerable occasionally, to renew courage everyday, to be true to yourself, to work through self-doubt and not give in, and to make choices that are life-affirming, joyous and healing. Women hold up half the sky and they cannot do a good job of it if they do not stand tall and feel powerful enough.

There will be times when you may have to hold up the entire sky yourself; it will be during these times that you will realise that you really are strong enough to do it.

~Reema Moudgil is an RJ, an artist, the author of Pertfect Eight, a scribe and a mother. She also runs

First Published: Saturday, August 3, 2013 - 15:49

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