Millennium Post

Delhi, will you let me be? Ever!

I moved to Delhi about eight months back, after 12 years in Calcutta. Where I lived before that is not of much consequence, since it was such an idyllic little industrial township, untouched by the happenings in the rest of the country, that it hardly seemed to be a part of it. Delhi had long held a charm for me. Most of my friends from school had moved here to join college, while I went to Calcutta to be with the family. And in all my nine years of working as a journalist, I have repeatedly been told by my seniors in the profession that this is where news happens. So I was in a way happy when my husband moved here for professional reasons in mid-2011.

What then took me almost a year to join him here? Of course, there was the matter of the job, which I had to find in Delhi, before I could shift. And god knows it’s none too easy to find a job in this downturn-hit market. Still, the option of getting a transfer is almost always available for an Indian woman if the reason for seeking it is to join her husband in another city. No, job was not what held me back. Or at least it was not the only thing. Suddenly, Delhi had become this big, bad city, where I was scared to be. What had for all these years been portrayed as a city of opportunities to me, was being shown in a different colour, and one that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of. The first murmers of misgivings came from my mother. ‘Delhi is unsafe for women,’ she said. Having had numerous cousins in the city, she knew all about its ill-repute. ‘My cousins would complain of severe eve-teasing. Boys in bikes would pull their dupattas and ride away,’ she said, adding, ‘This is why I didn’t want you to go to college in Delhi.’ Don’t get me wrong. I was not so naive as to not know the various incidences of crimes against women happening in the capital - the rapes, sometimes of the very elderly or the very young, that would make headlines across the country. Still what’s ugly looks much worse if your attention is pointedly drawn to it. I applied to a friend of mine for opinion. A former colleague, she had moved to Delhi a year back for a better job. ‘Don’t come,’ she told me bluntly. ‘I want to go back,’ she added, before going on to tell horrifying stories of an auto driver who took her a wrong way because she argued about the fare and numerous leches she had to deal with on a daily basis. ‘But there are lecherous men in Calcutta too,’ I argued. ‘These are dangerous. They don’t stop at leching,’ she told me. My resolve to move to Delhi was shaken. Every other person I spoke to after that only added to the confusion. All of them spoke glowingly of the professional opportunities, the advanced lifestyle of the capital and they all ended it with, ‘But its not safe’. A male friend said, ‘But of course its not safe. Still there are women journalists working here.’ Sound encouragement, I thought. If only I had not asked him what his wife did. ‘She stays at home. She doesn’t like to come out alone much,’ he said.

I decided to try out for myself before I decide. A trip to the capital was what I needed to make up my mind (No I had never been to Delhi before). My husband’s first expression on seeing me at the airport was one of displeasure. ‘Why are you wearing such a short dress,’ he asked me frowning, before quickly bundling me inside a waiting cab. Since it was a dress that I had worn before and never drawn this reaction from him, I was puzzled. For the next one week, my bagful of shorts and dresses remained just there, in the bag. The lone cotton pants I had brought was what my husband forced me to wear or refused to take me out. ‘Till we buy a car you are going to remain as covered as possible,’ he told me testily.

I was seething. At the GK I market I angrily pointed at the bevy of beauties in flirty dresses while I paraded about in my frumpy trousers. ‘They are not taking the public transport,’ I was told. My anger was somewhat cooled one evening, when coming out of a restaurant post dinner, I suddenly found the beauties to have deserted the market, having been replaced by men  with leers on their faces. The hours were something else that I had to get used to. ‘No late nights till we get a car. We have to be back home by 10.30 latest,’ said the husband. And no amount of anger, protest or whining changed the Cinderella-hour . When we went for a movie, I was rebuked for being sarcastic to a man in the queue before me for taking too long in buying his ticket. ‘You don’t talk to strangers here and definitely not in that smartass way,’ I was told.

At the end of the week, I was happy to be back in Calcutta, lounging about in Park Street till midnight or later, in my shorts. If there were men who got too close for comfort, I knew how to handle them. But then Calcutta was rocked by the incident of a rape in the city’s party street. Women I felt were unsafe everywhere. Plus, I was too ambitious to not give a try to the opportunities Delhi presented. And anyway, my husband has a car now, I told myself.

No, I don’t always travel by car. I take an auto to work almost every day. I don’t wear trousers all the time. And I have managed to lose the blend of suspicion and fear in my eyes while talking to strangers, that was almost always present in my initial days in the capital. Oh, I have met jerks, those who have pulled my
in crowded old Delhi. I have seen the lust in the eyes of middle-aged men, when a school girl their daughter’s age has walked into the metro in a short skirt. But I have learnt to be alert and ignore. There are some things however, that I don’t do anymore. I don’t walk down the street alone after dark, not even to the chaiwalla just outside my office. (I did do it once only to be told by my boss to take someone along the next time I wanted to go down). I don’t start up a conversation with strangers on the road, or in a movie theatre like I would earlier. If I need directions, I only ask someone I know, or the policeman at the crossing. And I don’t party at night, unless it is at a friends house or I have a big enough gang with me.

I was settling in. I was having fun. When all the fear of my initial days came rushing ack to me with the first report of the gruesome rape and abuse of a 23-year-old in a moving us last Sunday. I wanted to run away, but where. Studies have shown that Mumbai, a city where my friends and I have always felt comfortable has its share of rapes. The scene in Calcutta is not much better. I was told of horrific rapes in the US and a tiny nation in South Africa has banned women from wearing short skirts because apparently it provokes rapes. Where would I be safe then? And then I saw people in the capital coming out in protest against the crime. I saw youngsters holding placards demanding change in mindset. I saw the courrage with which they handled police abuse but continued to demand justice. And I knew my answer. Running is not an option any more. Ignoring small remarks on the streets, inviting gestures and smiles so that it doesn’t get worse is not an option. Stand up, band together, raise your voice, protest and demand your due.

Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor
, Millennium Post
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