Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 4, Dated Feb 2, 2008
|CULTURE & SOCIETY
auto slowed down on an isolated stretch. My heartbeat quickened’
Ramachandran. Currently living in New York. Has a Masters
in Social Policy from the London School of Economics. Has worked in development
and retail sectors. Likes to write
IT WAS a cold January night in 2005. As the train sped along the tracks
from Dehradun to New Delhi, I settled a bit more comfortably in my seat
and delved deeper into the book I was reading. The gentleman sitting next
to me seemed like a nice enough person; a salesman on his way back to
Delhi after a trip to Dehradun on work, just like me. As dinner was served,
we struck up a conversation.
Having travelled around the country alone quite a bit and having seen
and met my share of strange people, I was not particularly receptive in
the beginning, but I soon felt he was not exactly a stalker and relaxed.
The older gentleman to my right (I was sandwiched in the middle, the bane
of train and aeroplane travellers alike!) soon joined in our conversation
— he was going to see his daughter in the city. When he heard that
I was travelling alone and planned to take an auto-rickshaw home when
we reached Delhi, he insisted I take a prepaid auto and not hail one from
outside the station.
The train pulled into New Delhi Junction a couple of hours later, and
the salesman and I headed off towards the pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand,
from where we could catch our separate autos home. The older gentleman
had his daughter waiting for him. I thanked my travel companions for their
assistance and concern, and soon found myself in a prepaid auto headed
towards Defence Colony where I lived alone in a little room on top of
a house; I had rented my “living quarters” from a very nice
It was 11.30pm. In my backpack, I had a sachet of desi chilli powder.
Sure, it was a bit improvised, but all I wanted was some security. When
I was leaving for Dehradun, I’d decided to carry the chilli powder
at the last minute, almost as an afterthought. I’d heard far too
many unsavoury stories about women being targeted in the Capital and I
had no desire to become another statistic. I suppose I should have carried
pepper spray with me. We read about incidents in newspapers everyday but
one part of us always likes to think that we are invulnerable, that “that
kind of thing” can never happen to us. Not very smart.
Five minutes later, on an isolated stretch of the road heading towards
India Gate, the auto started slowing down. Thud thud thud thud thud thud.
My heartbeat quickened and my hand slid into my backpack. The rickshaw
driver took out a beedi and lit it, and continued driving. I could almost
hear my heartbeat slow down. There was nothing to worry about. Still,
all I wanted was to get back to my room.
I did get home safely that night, but that was not the only time I have
felt unsafe. A year later, when I was returning alone at 9.30 in the evening
from the airport to my paying-guest accommodation in Bangalore, I felt
a similar (though less intense) fear when the auto had to take a detour
along a less crowded road, thanks to some ongoing repairs. Time obviously
makes you braver, as does experience. This time around, there was nothing
handy in my backpack. This time also however, thankfully, nothing happened.
I have lived, prior to and since then, in London, Brussels and New York.
I have been to places from where I’ve returned alone at night in
all these cities. And nowhere have I felt as vulnerable as I did in India.
I have often asked myself what it is that makes it so difficult to be
a single woman in urban, modern India. I have talked about it with friends
who’ve been in similar situations.
They have formed their own support systems, living as they do away from
their families — when one of them has to return late, they make
sure she calls one of the others and gives them the auto’s registration
number, and preferably talks to someone through the journey, if it is
not too long. The recourse to public transport, like the tube in London
or the subway in New York, which is what I have used in the past (and
still do today, in New York) is not there in India at all. That is why
in India, young working women are at the mercy of auto-rickshaw drivers,
many of whom refuse to take us where we want to go, or ask for sky-high
fares. Let’s face it: if we could pay those ridiculous amounts,
we wouldn’t be forced to take an auto, would we? We’d buy
our own cars.
I didn’t tell my parents about the incident in Delhi that day —
I didn’t want to worry them. Today, I worry about my younger sister
as she travels around India. I want to ensure that she is always safe.
The truth is, I can’t. I can only hope that she exercises her common
sense. Just like my parents probably hoped I would.