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Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan


Free, and fearless

  • I want to walk the length and breadth of our country, every beautiful, remote spot and I want to emerge alive and unhurt and full of great stories.

On New Year's Day, we lay in one big pile in a friend's bedroom and watched the movie Wild. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, the film follows a young Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon) as she walks the Pacific Crest Trail, in an attempt to make peace with herself after her mother dies. It's a walking movie, solitude seems to be the main narrative, and yet, filled as it is with the small, quiet reflections you can only have by yourself when you're alone, it makes for an engaging film.

At the end of it, I joked, “I'd probably be dead within the week.” “That long?” laughed my partner, and we were mostly talking about the physical aspects of it, trudging along with a heavy backpack and shoes that don't fit. Trying to make food out of nowhere, but I was also thinking about this one bit in the film, where Cheryl, thinking she's alone, distils some stagnant water to drink later. Out of the woods come crashing two men, and they ask to use her filter, which she gives them, and while they wait, they look her up and down and make predatory remarks. There were three of us women in that room watching the film and I felt all of us go quiet, like a sparrow when a hawk goes overhead, all of us willing her to shake them off and go back to being on her own. She does, telling them she's taking off, and then circling back to camp at the same place, when one of the men reappears, watching her so quietly that she cries out when she finally sees him. Eventually he leaves, called away by his friend, and Cheryl is left alone again.

We felt the same oneness with our female character when she's out of food and has to beg a local farmer to drive her somewhere she can find some. “Just come home with me,” he says, and we in the audience, think, “No! Don't do it!” but she doesn't have a choice, and so she smiles weakly and invents a husband who's going to join her later. It turns out to be okay, but watching Witherspoon convey that exquisitely delicate line between saving yourself and yet not wanting to anger someone who might then take out their anger on you, it was such a very relatable moment. We've all been there.

About six years ago, I decided to travel on my own too. Not very far—I had been invited to speak at a conference in Manipal and from there I wanted to go on up to Gokarna, a place I'd never been to before. I loaded myself and my belongings (a strolley suitcase, very not intrepid traveller, but this was a last-minute plan) into a local passenger train and set off to the beach. Once there, I realised there was absolutely no phone signal to be had, unless you were on one particular spot, and also because Gokarna is a bit more remote than Goa, once the sun had gone down, that was it. The night was pitch black, almost soft in how it entered your vision and you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. I spent a lot of time thinking about this version of blackness when I walked to the top of a cliff with a man I had just met, talking to in the beach shacks. He seemed harmless enough by daylight, but literally no one knew where I was at this exact moment, my phone was absolutely useless and I was—for the first time in my life—alone and unaccounted for. I had decided to go with my gut for friendships, but here we are and the only flashlight there was his. I felt safe in his company, but I'm sure a lot of victims of serial killers have had the same thought.

Well, here I am, still alive and writing about it. He turned out to be a very nice person—so much so that we travelled together some more when he came up north, in a completely platonic, non-romantic way. I had not only made a friend on a random isolated beach, I made a male friend, both of us single, both of us not unattractive, and our relationship stayed non-sexual the entire time.

Travelling alone seems like such a great adventure. I've done it a few times before, but mostly just being flown to literary festivals or conferences. There I can wander about a city as I please, but I have a sanctioned lot of babysitters who watch out for my welfare and organise taxis for me. I've travelled alone in the West a little, but who can really fall off the map there unless you strike out for the mountains or the forests? In India, as much as I'd like to follow in Cheryl's footsteps, go up the foothills of the Himalayas with just me and a backpack and a tent, I'd a) never be fully alone, because no matter where in this country you go, there'll always be a chai shop filled with men and b) there isn't really a culture of women just taking off and wandering by themselves. Of course, I'm not one to be bogged down by “there isn't really a culture” but in this case, even having a coffee by yourself leads to people staring at you like you're a captured gorilla, so imagine if you were to walk through the streets with your backpack piled high. You'd be a sitting duck, a target so easy to catch, it's almost laughable.

I do want to travel alone though, and not be afraid. I want to stand at the top of a cliff gazing up at a sky full of stars and not worry at the same time that the person I'm with is going to kill me. I want to walk the length and breadth of our country, every beautiful, remote spot and I want to emerge alive and unhurt and full of great stories. One day. Soon.

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