Don't let them smell your fear, she thinks to herself and walks on, steadily. Some nights are worse. Some nights are better. All nights are fearful.
I know I lead a privileged life.
I'm writing this from the 15th floor of a fancy hotel in a big city. I have been flown in to talk about my books, I am being wined and dined. I can see the sea every time I lean back in my chair. The sea... and next to it, bright dots moving on the rocks, people who are not on 15th floors.
I know I lead a privileged life because I gaze through the rolled up windows of my car at women going about their days, women with tired faces or not, sometimes they are bright eyed and oiled hair, sometimes they look exhausted, sometimes they hoist heavy bags on their heads, sometimes they're standing and waiting for a line of men to board a bus before they do. Last. They'll stand there, next to men with fat bellies hanging over their belts, men who spread out their legs like ah, now I am sitting. Men who chew paan and look women over lazily, their own personal sofa and their own personal shows.
I even whisk past these women after dark, they pour out of buses, fewer and fewer as the day grows longer, until finally it's just the one young woman who had to stay late at work or college or whatever, and there's one last bit between the bus and her home, and she's walking on the road head held high pasts the packs of men also going home, but ready to slow down a bit to check her out. Don't let them smell your fear, she thinks to herself and walks on, steadily. Some nights are worse. Some nights are better. All nights are fearful.
Every November, we gear up to not breathe. It gets particularly terrible around Diwali time, Delhi goes nuts, pulling out all the stops, there's loud explosions everywhere, bottle rockets go off, sputtering green smoke, things go whoosh or phizz or spin around in crazy circles or just explode making street dogs go nuts, and our own pampered privileged pets hide under beds, trembling. This is the time the air is thick with a fog both of pollution and of acrid chemicals used to make the sounds and fire that are sold cheaply and that everyone can afford.
I know I am privileged because I escaped and ran away to a first world country where I breathed easily and sweetly every night, no waking up racked with coughs, no feeling like every breath hurt. Instead of staying in and barring my door—here, too, I am privileged, I work from home, in my pajamas, I don't see anyone I don't have to—I watched women in different countries conduct themselves. Automatically, on a late night metro, I stepped closer to my (male) partner, and then, watching that one lone woman traveller, swishing her hair back and checking her phone, I found myself confident with her confidence. Nothing was going to happen to me. How dare it?
We stepped together out into a dark night, lit only by sputtering street lights, and we walked home, the woman still ahead of me, still looking unconcerned, except pulling her coat closer around her because of the cold. I tensed when she crossed the road, to go on her own path alone, but she just hiked her bag closer to herself and walked on. A few drunks parted to let her pass. They did so without comment.
In another city, two girls in shorts walking their dog, stopped to give us directions. They pointed, we smiled and they flashed fleeting, ephemeral smiles back. “Okay, goodbye,” said one after she was done, and turned her shoulder to us. A full stop. The conversation was over and she was confident enough to put an end to it herself. I admired it, vowed to try the same thing myself, life lessons from a 15 year old.
Present day. I read that the Delhi government wants to try a two week experiment. Cars with an odd number license plate will drive on one day, even numbers on another. How fantastic, I think. I turn to social media, expecting everyone to be celebrating. But there are a lot of long faces.
How can they do this when we have such terrible public transport? Asks Twitter, hand-wringing. True. I think of the buses I used to take in college, before I learned to drive, before I got a car and separated myself from my fellow city-citizens. I think of carrying sharp ended geometry compasses in my pocket, the trick of wearing your backpack on your front, how I was prepared to take any groping finger and bend it backwards, like I wanted to break it. Did I do that or did you? Unbidden, I think of the city-citizens I haven't sealed myself off from. A “rain dance” one hot summer. The lights went off, someone grabbed my bum. I started with shock. When the lights came on, a guy with his girlfriend draped around him caught my eye. Winked. Was I supposed to be flattered?
Of course I think of Jyoti-Nirbhaya, I think of her being refused fare after fare by auto drivers, I think of how she'd be alive and not a nickname, a brand, the case that changed us, if she or her companion had their own car. There's a lot to be said for having your own transport. We're not safe as women, and so we try to make ourselves as secure as we can. Those of us with privilege use it. Those of us without walk through, not letting them smell your fear.
But imagine if the experiment worked. If you by leaving your car at home three days a week would be helping that grey-faced college girl to breathe better without clasping her hanky to her face. If there would be safety in numbers, not just that one woman walking home alone, but everyone. Walking home together. When I first moved to Bombay, so many years ago, people advised me to get in the last ladies compartment if I was travelling home very late. That was where the sex workers sat, they said. They'll look after you. Safety in numbers, sisters.
Let's leave our privilege at the door.