Living in Gandhinagar is akin to living in Gurgaon with the only similarity being the closeness to a larger, faster city – Ahmedabad and Delhi. It is an ill-informed association my brain has now made – delaying everything because everything amazing is happening in a city too far away. But coming back to Gujarat brings a wave of unfamiliarity sometimes, especially now that I have spent such a long time away from a place I called home for 4 years. The buildings are not as anxious to rise up, like how I see back in Gurgaon; unfinished skeletons of metal and stone that are neither going to be finished any time soon, nor are they too welcome in an atmosphere of bad planning and numerous urban issues. Everything is low and quiet. Even the dogs I see here seem to be thinner and smaller, not needing to be thick in a harsh environment. Most of them are still docile and suspicious of anything humans do (of course it depends on the area), even the heavy lull of a motor cycle.
A general habit I’ve formed over time, as I assume most women might have, is immediately count the number of women I can directly see in my vicinity. It is a number, I think, that truly tells me whether or not I am safe in the circumstances I am in. If women frequent the given area at a given time, it gives me the reason to do the same. Of course this is not to say that all men are to be distrusted, but the presence of women can give one a reason to tell oneself that one need not feel too guilty of venturing out at night, for a reason as frivolous as getting ice cream to satiate an urgent craving. I feel myself at ease. On the contrary, if I am the only woman around, it makes me uneasy and I try to reason if there is any particular reason I should feel that way. If something unfortunate were to happen, will the lack of women other than myself be of any importance? Will there be places in these cities we live in, where a lone lady’s presence will be seen as an intrusive irresponsibility?
Living on the outskirts of a city that is infamous for its treatment of women is not a joyride. The highway seems daunting; dark and full of big vehicles and rich cars – mostly careless about traffic rules. An overwhelming number of people with beer bottles out in the open; a culture shock that I wasn’t able to overcome even after a year of living on the same road. On one such occasion, a need for some or the other little craving, I travelled to a location such as this at 2 in the night. Being on a two wheeler made it worse, even though I wasn’t alone. I am a person with a distinct inclination towards worrying too much, and maybe this is what it was. I told my friend to drive straight home if there is any suspiciousness around; I was just being cautious like I’ve been taught I should be. The site, however, was a welcome one. There were definitely beer bottles and lots of men around, but there were plenty of women too. It was a model Friday evening, people buying cigarettes and finishing up beers with whoever they were partying with that night, including women. I felt instantly at ease. I got down, stood alone for a while until our errand had been run, and reached safely home.
On the other hand, I have also been yelled at outside a movie theatre in Gurgaon by someone seemingly drunk and with his family, for no real reason than standing outside and saying the movie was absolutely rubbish (in my defence, it was Pyaar ka panchnama 2, a movie I will regret being made for as long as Bollywood will exist). I am not ashamed to say I cried after that incident, that I lack a backbone when a man tells me he will slap a woman like me. There are braver women who live in these cities much more independently than I do, who experience this way more than I do, and whose spines are made of tungsten, who won’t let a petty man make them cry. But I am not such a woman. I wish I was.
Living in Gandhinagar has given me no such incidents, but I have been followed while riding a scooter back in Rajkot. That is not eventful, it had already happened to every girl I knew who drove a two-wheeler. However, some late night trips (before midnight) in the part of Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad I’ve seen most made me nervous; the lack of women was astonishing. Of course, none of these personal anecdotes can be used as judgment under any circumstances; it is only to understand why a woman might or might not feel safe in a given area.
I don’t know what it is that decides how much I discourage myself while getting out at night – whether it was the dark albeit short walk from my office to my home when I first came here, or now, when I find myself at a movie theatre late at night, driving back home with my friends. Is it the number of women around me, or the kind of men around me? How do I tell by looking at these men and women about how much at ease I should be? Do I notice how they are dressed, or what kind of company they are with? Or is it what they are talking about, if I impolitely eavesdrop (which I am aware I tend to do)? Am I that judgementally shallow?
Women reclaiming spaces has to be a solution to this. People might stare, some of us might even find ourselves in unseemly positions, but the day women are kept off the streets because of fear, is the day patriarchy wins. This fear is not always a real fear; it is one that has been taught to us based off on some real experiences. Those experiences are horrifying, but like all extremes, are rarer than the alternative – leaning towards availability heuristic. When I was told repeatedly that Gurgaon is unsafe, as it statistically might even be, I calculated my risks and stayed frightened. And it will continue to remain unsafe for me, until I actually see for myself, even so far as actually risking my safety too. But it has to be done. And with sweaty hands, darting eyes, and clenched fists, we will do it.