After I read Marissa and Bauke’s thoughts about their first day, being one of their ‘private city guides’, I felt I should try to answer that unasked question – why were their private city guides swinging from tenterhooks? Here’s an attempt:
I walk, mostly alone, and like walking alone. In my blog (rarely updated nowadays) there are many entries describing footpaths, the trees that grow in them, and shrines that greet you unexpectedly in corners. So, I have a fair idea of what streets are like. Are they safe for women?
Before I answer that, take another place where I have spent a fair amount of time – trains of Mumbai. I spent many years aboard the Mumbai local trains. Many intense conversations with a close friend of mine, whom I shall call A., happened as we waited for trains on crowded platforms. My strongest memory is of her eyes gleaming beneath those glasses, arguing passionately with her black rucksack hanging in front of her chest, like an adjustable kangaroo pouch.
We all did that – hold our bags in front of our chest. An armour of canvas beefed with books. Who had told us about this armour? I don’t know, I just remember holding bags in that fashion. Did it work? For the most part. Did that mean we were groped every day? No. Is that ‘normal’? No. Did that mean we were groped some days? Yes.
So, are Mumbai local train platforms safe for women? Are Indian streets safe for women? Is a market in Bangalore safe for two young and enthusiastic visitors from Amsterdam?
It was a time when my Facebook feed was furiously debating this: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053. The questions that were flying faster than you could press refresh – is India safe for foreign tourists?
I did not find the American student’s account dissonant. But I wish there had been a footnote or a paragraph that said this violence was not just directed toward her but toward women in India too. It could have then shielded the piece from being reduced by some to a white woman versus brown man frame – a reductive dismissal that doesn’t help anyone.
Overall, I was worried. I did not know how to answer that question, and I didn’t want to find out otherwise later. And so when we trotted off to city market, while soaking in the colours of chemically treated sindoor, scents of freshly washed flowers, and smiling at birdcages made of discarded fruit boxes hanging above, I kept watch. I watched all the men around, their eyes, where they went, where they strayed, whom they locked into, and what they said, and what they did not say.
What I saw made me relieved, and mildly surprised. What made me relieved is most of the looking was just that, looking. It was as if these vendors of flowers had chanced upon an exotic species, so they took their time to see, observe, smile, and ask questions. It was curiosity that was friendly. Some gave me flowers, these plump roses, and beckoned to me that I should give it to my newfound friends. One vendor took a pomegranate and sliced it open and thrust it into my hands. It was for my friends, his smile told me. These wares were given without any price tags, more importantly, without any strings. Never in my life would I have been given anything for free here, but here I was, my hands laden with freebies. As I said, I was mildly surprised and amused.
But then there were those eyes. Two pairs. That did more than just look. They gazed, they rested awhile, took their time to stray, stop, and stare. When they had finished taking their full, they moved on and stopped when I came into view, at the end of the line. And when I locked my eyes into theirs, they looked away, like boys caught scribbling obscenities on the school wall.
Perhaps, these two men would not have done that if I shopped in this market every day. I too was a stranger, not someone who laughed with them over the price of onions. If were a familiar face those two men would have thought twice; those boys would not deface walls in front of their schoolmate.
Overall, we had a pleasant morning. Was my worry then misplaced? Is a market in Bangalore safe for two visitors from Amsterdam? Are Mumbai local train platforms safe for women? Are Indian streets safe for women?