The country’s capital is paved with unsafe streets

A day after New Year's, a friend posted a rather disturbing video on his Facebook wall. It showed a young woman, accompanied by a lone, hapless man, being chased by a bunch of young revellers outside a pub in Gurgaon. A few police constables standing across the road heard the woman's cries and they went running over and began raining lathis on her tormentors.

For once, I found the mercilessness shown by the police heartwarming. Usually one cringes at the sight of such brutal violence. While watching the video, I wished all the men who had tried to molest the woman were rounded up and showered with some more ruthless blows of the lathi, but they all somehow managed to run away.

The woman is never going to forget this particular New Year's eve. Or who knows, she just might. When you live in cities like Delhi and Gurgaon (the gaon is now a city, and what a dazzling city), such cases of brazen harassment are commonplace. Had I still been living in Delhi, I wouldn't have found the video so shocking and disturbing. I would have told myself: “Oh, this keeps happening all the time. Why are they making such a fuss?”

But eleven years in Chennai – today, incidentally, marks the completion of eleven years – have refined my sensibilities. And since I no longer watch TV, I miss out even on the good old Hindi movies in which the bad men, standing in the street corner, whistle or pass lewd remarks when the heroine is walking past, only to be beaten up by the hero.

In Chennai I've hardly come across groups of men idling by the road, leave alone whistling or making obscene comments at a passing woman. Only once did I see women feeling threatened. Some years ago, two female colleagues who happened to be walking down a street in Kodambakkam encountered a flasher on a bicycle. So alarmed were they that one of them bought a knife and the other pepper spray. I told them they were overreacting. A flasher, who needs psychiatric help more than anything else, is not worth investing in knives and sprays over, which come in more handy in situations where aggression is involved – and Chennai is not exactly known for aggressive situations.

I wonder how they would have fortified themselves had they been living in Delhi, where women don't even like to be seen waiting at bus stops after eight in the evening. And as for women travelling alone on scooties – that's one sight you will almost never come across in Delhi, because any woman embarking on such an adventure will risk being followed by SUVs whose occupants have ulterior motives.

And New Delhi (including Gurgaon) happens to be the capital of 21st-century India. What's the point boasting of a mall where you get an Armani shirt for Rs. 20,000 when your streets are not safe for women?

But then, women who grow up in Delhi and other north-Indian cities have an inbuilt self-defence mechanism in place: they know the dos and don'ts for keeping trouble away. It is a different matter that the mechanism may not always work, especially when you are pitted against evil that is far too formidable. Take the Gurgaon woman, for example. Even if she had carried pepper spray in her handbag, how many pairs of eyes could she have aimed at, considering there were nearly a dozen men out to maul her? But by and large, they know how to take care of themselves.

The problem arises when women from other cultures – cultures that make women feel safe – arrive in Delhi. They are most often the sitting ducks. I will give you a relatively harmless example. A friend in Chennai, during her recent trip to Delhi, decided to wear a short skirt as she set out to shop in a Greater Kailash market.

“If you are going to wear that skirt,” her Delhi-bred cousin warned her, “better be prepared for lewd remarks.”

“What lewd remarks?”

“For example, they will ask you if you aren't feeling cold in short skirts,” the wise cousin answered.

My friend ignored her cousin's advice and went shopping, thinking this was Delhi – the hip city. Nothing happened to her, at least not for a long time. Finally, as she was about to get into a footwear shop, an elderly man, old enough to be her father, accosted her and asked: “Beta, aapko sardi nahin lag rahi hai?” – Child, aren't you feeling cold?

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012