In the first of a series of personal accounts on street harassment and violence in the Capital, The Hindu’s Smriti Kak Ramachandran rediscovers the city’s public transport system....
The last time I travelled in a bus at night was in December 2009. I remember every detail. Without pleasure.
A man swore at me without pause and not one person in that bus protested. The girl sitting next to me grabbed my hand as we sat through the ordeal. We were too scared to even get off, worried he might follow us. The girl was in the police force, but even her gruelling training had not prepared her for taking on a belligerent man in a bus full of mute spectators.
Trembling, she managed to dial a number and whisper something into the phone. Two bus stops later, a police van signalled the bus to stop and the man was hauled off. I went home and wept. And promised myself I’d never set foot in a bus again.
Three years on, I have broken that promise, to see if anything — other than the buses themselves — has changed.
It is 8 p.m. I can’t help but think about the chances of meeting the same man or someone similar. I soon find myself in a fancy, low-floor bus, the virtues of which our administrators have been singing paeans of. The bus is comfortable. There is more space to stand, and I find a seat. The bus isn’t very crowded, but almost all the seats occupied by women have men leaning over, occasionally making offensive physical contact. I hear a woman ask a man to step back twice; my heart already thumping. The journey over, I nearly dart out of the bus even before the driver pushes open the slightly smudged glass doors.
The Metro, I’m told, is somewhat better: there’s a reserved compartment for women. The problem is, it doesn’t get you where you need to go. For most commuters, there’s still a cycle rickshaw or auto rickshaw or bus ride ahead.
The bus ride wasn’t as bad as the many I’ve known, but I didn’t want to tempt fate. Tonight, an auto rickshaw will take me home.
Everyone who travels by auto rickshaws in Delhi knows getting an autowallah to agree to take you to your destination, agree to go by the meter and agree to stick to a familiar route is a real challenge. For a single woman standing on the road after dark, it is doubly so. I reached the bus stop at 8 p.m. and was still standing there after 30 minutes. Three autowallahs told me they were going in the opposite direction; three slowed down, heard me out and drove off without a word; four autowallahs asked me to pay almost double.
There was a homeless man at the bus stand who began to smile at me. He probably meant no harm, but I didn’t intend to wait to find out. I agreed to pay double and autowallah No.11 drove me home.
It is 10 p.m. I’ve just called up a friend who is having trouble understanding why I haven’t bought a little pink can of pepper spray that so many neighbourhood stores are selling to Delhi women, or, even better, a taser. I’m driving today, but to a part in the city where I’m told women drivers have been facing trouble.
A friend was recently tail-ended by another car while she was at the red light. The offender, a man, was driving with his mother. He abused my friend, blaming her for the accident and threatened to run her over. The mother joined in, taking exception to the fact that my friend was driving with her hair open!
Instead of carrying pepper spray, I’ve rolled up the windows, locked the doors, kept the phone ready and even tied up my hair. A few minutes in, all was going on well. Then, a group of teenagers in a garishly painted car blaring music decided to amuse themselves by trying to push a woman driver off the road. For the next 10 minutes, their car tried to cut me off, horn blaring.
I drive every day. I use public transport when I have to. Driving is assumed to be safer, provided you stick to familiar routes and don’t stay out late. But there are days when I am too tired or too distracted to drive. Then there’s a cost: getting pushed, abused, stared at and touched inappropriately. These are not even options I want to consider. So, I drive.
Sexual harassment has many repercussions and one among them is the financial strain. I am forced to drive even when I cant afford to or pay autowallahs double. It is as if there is a tax for being a woman.
Delhi girls, I’m told, learn to live with the harassment.
I haven’t… and I don’t want to.