The personal abuse of public space

The road is more than an enabler of motor transport. It is also a place of pathos and of beauty

Updated - April 30, 2019 03:07 pm IST

Published - April 30, 2019 03:06 pm IST

A scene at a busy crossroads in Kolkata

A scene at a busy crossroads in Kolkata

Cars are not my happy place. Yet, for over two years, I have written a road column for these pages.

I do, however, like being out on the road. A road is more than an enabler of motor transport. It is a public space. It is a place of pathos, of beauty. It is also the venue of a dozen contestations of power — who gets to stand where, talk how loudly and to how many people, and who is frightened off the road.

This Holi, I had a strange experience. Actually, a commonplace experience but it felt strange because I had forgotten what it’s like to be followed, in Mumbai and in broad daylight, and to struggle against unwanted male attention.

I stepped out in the evening after Holi celebrations were over to buy groceries. A sleek, expensive-looking black car slowed down. A young man was behind the wheel. He was gesturing to get my attention, so I thought he might be lost and needed directions. I paused. He told me I was beautiful, and that he wanted my number.

This sort of thing had not happened to me for a while, so I was taken aback. At first, I just shook my head, rolled my eyes and walked on. The car still moved slowly. To avoid it, I crossed the road. The car made a U-turn and returned. I ducked into a shop. When I stepped out, I saw that the car was waiting. I crossed the road yet again, and the car looped back again.

The young man persisted in trying to talk, asking for my number. One corner of my brain had already picked up old, exhausting threads of self-blame. I considered what I was wearing (but I’m fully covered), the time of day (should I have waited until sunset?), looking around for familiar hawkers (don’t go too far) just in case the man got aggressive. Another corner of my brain was trying to justify the young man’s behaviour (maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing?).

Choosing a direction

Choosing a direction

At last, I finally used the confrontation technique I learnt while volunteering with Blank Noise, a campaign against street sexual harassment. I turned the camera on the car to document this moment. The moment I raised my phone to photograph his number plate, the youth yelled out ‘sorry’! His foot hit the accelerator faster than you say click-click. My annoyance turned into anger. He knew quite well what he was doing, and he stopped only when he thought he might get into trouble.

I wanted to write something that day: about expensive cars, the privilege of owner-drivers, how the safest street one knows can transform into a memory of being hounded. But I stopped myself. It was a festival day. A corner of my heart said: let people enjoy the day without thinking of harassment. Let it go.

Weeks later, I cannot let it go. The young man may not be a monster, but he is symptomatic of the abuse of public space in a literal and metaphorical sense. His ego, his need for validation in the face of my discomfort, his inability to cede space, my second-guessing my right to be in the world on my terms, my fear of aggression and having to use fear (of the law) to counter the fears I was being subjected to. It makes everything ugly.

In this, my last column about roads, I want to remind readers that we all travel with the hope and expectation of mutual regard, safety, equality, the rule of law. If we find these expectations belied, if one class of people gets away with destruction and disrespect, we collectively learn that privilege means that you get to destroy others without being destroyed in turn. You just need to figure out how to get away with it. What this turns us into, we already sort of know.

(The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen)

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