Last night, against better judgement, I took a cycle rickshaw to a party. It was after 9 pm, the only auto I could flag down had a driver whose eyes didn't quite meet mine, who had an after stench of alcohol emanating from him, and so I got into a cycle rickshaw to go walking distance. Why couldn't I walk? It was after 9 pm. On the road, as he cycled, people looked at me. MEN looked at me. I was acutely aware of my vulnerability, first to the outside world, and then, as the rickshaw drive turned off into the unlit street the party was on, to him. I chalked out my escape routes, tried to figure out how I could run if he tried something. I apologised to him in my head as we disembarked, but not after a moment of extreme panic, when I paid him and he blocked my way out with some pleasantry.
Last night, we had an intense conversation about this story. My friends argued that it was just "some" India not "all" India. They argued that in that case, we should all be walking around with PTSD.
A month ago, at the Nizamuddin West market, two men in a beat up Maruti 800 began to follow me home. I noticed, because it was after dark, and the car that had slowed down seeing me, rolled ahead and then began to reverse. I tried to avoid them by ducking down the road to a shortcut, but they reversed the car and began to follow me again. I tried another diversion, but no matter where I went, the car would always adamantly reverse and follow me. In the end, I went back to the shop I had been coming from, I took out my phone, my old phone that takes two hours to load the home screen, and I pretended to film them. They scooted.
I was wearing a checkered romper that day, enjoying the feel of the rare summer breeze on my legs. I haven't gone for a walk in the neighbourhood without pants again. Here too, I created a survival tactic. What the girl who wrote the post perhaps tried and couldn't do. I have a list of things to keep me safe in India, a list that I update every so often, crossing off things that don't work anymore, adding tweaks to the ones that do.
Note to self: potential rapists might flee if you pretend like you're taking their picture.
I am not white. I don't know what it's like to be a white woman in India, I imagine it's hard. But because, despite my very brown skin, I don't fit the exact mould of "Indian looking" people accost me on the street all the time. Walking through Connaught Place, where some blocks are full of ghosts and even the middle of the day doesn't feel safe enough, a man tailed me and tailed me. Finally, I waited for him to pass (old trick. Cross off.) and he stopped me at an angle where I couldn't have run even if I wanted to. His shoulders right angles to mine, crowding me into a closed door. "Where you from?" he asked, hopefully. I replied in Hindi and he backed off. A week later, again in Nizamuddin, a man walked me around the houses. I was running an errand and smoking a cigarette. "Where you from?" he asked. I tried responding in Hindi (cross off list) but it didn't work. Instead, he asked me to be his friend. "I don't want to be your friend," I said, finding my resources. I was on a street, I could run. "Why?" he asked. "Because you're a stranger," I said. "I look like a stranger to you?" he said and when I said, "Yes" he looked hurt and walked off, leaving me with relief and guilt. Did I know him? Was I being elitist? Is this something else I have to bear in mind: be safe and be politically correct?
A few months ago, my cat got out on the terrace. This is a story you already know, but what you don't know is that he started to make a practice of it, and the landlord, being a douchebag, refused to let me on the terrace after. I got a key guy to make me a clandestine copy, and while he was there, asked him to give me a leg-up to the terrace next door, so I could retrieve the stupid animal. This leg-up obviously led to some physical intimacy, and he followed me down the stairs, into the house asking to be my "friend". I was horrified by my own bad judgement (Touching a man you do not know! Rule number one in the Do Not Do list!) and scared that he was in my flat blocking the front door. He also noticed my skittish eyes and my "I have to go now" face and apologised profusely before he left. It made me feel bad. It made me feel mad.
I don't want to be your goddamn friend. What do you possibly think we could have in common? Do you really believe from a forced conversation on the road that it will lead to some kind of physical intimacy?
"Randi.." whispered the voice in my cellphone. "Randi," almost savouring it now, "Chus le.." A crank caller. Men who dial various numbers till they hit upon a female voice. Calling over and over, whenever I hung up. I called the cops, and he disconnected his phone. Not so random, the year before. The man who came to install my cooler had a young assistant. I had left my phone number in the shop for him to call when he arrived. Crank calls began arriving that night. "Meeeeeenakshi," giggled the voice, delighted in my horror, perhaps masturbating to my panic. I realised his number matched the one that the shop had called me from and called to complain. Perhaps he got fired. I feel guilty for that as well--after all, the calls weren't hurting me.
We are driven to do the right thing at all times as women in India. Be safe. Be brave. Cover your head. Be kind. Be polite. Think of the poor. Think only of yourself. Carry pepper spray. Don't carry pepper spray, someone might use it on you. Don't walk at night. Walk only at night to reclaim the streets. Don't use public transport. Don't drive home alone.