28 September 2013

Driving Miss eM (usually round the bend)

Writing is making me so very, very tired lately. I guess when you write for work, and you write for leisure, writing for even more lesuire doesn't always work. Instead, I'm taking lots of photos and reading other people a lot, in the hope that when I emerge from this slump, I'll be a better writer for it.
So today, I'm recycling. Here's a version of a piece I did for Business Standard last weekend.
 


People inundated me with advice (most extremely useful) before I moved to Bombay many years ago. One, in particular, stands out. “If you’re travelling late at night in the local train, get into the last coach,” said the advice giver, an older woman, “That’s where all the prostitutes sit on their way home, and they’ll look out for you. Better than sitting in an empty compartment.” Out of laziness, I never did take the last train, but I always wondered at the possibility of a coach full of strong women, ready to protect their own. 

In all of India’s states, public transport is something you are cautioned about from the very beginning. Travelling alone in Bangalore is a bit of a sport, you are told it isn’t safe, despite the belying gentle faces of the rickshaw drivers. “Take a cab,” you’re urged, even if you have to pre-book one before you leave for your engagement. It seems as though you are always juggling how you will get home—that’s the first question you get asked before you leave the house in New Delhi—“how will you get home?” is what concerned friends and relatives will ask. A woman can’t step out without a back-up plan, a phone call to a friend who lives nearby, an extra wad of cash in your purse for a radio taxi ride. 

I can very vividly remember the last time I took a local bus, for the fifteen kilometres to college. If you missed the AC “chartered” bus, you had to take the 534, all the way from East Delhi to the heart of the South, where, the ladies’ seats were taken by women who woke up earlier and went to a stop earlier. I stood and was jostled by men, it was too crowded for major fondling, but I learnt to wear my backpack on my front and keep my bottom away from pinchers, not even resting it against the metal pillars. I learnt to drive soon after, if it hadn’t been for those buses, I would probably be taking public transport to this day. 

Public transport in India is about the men. Even in the hallowed Delhi Metro, held up as a shining example, the women are shunted into the zenana, while the “general” compartment is basically the “men’s” section. Women are treated as the other, whether it’s their allocated seats on buses right next to the handicapped seats or in the trains of India—the long distance coaches have now done away with the ladies coupe, but you can’t get kicked off a train on a RAC (reserved against cancellation) seat, if you’re a single woman travelling alone. In Bombay, the ladies coach is often next to the handicapped one, illustrated with an image of a crab (for cancer), and once, I got on that one by mistake and was shouted at in Marathi, by a man in a white kurta pajama, who, in retrospect, looked perfectly healthy to me. 

Even on semi-private transport—the auto, the cab and so on—you’re at the mercy of the male drivers. A little illustration made the rounds on Facebook, what you should do if your auto driver misbehaves. “Wrap your scarf around his neck and pull,” said one point and another, “Call someone, or pretend you are, and give them his registration number in a language he’s sure to understand.” I notice that when you are a single female traveller in an auto, at traffic lights the men around you start to hone in, like so many mosquitoes towards a light. Like mosquitoes too, you can’t swat them all away. More often than not, my auto driver is pulled into the role of my defender, he has to drive faster than them or slow down so they overtake, and it must be so exhausting to be him, to be responsible for someone he probably believes shouldn’t be travelling alone at all.  A leading radio taxi company hired a driver in Bangalore who refused to play the role. “I’m not going any further,” he said, annoyed that I didn’t know directions to the friend’s house I was staying at. “I don’t live here,” I said, but his mind was made up, I was not his responsibility. When I called the company to complain, they said they would send him a letter of warning. And that’s where they abdicated their responsibility as well. How I wish I had the confidence to just step out of the cab and not pay him for the journey! But it was late at night and I needed him more than he needed me. 

My aim is to be an independent woman, regardless of what country I live in. I can never fully be that in India, where even waiting for a bus is flirting with danger, where even the men who ferry us around this teeming country are not on your side.

1 comment:

  1. "Public transport in India is about the men." Truer words were never said! This is a good piece on the subject.

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