A simple task we humans learnt when we evolved from being apes. A task which allows us to reach our destination, allows us to discover life. It’s something we take for granted because it’s so unimaginably mundane, so ordinary. And yet, it’s something, we Delhi women fear.
Our mothers revel in joy when as babies we learn to walk. And the opposite of that joy when we grow up and they say – don’t walk, the city is not meant for you to walk.
It was Maya Krishna Rao’s booming voice counting the numbers, until she stopped at twelve. And said she would like to take a walk at midnight. At 3 AM. At 4 AM. I nodded vigourously and clapped. My eyes tearing a little.
As a child, I was never afraid of the dark or the night. I was enamoured by the mysteries it could hold.
I love the night because I am moved by the beauty of the stillness and calm, when I can watch the stars and hear my thoughts. I love spotting the Orion and the Big Dipper through the night, their changing positions providing a sense of time passing by.
It’s glorious to walk down the streets in the night. I did it when I lived in England. With various friends and acquaintances, saving the snails on our walking paths in the summer, walking slowly to conquer the black ice in winters, after a night of club-hopping. Or simply finding a bench and sitting there alone. I was almost unafraid of the dark corners and empty roads. A little voice in my head saying, “woah, you are so brave.”
And then I came back to India. To Delhi. To the city where I have grown up and which has played an important role in shaping me. To a city where I dread walking. I drive everywhere, don’t take the public transport, wear shapeless androgynous clothes when I need to go to the grocery shop across my home.
I was a soldier once. In my teenage years, through school and college. Leered, leched, touched, groped. Psychologically scarred, physically scared. I was afraid. I was violated. I was meek. And then I was angry. In my battle fatigues of jeans and t-shirt and my backpack as my armour, I would walk on the opposite side of the street traffic, rarely on unlit pavement, in crowded buses, on alert. I would grab any hand which tried to touch me. Confront, kick, slap the violator. But it kept happening. Again and again.
So I stopped.
I bought a car and now I drive everywhere. I don’t walk anymore. Not in the winter sunshine, not in the first rains of the monsoon, not on cool summer nights.
I am ashamed I stopped fighting. I became tired. I became battle-weary. I stopped re-claiming the public space which was mine. The pavements which were mine to walk, the buses which were mine to take, the gardens and the blue skies which were mine to see, the cityscapes which were mine to explore.
I miss walking.
I am sorry I stopped fighting. Because that’s when I became afraid of the dark and the light of the day. Because that’s when men decided they were the sole owners of the public space. That I was an anomaly there. That I needed to be shown that bus wasn’t meant for me. That I should have been in my private space, in my home, in my kitchen.
I felt anguish. And then the familiar anger. In every cell of my being.
It was the night of 1st January 2013, when after a holiday with friends, I took an evening flight back from Bhubneshwar. The only one out of the city which reached a foggy Delhi at about 8.30 PM. I took a taxi home at 9 PM with my sister who was patiently waiting at the airport, her flight from another city having landed a few hours ago. The Delhi incident fresh in the mind of people, we were strange objects of fascination standing at the airport, daring to take a taxi.
A furious and a concerned sister confronted me at home, calling me “stupid enough” to fly back on a late evening flight and then use the public transport to get back home. Fighting back tears and rage, I told her I wasn’t afraid. That I refuse to be afraid. That I refuse to cow down. That fear was not my prison. That men needed to know that women could and would be a part of the public space. They NEEDED to accept my presence there. I didn’t need to be apologetic about it.
It’s our collective failure that we gave them power over us. It’s our collective failure that we kept quiet too long. It’s our collective failure that we made them think we were weak.
And so yesterday, when I listened to Maya, I remembered what it was like to walk. I remembered the solace I took in the quietness of many nights when I was privileged enough to walk, the chaotic days when the streets were mine. I was filled with melancholy, then helplessness. And eventually angry enough to demand my right. I wanted to walk.
Her words stirred up something inside. It opened the pandora’s box. The feelings which were kept aside for practical purposes. The cravings which were checked, now demanding to break free. To feel my feet on the mother earth which created us. To feel it pound the earth with a purpose. Without a purpose.
When the emotionally charged evening ended, I decided to walk, having parked my car a kilometer away from the Delhi Rising site. It was a pleasant winter evening. Maya’s words echoing in my ears, “Walk, I want to walk.” My female colleague looked at me with uncertain eyes.
“Let’s take an autorickshaw,” she said.
“No, let’s walk,” I replied.
“There is a dark stretch,” she insisted.
“I’ll kick any bastard in the balls who tries to harass us,” I replied in anger.
“No,” she shook her head.
Eventually, we took an autorickshaw till the point where our cars were parked.
One day, I want to walk, really walk. I want to wander the streets enveloped in the blanket of night and discover what secrets it holds. I want to wander the streets in the brightness of the day, smile at strangers and hear their stories.
Because if I can conquer the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day, there will be nothing to fear. Then I can be unafraid. Then I can be free. Free enough to do the most mundane task we humans do.
Essay written after attending the Delhi Rising event as part of the One Billion Rising campaign. Words inspired by Maya Krishna Rao’s powerful monologue at the Delhi Rising event.