Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oh Delhi!


The Jantar Mantar is an architectural observatory
Delhi versus Bombay arguments happen all the time in India, something that adds spice to a first date or an after dinner conversation, not unlike Hong Kong-Singapore showdowns or the NYC-LA face-offs. If Delhi is loud and all brag, Bombay is mercenary and all hustle. If Mumbai claims the crown for business and cinema, Dilli has her four thousand year history to tote. If a Mumbaikar moans over the small town mentality of the Delhiite, Dilliwalas scoff at the miserable Bombay existence. However, one subject brooks no discussion. Delhi is a grim place for women. It is universally agreed that it resembles a frontier town in the Wild West, where everything a woman says or does, including how she carries herself, can become a serious matter, with consequences ranging from the merely disturbing to the truly horrific. And women like us, old timers who came of age in our nation’s capital, have our stock of war stories, yarns that we dourly trade, woman to woman, pretending to more bravery than we felt, reliving the danger and inflating the risks we took… sometimes even sharing the outrage and the shame. 
Jantar Mantar at Delhi

I was sixteen when one Delhi winter morning, my friends talked me into going to the Jantar Mantar. On a vague impulse, we raced up a structure in the architectural observatory. The lack of a parapet brought on the usual tingling in my palms and feet, but it was on the way down that I took in the steep and narrow steps; I was seized by an attack of vertigo. Resting my slippery left hand on the wall, I sat my way down, taking care not to look at the amazed faces of my friends, or the sheer drop on the right. I had been so busy chalking the route back home that I had forgotten my immediate problem of heights.

When I see the crowds on television, protesting at Jantar Mantar in the aftermath of the unbearable atrocity of 16th December 2012, I am reminded again of how I was always afraid to soar high or venture far in Delhi. Every independent outing during my girl hood was attended by a detailed retreat strategy.

So getting back from Jantar Mantar—we would get off at the main INA Colony bus stop, where one of my mates, lucky girl, lived. I had choices. I could take a bus home, with the usual problem of harassment on the bus and the bus stop. I hated buses, even before I was groped, which was before I knew a prepubescent school child could be squeezed by a clean cut Zaheer Abbas look-alike, and that a busload of men, old and young, could find this funny. I did two things that day – I cut the side seams of my kurta higher, so they would be baggier, and I decided I would not board a Delhi bus alone. But we were not rich, car rides were out of question.


Interestingly the Cambodians see themselves as descended from an Indian prince and a Naga princess
Primal genocide - Khandava Massacre
I could walk then. If I walked, I could take the shortcut­­—past a Government boys’ school, over a sewage canal with pigs rooting in refuse, and through a dense neighbourhood arranged around a lovely tomb that I never thought of exploring. The deserted and noxious bridge was the only part of the way that was not nerve wracking. I invariably took the long walk home, skirting the market and the residential colonies, hugging the main roads, ignoring likewise the parallel feeder lanes on my left, and the whizzing traffic to my right; disregarding my mother’s maxim that safety lay in crowds. Where the likelihood of harassment is high, you seek solitude and pray.  I got lucky, for in my sporadic outings over four years, I did not meet too many people on this route. Two, to be precise and on both occasions they justified my trust in the misogyny of the Delhi male, though nothing terrible happened, nothing worse than what I was used to, all par for the course. One boy muttered an obscenity as I passed him, (I was wounded by the “fat” he prefixed to it). He tried to follow me but backed off when I shouted at him. The other time, I was punched hard in my chest by a passing cyclist. I doubled over in pain and shock. I had not expected bicycles on Ring Road and that kind of anonymous hatred was a bit much, but I was not too affected, it was my last week in Delhi, my cursed capital city that has been burnt and sacked and rebuilt so many times. 
Delhi massacres - Timur, Nadir Shah 

Delhi has folded into her lap the terror of the mythical Nagas of the Mahabharata, whose forest homes were gutted to make way for Indraprastha, her first and prehistoric avatar. Delhi has soaked up the blood of the one hundred thousand men beheaded by Timor the Lame outside her gates on December 16, 1398—yes it was the same date. In the course of six hours in March 1739, she embraced the twenty thousand men, women and children who fell to Nadir Shah’s Persian army. And she watched mutely in September 1857, in these, our modern, enlightened, times, as her lofty princes of Mughal blood were stripped and strung up on the roadside like so many ruffians in the dark ages. I had had enough of Delhi and her bloody history. I moved on to Chennai and Kolkata to study, then to Mumbai to find work. 

I have since trekked in the Sahyadri Ghats of Maharashtra and the Himalayan foothills of Meghalaya, I have sung in college bands and worked nights as an Investment Banker; I have taken buses, trains, cabs and auto rickshaws, and walked, in the wee hours of the morning in all these parts of India; I have travelled the length and breadth of my country. Six months ago, I got onto the road in Mumbai to stand before a public bus coming down at my taxi, so we could get the leeway needed to make the impossible about turn my young cabbie had embarked on before he froze mid road ( ‘I hate this’, he had cried. My heart went out to him and we chatted the rest of the way. He was from Gorakhpur, looked no more than seventeen. I am not sure if I would reach out like that again.)

 I hope I am not a coward. But I have not gone back to Delhi.


I passed Darya Khan's tomb everyday, never thinking to explore it
Delhi chat
I have not been to Delhi for fifteen years, though I miss her so, her brash energy and her old history, her emporia of bargains and her wistful weather beaten beauty. But I dare not ride a bus in the city I grew up in, or take a walk to enjoy the best street side food in the country, or go off to explore any of the innumerable ruins redolent with untold stories that dot the city, not without an escort and the trappings of privilege–chauffeur driven cars, chalked out itineraries, experienced guides.

And so I salute the Delhi girls who by choice or circumstance use public transport for their daily commute. Some are born courageous, some have courage thrust on them, but they are all brave Delhi women.

10 comments:

sinsationscakes said...

Hi Bhavani,
That was beautifully written! I can empathize completely! I was in Delhi for 2 years as a 14 and 15 year old and hated it with my traumatised heart. I revisited after 25 years and found it a beautiful though soulless city.
Last year I did a presentation on Delhi and relearned its haunting and enthralling history. It was wonderful...but I would never choose to live there.
R

K said...

Thank you! I would like to see your presentation on Delhi..

K said...

Thank you! I would like to see your presentation on Delhi..

N M Sundar said...

I like the writing. Great connections.. Nice finish...

sinsationscakes said...

Hi Bhavani,
I spent two years in Delhi and live to hate Holi to this day! And I was 13. There is something inhuman about the men of the Hindi speaking belt...ok so that is a generalization, but these men seem to despise and disrespect women as human beings.

saadhaka said...

I grew up as a Mumbaikar. In one sense fearless. Yet, even in Mumbai girls got harassed.
But in Delhi the level was/is entirely different. There was a level of fear even among the men if women were accompanying, to go to a public place after dark.
I was at my cousins early 80's. My army cousin brother along with 2 other army friends of his said they were walking to the end of the lane to a paanwalla and asked us women of the house what we wanted. I got up and said I'll accompany them. They all sat down and talk contd. After a while I naively reminded them, lets go for paan. No one made a move. My cousin sister then took me aside and said, we girls can't go as its late. Only 10 pm to me! So I confronted why not? Usually undiscussed or the reason appears so obvious to them that what's to discuss.
And they explained, that encounters happen with gangs wielding knives. Even if they can fight and overcome them, there will be injuries, accidental deaths - etc. - why get into such a situation?
Perfectly reasonable.
But I realize now that all good folks stay out of the public after dark and the predators have the monopoly of the streets, roaming and hunting without fear.
What I fear is that dropping ratios of females will only increase violence against women.
Sincerely hope this tragic event galvanizes a movement for real change in the capital- starting with the police, the politician and the judiciary- impelled by the public.

saadhaka said...

Its not saadhaka, its Arundhati. Did not realize the comment got uploaded as Sundar's Geeta Blogger account

saadhaka said...

Its not saadhaka, its Arundhati. Did not realize the comment got uploaded as Sundar's Geeta Blogger account

K said...

Thanks Arundhati for your comments. I know what you are talking about, because I had the opposite experience! I went to my cousin's in Mumbai, in 1985 and after a lovely hectic trip - I could not get over the fact that the gorgeous girls from Bandra, dressed in the trendiest of fashions, got onto buses- my mother was moaning that she did not find time to shop and my aunt, confused-like, asked, "Why can you not go now?"

But it was already 630 PM! Would the shops not close? Was it safe?

It was 830 PM when we returned from Elco Market in an auto, and I never felt more liberated. You must experience confinement to enjoy freedom! I am not given to making judgments but that was the day I decided that this Bombay was a good place!

K said...

Hi R,

I think it is a cynicism born of terrible brutalisation? But I have some issues with Chennai too - there is institutional pressure on women to dress in a certain way (Engineering college girls cannot wear jeans for example !!!), have unreasonable curfews in hostels etc. It can get terrible there too! I studied in Chennai, so I suffered that!

K