It was 10 minutes to midnight, a starless sky; cold, like how February can be in North India. I was waiting inside a car, outside a dhaba near a toll gate in Mathura on the Agra express highway. Vehicles whizzed past, yet there was no sign of the sleeper bus that I was to board to get to a town called Jalaun, 300 km away, by 5.30 am.
When I told this to the Bengalurean friend who was on chat, he was aghast. “What? Traveling alone, at night, by bus, that too in UP?? Which woman does that?”
I was not on some life-risking mission, I was only getting from place A to B on my job – as a journalist visiting Uttar Pradesh as it votes for itself a new government. Just that place B happened to be in Bundelkhand, a region notorious in my childhood and in Hindi cinema as the land of the ‘Chambal ke daaku’ (gangs looting money, property and farm produce of villagers).
Bundelkhand, which covers seven districts of UP and six of Madhya Pradesh, has treacherous terrain and copious river water. What it doesn’t, is a good PR manager. Else, we would have been told, “Don’t worry, dacoit gangs are past; this is the land that cradled Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai and poet Tulsidas”, or what I self-discovered -- Jalaun is India’s largest producer of green peas.
Back to my midnight journey. The bus arrived; Faisal, the driver I had been tracking on phone, greeted me with a “Namaste, Madam”, and his helper showed me to my upper berth seat. The next 5.5 hours were a ‘fall asleep if you can’ challenge. The bus boy yelling out names every half hour of the towns that were coming up, besides that torture most sleeper buses in the world unleash on you – the freezing AC.
Amit, the young sarpanch (headman) of village Malakpura in Jalaun, who I was to meet and interview for his good work I had read about, was there on his motorbike, to pick me up at the bypass, embarrassed how I may have felt about the journey. I told him it wasn’t the best, but did I feel unsafe? No.
I was cautious, watchful, covering myself well, just about how I would be on similar solo journeys midnight anywhere in India. But, no – did not feel unsafe at all.
And that is how it has been for me in UP. Or in West Bengal last year, where I travelled from the Sunderbans up to Cooch Behar for 18 days during the elections there.
This is not to discount crimes that happen to women travellers, but to show how we brand a state or an entire country unsafe for women, often unfairly. Creeps can lurk anywhere -- in the US, UP, Udhampur or Usilampatti. Does that mean we stop going out?
The more that women travel on their own – or are allowed to by families and spouses who smother them with overprotection – the more the places will begin to become safe. Most often, people are not used to seeing women out. A decade ago, when work would take me to small towns, what worried me was not the travel, but ‘how to go sit alone at a table and ask for tea’? I felt everyone around must think how weird I am to be alone. With phones into which you can bury your face, that bit is now sorted for most women and all shy people.
I have since then trained myself because that guilt is mine. No one asked me to feel awkward. It is only years of social conditioning that we think it is okay for men to just hanging around a cinema hall or hotel doing nothing, but not okay for us women to be on our own. If a woman has to be somewhere, she has to be ‘doing something’.
Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade of Mumbai’s renowned TISS wrote exactly this 10 years ago in their seminal book Why Loiter? telling women gently, to loiter. To walk around in their cities, small towns, to reclaim spaces that they are told: “don’t go alone”. Bengaluru’s Jasmeen Patheja started Blank Noise to change attitudes towards ‘eve-teasing’. The group works with bus drivers, conductors, traffic cops and others to sensitise them, who then become enablers of women’s safety. The next time you have a bunch of ‘Earned Leave’ to spend, try solo travel.
Ekla Chalo, like Tagore said. Walk alone.
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