Today I read this article in the Hindu discussing how Mumbai is still a safe city (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/mumbai-is-still-a-safe-city/article5068736.ece).
As I read it, I could only feel the urgency and restlessness felt in Mumbai after every horrific incident be it bomb blasts, rapes or floods to simply move on in life. It has been dubbed as resilience, economic need and some even honestly say – helplessness.
I am from Mumbai. I identify with this sense of restlessness most of the times. After the July 11, 2006 local train blasts I did travel on trains the very next day parroting the comforting idea that the “terrorists are not crazy enough to attack on two consequent days”. Yes, I have been guilty of saying “now what can we really do…other than get on with our own lives”.
But as I read the above article today morning, it annoyed me because I felt like we are clutching at straws here trying to make sure we are not so overly affected by what happened that it interferes with our lives. The writer in this article, explicitly explains the rules of protecting one’s body from harassment. She says, “Every woman has had to learn to cope. Shielding your body with your elbows and your handbag as best as you can; turning around swiftly to confront the groper behind you; avoiding deserted roads late at night as well as roads full of drunken men (on New Year’s Eve or Holi); never travelling in the general compartment of a local train except when — and this is crucial — the ladies’ compartment is either full or empty; and learning to ignore stares and comments, are some of the ground rules one breaks at one’s own risk. There’s no getting away from these rules if you want to feel confident enough to be on the move any time in Mumbai.”
One can say similar rules apply when you travel in the Delhi Metro or in the buses in Chennai or walk the streets in Bangalore. So how is it that you get to feel safer than what the reality around you is?
The article does go on to make references to education, having policemen in the ladies compartment and touches the issue of immigration in passing. I appreciate nothing more than solutions in place of rants but even I for once felt that it no longer matters trying to reclaim Mumbai’s image. This is not Mumbai’s problem alone – it is a problem across India. The fact that women are back on trains/buses traveling in the night is not a sign of things getting better it is only a sign of the willingness of the city to anesthetize itself to not having to think about the scale and magnitude of the issue in front of it.
For once I wish Mumbai did not want to get on with it. I wish it had the tenacity to hang in there and fight. Fight not by reclaiming its public space and going about its business BUT fight by not forgetting and for the lack of a better phrase “by creating a scene”. You can ask me derisively about all those protests which followed the case in December 2012 in Delhi – what happened after that or about the incidents of harassment in the protests itself (which we may all self righteously say would have never happened in Mumbai). My answer will only be silence.
I write today only to remind you that it is not normal to wear your backpack in the front to ensure no one feels up your breasts. It is not normal to search for a place to lean your back on and have a male friend stand protectively with his arms on your either side like a mini enclosure of your own just because you got into the general compartment. It is not normal to clutch the seat handle in the front instead of the holding overhead in a crowded bus to make sure no is pinching your sides. It is not normal when the auto driver adjusts his mirror to focus on your breasts. It is not normal when you go to Siddhivinayak to pray with half your mind wondering if the guy behind you is just in a hurry to merge with the Lord or is he pressing himself against your back for some perverse pleasure.
It is does not matter that it takes only three days after what happened in Shakthi mills to make you feel safe. It does not matter because honestly, you are only feeling safe thinking about how Mumbai is “safer” than the mental pictures you have of say Delhi, UP or Bihar completely forgetting that all of these states belong to the same country as you do. Stop using pathetic yardsticks to measure how safe you feel and you will realise you are as vulnerable as any other woman is.
It is not about cowering in fear every time we step out. But if we start feeling safe just because of our ability to look away and live within constructed, convoluted rules then where does change begin?