Sunday 16 August 2015

The joys of midnight loitering- Neha Singh

Its been more than a year since we started loitering in Bombay, as a physical manifestation of the book 'Why loiter?' by Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade.

Devina Kapoor and I began loitering in parks, streets and chai tapris and before we knew it, the idea caught on and a lot of our friends and acquaintances joined us in our weekly loitering trips. Soon, we got in touch with the authors of the book and they joined us in our adventures too.

As we went on on our journey of loitering as a social and political statement towards making public spaces safer and friendlier to women, we discovered various innovative ways to keep the fun and masti alive. We cycled, we played board games, we read, we visited museums, we sat at chai tapris, we shared our world views, we invited men to come walk with us and we also discovered the very important tool of loitering post midnight.

In India, as in several other countries, night time and women on the streets just doesn't fit. There seems to be no justifiable reason for a woman to be out at night, making herself vulnerable to predators in every nook and cranny, unless she has a very very important reason to be out. In the 21st century, society has stretched its morality a bit to accommodate women out at night for reasons like, 'she works at a call center', 'media ka job hai na', 'it was her birthday and she was out with friends, and her brothers were there too', 'office mein meeting der tak thi', etc. Even when there seems to be a justification like a job or a once in a year type of celebration, parents are worried sick and often daughters take pride in saying, 'my father toh can't sleep only till I come back'.

I was in Delhi recently, performing a show about gender, public space and adolescence called 'Keep calm and hashtag' and the students in the audience said that 'forget night time, we toh aren't even allowed to step out alone in the day', 'my parents say I am like gold and they want to treasure me at home'. A young boy stood up and said, 'well, its not like boys want to rape girls, but if a girl does get raped, maybe it was her kismat'. The principal of a posh, renowned school in Delhi said to us over tea and chocolate brownies, 'have you noticed how all the girls that get raped in Delhi are the migrants, not the ones that are born and brought up in Delhi'. While some of us couldn't swallow the yummy brownies at her discourse, she went on to explain why this is so. 'Its because Delhi girls know how to handle themselves in public, while the ones that come from outside don't, thats why they provoke men to rape them'.

In the middle of all this, we at Why loiter?, decided to start loitering post midnight. Doing absolutely nothing even remotely justifiable, out on the roads, not wearing burqas or head to toe covering outfits, ONLY women, chatting, walking, laughing loudly, stopping, talking, sitting, moving ahead, till 2 or 3 in the morning.

When the Delhi students heard about this, they were shocked, surprised, didnt know how to react, clapped, asked questions, were inspired. I hope some of them find the courage and the motivation to start something like this in Delhi.

For now, a little bit about our post midnight loitering last night. We were three of us, Archana Patel, Pooja Nair and I. We met at Infinity mall Andheri at 11.45 p.m. and began walking towards the Cooper Hospital at Juhu, which is five kilometers away. A common experience at all our midnight loiterings are the auto wallahs that slow down almost a 100 meter as they approach us, and then keep looking our way, because obviously three women walking alone after midnight would NEED an auto, keep looking, keep looking, while we say 'nahi chahiye bhaiyya' a million times but our 'no' seems to totally escape their hearing, because 'obviously three women walking alone after midnight would NEED an auto'. The number of autos that stopped and did the same routine last night made me wonder, would men face a similar invasion when out visibly loitering at night? Also, I wondered where all these autowallahs disappear in the daytime when you are running super late to work!!!

Since it started raining as we turned left from Juhu Circle towards Cooper Hospital around 1.15 a.m, we decided to plonk ourselves on the tiny bench at the bus stop, to save ourselves from getting drenched. As we were animatedly discussing work life and the rains and politics and the state of the environment, a swanky SUV passed by, six middle aged men sitting inside, very fancily dressed and they stared at us as though they had just seen a bunch of tiny dinosaurs sitting at Juhu bus stop. They wanted to see us so much that they took a U turn at the signal, slowed down as they approached us, stared at us shamelessly, like we were straight out of the Ice Age, and then drove away,

We didnt move. It had stopped raining, but we were enjoying our little conversation too much to stop. Then another SUV passed by, also filled with educated and 'good family' men, and they stared at us too like we were, this time maybe they thought we were the three fire spitting dragons of the Queen Deneyrys Targayryen (you watch Game of Thrones, right?) They gaped at us, they 'checked us out', maybe they even said something to us (we were too busy chatting to pay any attention), they slowed down their car almost to a halt, and then drove on. A man with a gunny bag full of garbage came and dumped it close to the bus stop, 'checked us out', kept standing and staring at us for about five minutes, and then walked away.

Well, what can I say, some things transcend caste and class boundaries.
Indian women, for sure, know what animals in zoos feel like.

Anyway, we finished chatting and then headed to the brightly lit street side food joint adjacent to Cooper Hospital. To our much delight, there were truckloads of families there enjoying mmidnight snacks of pav bhaji, bhajia, sandwiches, falooda, dosas, uttapams and other delicious stuff. The place was so crowded that we had to wait almost twenty minutes before an extremely busy waiter came and took our order. We gorged on the most delicious pav bhaji and Rose Falooda.

We were done with our midnight adventures around 2.30 a.m, and all three of us headed in different directions. We had had a beautiful time together, in the cool breezy, traffic less night, inspite of the 'men from good families dressed in posh clothes and driving SUVs', the over zealous autowallahs that disappear in the day, the shamelessly staring rag picker and many other elements of a society that 'doesn't allow' its women to be 'unsafe' that we didn't have time to observe because we were having so much fun.

Midnight loitering is so much fun. I am sure most men have had the experience, but I want to ask all the women out there that haven't done it to try it out, just once, and enjoy the lonely, breezy, quiet streets at night with your girlfriends.

To end on a funny note, the same Principal that had her own theory of who gets raped in Delhi, why and by who, when I told her about our midnight loiterings she asked me if my parents allow me to do it, and without waiting for an answer, went on to inform us that she would NEVER allow her daughters to step out at night alone, especially the unmarried one. Her statements were so funny that I forgot to ask her why the stress on the 'unmarried' one?

Here's to a city, a country, and a world full of more women loitering on the streets in the 'unsafe' hours and experiencing their own cities without the hustle bustle of the daytime, just staring at the moon and the stars and walking on the roads without worrying about predators and protectors.