By Ila Ananya
I have a friend who likes to tell me about all the walks he takes near his house at night in Hyderabad, after his roommates fall asleep. He lives in the middle of nowhere, but there’s a chai and sutta stall near his house that’s open until late at night. It’s right next to a tiny biryani joint whose name he refuses to tell me until I go visit it myself, but he claims that Rahim bhaiya, who works there, makes better biryani than Paradise in Hyderabad. Then he asks me where I go for walks at night in Bengaluru, and I can only think of particular roads near home that I’d like to walk down, and the park that I’d like to sit at. I’ve never done either.
This is the conversation I’m reminded of when Jasmine Lovely George, a feminist activist and independent researcher working on issues related to sexuality and law, organises a walk in Bangalore with the Law and Gender Forum. She is the founder of Hidden Pockets, a mapping project on sexuality and spaces, and the walk’s Facebook page announces that we’ll be on the lookout for what Hidden Pockets calls pleasure pockets — places where one feels comfortable, happy, and has fun. It’s a mapping exercise they had even undertaken in Delhi, where they asked women to describe places they went to and enjoyed being in. Connaught Place for instance, was safe, secure, entertaining, and busy; Lodhi Gardens was considered safe, secure, and peaceful.
When we begin, almost 20 of us — mostly women and a couple of men— walk from the university down towards Dairy Circle. Almost everyone is a law student at Christ University. Our first stop is under the Dairy Circle flyover. Vehicles around us are honking madly, and when we huddle around Jasmine in a circle, she tells us that when she studied at Christ, the road we had just walked down was the same road that girls wouldn’t frequent alone at night. It had been years since she graduated from Christ University, but this main road still didn’t have lights. It was the absence of lights, a lot of young women said, that made them uncomfortable — the reason they didn’t venture outside at night alone.
Ever since the molestation of women on Brigade Road in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve, Bengaluru has been in the news. Just like Delhi has come to be known as the rape capital of India, Bengaluru, which had been considered a safer city than others, has been deemed unsafe for women. There is a sudden increase in newspaper reports on cases of rape and stalking in Bengaluru. “What is happening to this city?” – a friend of mine who has grown up here asks. My grandmother, who until New Year’s Eve only complained very quietly about my late nights — and she never complained to me — gets upset every time I tell her I will be late coming home: “People nowadays are like that,” she tells me, “you know like what.”
As all of us students between the ages of 20 and 25 stand below the flyover near Dairy Circle, Jasmine tells us that the idea is that, whatever the time of the day, these streets are not to be feared in any way. She stamps her legs hard as she says this — “Feel this city, your city,” she tells us. The boys nod more easily. Next to me, a girl, who I learn later is in her third year of law school, whispers to her friend that the problem isn’t the streets but some of the men on the streets. Her friend nods but whispers back a few seconds later, “That’s no reason for us not to be on it, no?”
Almost at this appropriate moment, Jasmine warns us that we’re not here to protest. There are many events being organised in Bengaluru after the incidents on New Year’s Eve — women have decided to organise a human chain event called ‘Touch Me Not’, outside Vidhana Soudha, and others have organised a walk on Brigade Road at night, called ‘I Will Go Out’. The two girls next to me keep whispering about the places they’d like to visit alone at night: SG Palya park, a sutta shop, Russel market, a small dingy bar near their college that’s actually only for men. I think of the park and roads near my house that I’d like to sit at and the young college-going men who make me uncomfortable when I’m there, even at 7 in the evening.
It becomes clear later in the walk that everyone has strict ideas of what should and shouldn’t be allowed in each of these places. As we finally stand outside a locked up and dark park in SG Palya — the same one that the girls were whispering about, where Jasmine says she used to jog and be harassed all the time — it’s obvious that there are only men driving around on these roads with just a few streetlights. Most of the young women (particularly those who had come to Bengaluru from other parts of the country), and men in the group decide that drinking or smoking up shouldn’t be allowed in the park. The girl standing opposite me tries to feign a less guilty expression and then laughs when she sees that I’m doing the same. By the time I turn away from her to the man who’s talking — he later says he’s affiliated to RSS, and a law student — I hear him announce that making out in public spaces is just a big no, because how could we allow a mother walking down the road with a four-year-old daughter see this?
And then, an argument breaks out. Three women — all perhaps around 22 years old — turn to him and tell him it’s their road, and that he should just look away. Suddenly, the conversations become about safety. “What would be worse, being raped, or being murdered?” Jasmine asked us, but nobody answered. The solution, two men decided, lay in CCTV cameras. “I won’t have this government watching me,” a girl told him, “I get enough of that from my family.” From that moment on, the RSS man began to announce that we (commies and feminists, he called us) didn’t know much. When he began to yell Bharat Mata Ki Jai at the end of the walk, everyone told him to shut up and walked away quickly.
We begin to walk back towards Christ University from Srinivasa theatre, and the group began to split up. It was 10.15 pm. In front of me, two girls were walking down the road — the same road we had walked down previously because students had told Jasmine they felt unsafe there. The girls were laughing, sipping on juice they had bought at Sreeraj Lassi Bar. It was their road.
Co-published with Firstpost.