On August 30, 2017, Mumbai recorded 486 mm of rainfall. The roads were flooded, buses stranded, trains stopped, and Mumbai was rendered immobile. An eight months pregnant Siddhi, was stranded in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area. The person accompanying Siddhi informed her friend Marian D’costa about the situation. Marian then tweeted about Siddhi’s situation. Within hours, over 70 people offered to help Siddhi and host her in their homes. Many braved the rains to look for her and the Mumbai Police intervened soon after. She was then taken by them to the home of one of the hosts who’d offered to help her.
On July 26, 2005, like millions of Mumbaikars, business consultant Banu Shridhar was stranded in the floods. Seven months pregnant, she was stuck in a cab for 24 hours without food and water. If only Banu had the reach of social media during 26/7, she could’ve been spared traumatic experiences.
On Tuesday, Mumbai was drenched in chaos and infrastructural loopholes (and potholes), but its people came to the rescue. Twitter and Facebook users started offering help to host people across Mumbai. Soon, a crowdsourced list of hosts and a website called mumbairains.org was created to help the stranded find temporary shelter. A hashtag #RainHosts started trending in Mumbai.
But for a lot of women, hosting or finding shelter through the internet was a strange experience. Even in the face of disaster, the question of safety arose. How does one trust a stranger from the internet? For many, it was an awkward experience; they had to deal with prejudices that came with conditioning and age. Women using social media in the face of a natural disaster also had to make peace with the strangeness of opening themselves and to trust blindly, something we’ve been taught all our lives not to.
For Ekta Koparde*, a software professional in Mumbai, talking to people does not come easy. An introvert, she finds it very difficult to ask people for help. But she didn’t have another choice when she was stranded waist deep near the notorious Milan subway in Andheri on Tuesday. Through mumbairains.org, she managed to contact a host called Niranjan*. She then walked to his home (which was 500 meters away) tired, drenched and nervous. She had difficulty talking to known people, let alone strangers. On reaching his home, she found that he lived alone. Now, apprehension followed nervousness. “I thought he lived with his family. How do I just stay with a complete stranger alone?” she exclaims.
But Niranjan, a journalist, gave her clothes to change into, made her some staple rain food — Maggi and chai. She liked that he didn’t force her to talk. Slowly, they started talking to each other about Mumbai rain and each others’ lives. She found herself trusting him a little more. She felt a little less tense. That they both shared similar taste in music and loved reading poetry helped the cause. “We spent four hours just listening to music together and reading out Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s work. I don’t know how I went from feeling terribly nervous to having a tiny crush on him. It was ridiculous how filmy it was. I didn’t say anything about it though. I slept, had breakfast in the morning and left.” But Ekta intends to call him soon, for a non-emergency chai. This time, with a little less apprehension.
If apprehension–to-crush was Ekta’s story, kindness-to-disgust was Karishma Khemlani’s. Karishma was helping people reaching out to her on Twitter, to find temporary shelter. But was she found herself in was getting hit on by a shelter-seeker.
Matlab try to help someone and you have to deal with this. pic.twitter.com/wpTSqnEdLL
— Karishma (@The_Karishma) August 29, 2017
She says, “I was trying to help people. The last thing I want to do is flirt.” Even in a disaster situation, women have had to be mindful about safety from men. Imagine opening up your homes, only to find unwanted advances from men?
But advances are not the only things that worry women. Apprehension about accepted behaviour in a complete stranger’s home also bothered a few, especially older women. For them, the idea of going to a stranger’s home to sleepover is an incomprehensible one. This becomes even more difficult to accept if it’s a man’s home. Many Indian mothers have problems with their adult sons and daughters staying over at their friends’ homes. It’s a huge adjustment for women their age to stay at a stranger’s home. My mother, for example, downright refused to co-operate. Firstly, she had no access to the internet. Along with her colleague Lata, she was stuck in South Mumbai. Both women were insistent that they’d prefer to go back home, which was an hour away by train. But of course, trains were at a standstill. They had no relatives or friends in South Mumbai.
After 20 minutes of arguing in the rain, my mother agreed to let me find a temporary home for her and Lata. Through #RainHosts, I found 59-year-old Sangeeta and 62-year-old Vishwanath Iyer living 10 minutes away from my mum’s office, willing to host them. Very reluctantly, Lata aunty and my mum went to their home. For the first half an hour, my mother just kept profusely thanking Sangeeta and Vishwanath. She says, “What could I have done? I had nothing to say except ‘thank you’. I didn’t know what was the accepted behaviour in their house. It was very uncomfortable.”
But Sangeeta, a Carnatic music teacher, was a gracious host. According to Lata aunty, sensing my mother’s discomfort, Sangeeta started talking to her in Tamil. “Once they both started talking in Tamil, Raji [my mother] started getting more comfortable. They even discussed their favourite Carnatic singers. Sangeeta is the warmest lady I have met,” says Lata aunty.
If on one hand, older women like my mother had to deal with the discomfort of an alien environment, on the other, they had to deal with their own class prejudices while hosting people. Rekha Shinde*, a web developer in Kandivali, had registered herself as a host on mumbairains.org. A woman named Abhinaya* asked her for shelter and Rekha agreed. Abhinaya then told her that she was accompanied by Abhinaya’s domestic worker, Archana*. Since she’d already given her word, Rekha could not refuse her. But she felt uncomfortable with having Archana live with them, something she does not like to admit to herself. She knew this would cause even more trouble for her parents, who were already reluctant at having strangers in their home. She recounts, “But once my parents started talking to both of them, they slowly started easing into it. Abhinaya and Archana, in fact, helped make breakfast for us in the morning. It helped me and especially my mother recognise that our prejudices were false-bottomed. Abhinaya and Archana were so nice!”
Even if we open our doors and shed prejudices like Rekha and her mother did, safety never stops being a concern for women hosting strangers. Shweta Sangtani, a lawyer based in Mumbai had similar apprehensions. She was alone at home when she offered to host two strangers through Twitter on Tuesday. Her husband was himself wading through water to make it home and would not reach home till 8 pm. But when two gentlemen asked her for help after being stuck on the highway, she could not refuse them.
Cautiously, she welcomed them into her home. But the fact that both hosts were related to her profession really helped her ease into it. She says, “The younger guy works in a start-up that works with lawyers while the older man himself is a lawyer. Such a small world. We kept talking about banking and litigation laws, since he was majorly connected to the banking sector.” The older man also offered the sweets he’d bough for his wife. “He gave it us to saying it will get spoilt by the time he gets back home. My husband and I munched on it heartily,” she adds.
After years of looking over shoulders, it’s instinctive for women to be careful about whom they let into their homes. But if there’s anything these women’s accounts describe, it is that in spite of valid safety concerns, they found warmth and welcome in strangers’ homes. What a liberating and revealing feeling it must be for these women to walk into a stranger’s home and find welcoming food and kindred spirits; to find that despite our differences, there is still room for compassion.
For some women it helped reinforce their concerns for safety. But for most, it changed perspective about apprehension towards taking candy from strangers. There are still major concerns for women’s safety in Mumbai, but an entire social network of kindness proved we have reason to hope for better days, even with our streets and homes flooding.
* names have been changed to protect privacy
Co-published with Firstpost