By Mahananda Bohidar
For five of out of the eight years that I’ve spent in Madras, I lived across a playground. The view from my balcony was quite something. A high-rise far away in the horizon, a field of burnt ochre and a canopy of bright green and yellow shielding my perch on the balcony.
The playground would throb with life and laughter at certain times of the day. In the quiet of dawn, an enthusiastic and surprisingly fit thaatha would make spirited rounds of the playground. Soon after, it would only be boys — young and old, big and small, short and tall — gracing the playground with their quick footwork, turning the soil red with hours of grit and sweat. Sometimes I’d wake up to uncharacteristically loud marching beats. It was a steady reminder of Republic Day being about a week away. Sometimes, vans would line the periphery of the playground, cinema equipment being dragged out of it — the tall, handsome hero waiting in his vanity van till the director yelled incomprehensible nothings into the loudspeaker. The Tamil equivalents of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ would get on my nerves while the local sports association would fete the winners of the annual sports competition they held. But what bothered me the most — and still does — is the fact that never in those five years did I see a girl play, run or even take a walk in that playground.
Often, I found myself complaining about this to my friends. Mostly, those friends were male, who did their best to understand and sympathise. They really did. Every time I complained, I made sure it was accompanied by a deep thoughtful sigh. The sigh of a martyr. The sigh that’s the birthright of someone who’s been denied space. “Public spaces do not belong to women,” I found myself saying over and over again. “Do you look over your shoulder as you’re walking back home after 9 pm?” “Do you ever feel the need to cross the road when you see someone walking towards you?” “Do you get mistaken for a hooker if you sit alone by the beach after sunset?” It’d usually be followed by a “No. Oh my God. Really?”. “That’s horrible.” More sympathetic nods. A comforting envelope of non-verbal “there-theres”.
I had begun to love delivering these mini-sessions of ‘Gender Privilege 101’. It was a massive ego boost to know that I’d helped sensitise my male friends to gender privilege. And we’d go happily along our own ways after.
As all good things do, my semi-smugness came to an end about two weeks ago. Having moved closer to the beach, I started going to the beach for a walk every morning. I’d walk. Others would walk. Some would jog. And some would run like the wind. Women walked with dupattas over T-shirts. And ran with forearms swinging to cover their breasts with every step they took. I did neither. No dupattas. Also, no running. After the walk, I would usually sit and meditate by the beach. And, no offence to Buddha, but one day as I sat under a tree the horror of what I’d been doing dawned on me.
I, despite being a staunch feminist, was very much part of the problem. All the while that I’d been blaming others for alienating women in public spaces, I’d made sure I made myself invisible every time I stepped out of the house. I’d stopped taking buses and local trains a long time ago. My excuses ranged from “It’s too hot” to “It’s too polluted” to “I’m running late” to “People sweat too much in a bus”. I’d stopped wearing sleeveless clothes so as to not stand out on Chennai roads. A quick visit to the mom and pop store around the corner would see me kick-starting my bike. Even when I walked, it was never a walk. It was always a stride. With purpose. In one direction. Fast.
Refusing to perpetuate and give in to the same fear and alienation that haunts most Indian women, I chose the beach as my place of penitence. For the first time ever, I started running to repent and to reclaim. On the first day, it was unsettling but for every person who looked my way, I’d tell myself, “This space, the beach, the breeze, the right to be is as much yours as it’s theirs.” I stopped hunching my shoulders. I stopped making myself smaller. I started taking full breaths. My chest rising and falling with every step I took. It was a liberation I had never felt before. As I ran, people watched. I never made eye contact. As the days went by, people still watched as I ran. But I smiled.
I ran for myself and the lady shyly jogging on the other side of the track. I ran because I have every right to. I also ran for a future where my daughter never has to feel like she doesn’t belong. I ran for a playground that will have both girls and boys kicking up dust. I ran for a time when girls can walk down roads whenever they want, wherever they want, wearing whatever they want. And, I will continue to run till that day comes. It’s one of the many small, only seemingly inconsequential things I can do till the day no woman feels the need to write an article like this. Till then I will run. And, you can watch. Or…
Mahananda Bohidar is a feminist who loves travelling, teaching and learning. She belongs to Orissa and calls Madras home, for now.