At 6 in the morning, the vast stretch of National Highway 1 rolls out into the gradient sky. The road is empty but for early-bird travellers speeding past and bulky trucks slowing down in exhaustion. Around 45 km from Delhi, inconspicuous shacks with nondescript signboards begin to materialise. Pahalwan, Gulshan, Sunil… the names signify a subculture that is essential to Indian highways. The dhaba welcomes us into its curious world of blaring Bollywood music and spicy food, as well as inadvertent stares and blunt questions. “Where have you come from?” asks a trucker in front of Pahalwan Dhaba. “Will you take my photo?” interjects another. In the entire Murthal stretch with around seven-eight dhabas, there are no women. But we are soon left to our own devices, and we make our way in and order tawa paranthas.
Up until May this year, this excursion would have featured in a conversation without rousing any new interest. The dhabas are an inimitable space that never yields, especially to a lone woman visitor. But not too far in Karachi, Pakistan, a group of seven women have managed to use dhabas as a point of reference. Every other day, this collective, in their 20s and early 30s, performs a simple task of hanging out at dhabas. The result is the popular Tumblr #girlsatdhabas on social networking sites, and the response has been overwhelming. “It’s not that other women don’t do this, but you have to consider the numbers. They are disturbingly low,” says Sadia Khatri, a journalist in her 20s and one of the members of the group. “It’s rare to see a woman in Karachi hanging or chilling by the roadside.”
#girlsatdhabas is refreshing not just for its simple ‘Let’s go to a dhaba’ approach, but also for its many interpretations. “It started with dhabas because that was already a part of our routines. The #girlsatdhabas hashtag serves a larger idea,” says Khatri. “We’re not familiar with the dhaba culture in all the South Asian countries, so we ask contributors to identify similar spaces in their communities and explain the context where necessary.” The Tumblr, which has most of its contributions from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, surges forward with more than just chai and samosas. One can even see women playing street cricket.
Seasoned women travellers often abide by the loyalty that dhabas and their buttery aloo paranthas demand. A survey conducted by travel site Tripadvisor (Women Traveller Survey 2015) even suggests that 47 per cent women in India prefer to travel solo. Delhi-based travel writer Supriya Sehgal has stopped by at countless dhabas in states such as Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan. “I always choose dhabas because of the rich local flavours,” says the 33-year-old. “Most importantly, I travel with a male driver. Sharing that space when we sit across the table and eat breaks barriers on so many levels.” Sehgal’s dhaba ethic is fuss-free. “Some people are finicky about hygiene, but I am not a stickler. I prefer eating in dhabas because the food is fresh as they can’t refrigerate food the next day,” says Sehgal, who usually carries her own water.
For Bangalore-based travel blogger Laxmi Sharath, 41, the curiosity that women encounter at dhabas is typical of semi-urban India. “In such places, locals want to know your entire history — where have I come from, what do I do, where I am going, and so on. I usually do not stop at dhabas alone, except when I am travelling by bus with other passengers. Dhaba people are curious in a nicer way. But you need to be on your guard nonetheless,” she says. Preferring to stop at dhabas in the mornings and early evenings, she finds the shabby toilets a peeve. Nevertheless, she recalls with fondness her jaunts into the dhabas around Bangalore with friends.
Chandigarh-based Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu has never had a dull moment at dhabas in the 20 years she has been travelling. “I have eaten at dhabas across the country. I think staying on the road gives you a heightened sense of where to stop and where not to,” says the 45-year-old. She has even found dhaba staff who look out for her. “If the crowd in dhabas isn’t for you, then they ask you to wait in the car and serve you there,” she says.
The last leg of our dhaba trail brings us to the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway. A cluttered establishment called Throttle Shrottle hints at its specific clientele. Held together with a variety of bike parts, the place has an unusual aesthetic. In the wee hours of the weekend morning, we meet 21-year-old Stuti Rastogi and 19-year-old Neha Shiral. They look unfazed in their elbow and knee pads and leather jackets as they manoeuvre their bikes to a halt. For women bikers, however, even the streets become an intimidating space. “Of course we get to hear a lot of lewd comments,” says Rastogi, who comes from a conservative Kanpur family. “Some call out on streets and say, mard ban rahi hai (She is trying to be a man). Those who are more aware give me a thumbs-up. I guess we are all used to it,” she says.
The numbers are too small to make up a movement. But occupying the space goes a long way to send out the message. “We don’t want to make grand claims,” says Khatri. “We’re really more interested in what we can do for each other; how can we help each other to overcome our paranoia, to reconsider our own relationships with our cities and the lines of fear in our heads,” she says.
The story appeared in print with the headline Because A Girl Needs Her Aloo Parantha