A little over a month after a photojournalist was gangraped in Mumbai,five women talk of why they wont give up travelling late at night in the city.
Researcher and activist
Raised in south Mumbais Mohammed Ali Road,Hasina Khan is a thoroughbred Mumbaikar,whose job as a womens activist and researcher finds her in unlikely pockets of the city,from where she returns home alone sometimes as late as 3 am. Sometimes,after midnight,I wonder if I should travel in the general compartment of a train instead of a ladies compartment. But then I ask myself why should I travel in the general compartment when there is a special compartment for women? It is the responsibility of the state to deploy a policeman in the compartment after 9 pm, she says.
Mumbai,she asserts,has been a city of labourers,of movements and entertainment,but now,moral policing,endorsed by right-wing politicians,is changing the nature of the city. Khan,who has conducted an extensive research on Mumbais bar dancers,says,Prior to 2005,when dance bars ran in full swing,it was rare to see a deserted ladies compartment in a local train even after midnight. The dancers too were working women heading home after their job. The trains were full and there was no reason for anyone to feel unsafe, she says. After the crackdown on bars and pubs,the hawkers disappeared and the shops downed their shutters much earlier. At 11 pm,the bustling suburb of Santacruz now looks like it is 2 am. Restrictions on mobility and business threaten the citys character, she says.
Khan,who is currently working on a project of Muslim womens leadership in five states in the country,believes that it is up to women to reclaim public spaces. The nature of everyones work is peculiar. But by saying that women should avoid working late or going out alone at night,the moral police is trying to fit them into boxes and that is very dangerous for the citys identity. Sometimes,there are no lamps on a road and the dark stretch is termed unsafe. But it is the governments job to arrange lighting and make it safe. The answer is not to tell women to avoid the dark road, she says.
In the entertainment capital of the country,blockbusters are made round the clock. The cast and crew have a call-in time on the sets but the time to clock out comes only when the days shoot is over. I can never say when Ill get home when I am at a shoot, says Anita Sakpal,a hairstylist who has been a crew member of big-budget Hindi films such as Khiladi 786,Himmatwala and Chennai Express,besides a number of Marathi films. Travelling alone at 2 am is not unusual. I have even returned home alone at 3.45 am, says Sakpal.
Although her work hours are erratic,Sakpal rarely asks her husband,a film cameraperson,to pick her up at night. Neither does she fall back upon male colleagues to bail her out if it gets too late. I have grown up in this city and know my way around it. When you know the city and its people,you can vouch for them. Besides,I can protect myself and I really dont trust any man easily, says Sakpal,who served in the home guards before she took up hair-dressing as a full-time profession.
She has run into trouble a couple of times,but it has not deterred her. Once,when I was going to Kalva (near Thane in central Mumbai),I was walking on a deserted road from the station to my house. A man who appeared drunk made lewd gestures at me. He then came closer and pulled my hair. But I fought him and ran home. It taught me to be alert at all times. One incident cannot take away the freedom of Mumbais women to pursue their career. Mumbai can never stop, she says.
After stints in Delhi and Chennai,Shivi Kumar,a television producer,first moved to Mumbai in 2005 where she worked on shows for Channel V. Last year,when Kumar and three male colleagues decided to launch their own company,Pitch Black Entertainment,the 29-year-old made sure she met competition head-on. I want people to choose me over someone else for my competence. So I will do everything that a male producer does,be it working late nights or doing 20-22-hour work days. I dont want to say that I will not do the night shift because I am a girl, she says.
So,when night shifts end between 2.30am and 4.30 am,Kumar is often out on the streets,looking for an autorickshaw to take her back home to the apartment she shares with a documentary filmmaker in Khar (W). My mother worries a lot and friends tell me that I am pushing my luck. So when my mother came down from Delhi,I took her out for an ice-cream late at night,something we would have never done in Delhi. I wanted her to know that I wasnt being reckless and its alright to be out at night in Mumbai. There is no particular time for a crime to happen.
Kumar,however,follows a few self-imposed rules when shes out alone at night. I make sure I do nothing to draw attention. Thankfully,I have had no bad experiences with rickshaw drivers. In Delhi,if I had to travel late,I would never use public transport, she says.
After reading reports about the molestation of a 23-year-old nurse at Mahalaxmi station by a drunk while she was returning home from her shift,40-year-old Prerana Katdare was a bit perturbed. The day after the incident,I was very cautious when I left the hospital. But soon,I plunged into my routine again and there was not much to be scared of, says Katdare who has been working with the King Memorial Hospital in Parel since 1991.
As a nurse in the public hospitals orthopaedic department,Katdare spends long hours at work. The commute to the hospital from the far-flung suburb of Vasai-Naigaon,where she lives with her husband and her 13-year-old twins,takes more than two hours and often Katdare has to leave as early as 5 am to reach in time for her 7 am shift. She leaves the hospital around 9.30 pm to take a local train back home. I have never really felt the need to be afraid. Even when I walk to the station from the hospital,there are several people on the road,many shops are still open,many vegetable vendors are still doing business,and many people like me are hurrying to the station, Katdare says.
Even as there is a general feeling that Mumbai is increasingly becoming unsafe for women,Katdare says that compared to the late Nineties,when she had started working,things have improved. Just to give an example,there were no constables inside the train during those days. Getting a rickshaw late at night outside Andheri station used to be a huge problem, she says.
Her grandmother would worry herself sick if Shailaja Ramachandran,25,did not turn up at home by 9 pm,but it never stopped her from coming late. Then one day,Ramachandran had to accompany her grandmother to a relatives place in Andheri after work. They left late,around midnight,and came home by train. She was amazed at the bustle in the city even at midnight. It finally convinced her that it is alright to travel alone late, says Ramachandran,who works in the creative department of a production house,Sunshine Productions.
Her job involves travelling to shoot locations of television serials and often,it takes her to far-flung suburbs like Malad-Malvani and Lokhandwala. There are times she has to leave home as early as 5.30 am,returning only after midnight. Ramachandran says she prefers to take the train,except when she has to commute after midnight. In my five-six years of working life,I havent had any unpleasant experience,but that could also be because I am very careful when I travel. I calculate possible risks and plan accordingly,so I feel safe, she says. Her list of dos and donts include not getting into an empty compartment at night and ensuring that she only travels along highways and busy roads so she can avoid desolate areas when travelling in autorickshaws. In the first few minutes of my journey,I try to gauge how the autorickshaw driver is. If he is non-interfering,I feel at ease. If he tries to strike up a conversation,I try to stop midway and hail another autorickshaw,even if he turns out to be well-meaning, Ramachandran says.
There have been a few unpleasant incidents a man had groped her inside a crowded bus and another time,a stranger kept staring at her but,by and large,Ramachandran,who grew up in central Mumbai,in Matunga and Sion,feels at ease in the city. Mumbai is a crowded city and that gives some comfort. But,however safe one may think it to be,every girl should take some precautions. Dont get into an empty train,dont go to desolate areas in the dark, Ramachandran says.