STORYTELLER DEEPTHA Vivekanand was appalled that there is a word to legitimise stalking and harassment in this part of the country. ‘Geri’, colloquial Punjabi for ‘chakkar’, is also the unofficial name for a street between Sectors 10 and 11 in Chandigarh.
The Geri Route was renamed Azaadi Route by Google Maps last week, thanks to a review petition sent to the internet giant by Deeptha. Her drive to have the name changed germinated from the Bekhauf Azaadi (fearless freedom) march that came as an outburst after DJ Varnika Kundu was stalked on an August night last year.
‘Azaadi’ here means ‘freedom’, and signifies women’s right to reclaim the streets. Why the word, though? ‘Azaadi’ has most recently been associated with Kanhaiya Kumar’s slogans at JNU, but its origins as a feminist slogan lie in Kamla Bhasin’s poem, ‘Hum kya chahte? Azaadi’.
Deeptha says, “I did it for selfish reasons: I have a six-year-old son. I don’t want him to do this thing that they call ‘geri’ and, worse, brag about it!”
Deeptha’s husband Rahul was driving on the stretch and using maps when the voice said, “You’re on Azaadi Route.” Deeptha explains, “He knew we had put in the review. In fact, it was his idea. We kept checking if it was done, but found out by chance!” She adds, “For the idea to be reflecting somewhere in writing is a great symbol. I have an affinity to language and when a word isn’t sitting well in a certain context, it bothers me.”
Pop culture in the region continues to glorify the stretch, though, in loud songs blaring from car stereos. Popular apps such as Zomato have a designated Geri Route collection of eateries, for instance. The route also has a Wikipedia page to itself.
Professor Bhupinder Singh Brar, who originally belongs to Faridkot and teaches political science at Panjab University, says, “Will this name actually stick simply because Google Maps changed it? I’m not too sure about that. But if it does and people start calling it Azaadi Route, then it will change how Chandigarh is looked at. If you listen to popular Punjabi songs these days, they talk about coming to Chandigarh and chasing girls in the city.”
He adds that the name is not official. But, over the years, it got legitimised as a place to ogle women. Earlier, it was more about girls and boys meeting each other as that did not happen on the college and university campuses as freely as it does now.
Aman Deep, a research scholar at Panjab University who in 2014 contested the campus student council polls as the only female presidential candidate, was one of the organisers of the march. “The change of name is definitely an achievement. But that doesn’t mean it has changed in practice. That’s my concern,” she says. “But it’s not like before,” says Nikhil Arora (28), who works for a pharmaceutical company in the city, “There’s a police naka there at all times that ensures there’s no lawlessness. It takes time for such changes to happen. And Chandigarh is not as unsafe as Delhi or Haryana.”
Then again, there are those who feel mere symbolism can be dangerous when it comes to words such as Azaadi, though its literal meaning is freedom.
City-based theatre artiste Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry says, “I feel quite nervous when words like azaadi are used and substituted for a colloquial term like geri. It’s another matter that the word ‘geri’ may have become problematic, but to change it to Azaadi Route suddenly brings up images of nationalism and patriotism.”
She adds that ‘reclaim the streets’ march happened after a terrible incident and citizens got together to make roads safer for women and so the term ‘azaadi’ was contextualised in that situation.
City-based playwright Atamjit Singh says, “Symbolism has value, but who establishes that symbolism? If lots of people want to attach an iconic value to a symbol, it gradually picks up. Symbolism will remain, but at the same time too much of it can trivialise issues.”
Valentine’s Day is not too far and that is when the stretch is in the spotlight. Many residents feel this is the time when the “rogue element” comes in from other towns and villages of neighbouring areas.
Ironically, it is also an “outsider”, Chennai native Deeptha, who started the drive to change the name. “We didn’t set out to make this a big deal. Now, we ought to do more and remove it from sources that people access frequently and make it as official as possible. When they see that, they shall wonder and talk about the words. Conversations bring about change,” she says.