I looked up from my books only when the librarian began to make shooing noises. About time anyway, I thought. My head was aching, my eyes burning and my body exhausted by all the last minute cramming. Quickly putting my papers together I picked up my denim backpack. At 17, heading off to college, I’d wanted a new backpack, just like I had at the beginning of every school year. It was covered in graffiti; lyrics from songs by Metallica, Sepultura, Anthrax, Iron Maiden and decorated with graveyards, skulls, all drawn by my brother and my friends. So that I didn’t miss them too much, they said.
I’d stayed on in the library after classes and most of my regular companions had left much earlier. For once I would have to take the bus alone and as I walked out I realised with a shock that it was dark. It was early spring and the weather unpredictable. I looked at my navy churidar, thin white kameez and chiffon dupatta; woefully inadequate once the sun set and the chill came in. I loved this particular hand embroidered kameez, more so because Ma had embroidered if for me.
Wrapping the dupatta tightly around me I hurried to the bus stop and caught my regular bus pretty soon. I soon got a seat and settled into a corner, my bag arranged over my chest protectively, to avoid roving hands. I’d been awake all night studying and then up early in the morning for college, very short on sleep. The bus rattled on and I gave in to my fatigue, fading in and out of sleep.
I woke up to find myself in a strange part of town. Obviously I’d slept through my stop, I realised in horror. Getting off at the next bus stop I began to to make inquiries about getting home. This was in the good old days when blue lines and chartered buses ran in equal numbers. The only way to ensure you were getting on to the right bus was by listening carefully to the conductor rattle off the route, none of which sounded like anything on earth unless you paid close attention.
India Gate, I asked him? He nodded. I hopped on. I had very little money on me and I couldn’t afford the indulgence of an auto every time it got late.
By now it was really late and dark and I had no fucking clue as to where I was. My head began to ache more. The bus trundled down unfamiliar roads and I felt the panic rise. This was not the age of cell phones. My parents, far away in a small town, saved every rupee to send me to the best college in the country. My brother would start college next year and money was scarce. We couldn’t afford daily long distance calls and if I got lost, no one would know I was missing for a long, long time. I used to be the praying kind in those days, and so I prayed.
Soon the bus did turn on to a road I was familiar with. Vaguely.
And then I realised my mistake. In my nervousness I had only asked the conductor if it passed India Gate. I hadn’t clarified which end of the huge circle I needed to be. And anyone who has lived in Delhi and is familiar with the area will know what a walk that would mean.
The crowd had thinned out and then before I could even decide what to do, the bus turned off into one of the radials. Collecting my belongings and my wits, I walked up to the conductor and asked him where it was off to. Why, its regular route of course, he said. This is where the depot lay and where it would terminate.
Oh, my face fell. I needed to be on the other side of India Gate. By now it was 9 pm and the streets were deserted. I could get off and walk, I thought. Except that it was cold and dark and my lack of sense of direction was legendary.
Why not wait, said the conductor. ‘We have to sign in at the bus depot and show that we completed our route in time. After that we will drop you home.’
It’s a testament to how young, innocent, tired, desperate and foolish I was, that I agreed nervously. It seemed like a better option to walking back down the lonely road in the dark, not knowing which was the correct radial to take to go back home, encountering all sorts of people on the road.
They stopped at the bus depot and got off to do their official business. I sat on the first seat, a stone statue. I began to count every mistake I’d made since the day began. From getting little sleep, to studying too late in the library, to dropping off because of exhaustion. Yes, victim blaming usually begins at home.
Around me was darkness. A few other buses were parked in the dark. Rough voices shouted out to each other. I held back my terrified tears. The conductor’s head popped in the door and asked, Would I like some tea; it was a cold night.
‘No thank you, I don’t drink tea.’ I really didn’t want to offend him but I wasn’t allowed to drink tea while growing up and hadn’t grown into the habit after leaving home.
Ah, you must be a Christian, he said sagely.
H-h-how did you guess, I managed.
Because Christians don’t let their children get into tea-coffee habits, he pronounced.
And then he walked off and got himself and the driver a cup of tea. While they drank it they chatted with me about what I was studying and where I was from. He told me about his daughter, also doing her BA so that she could better herself. She too often had to travel back alone from college. Considering I was at their mercy to get home, I couldn’t think of any other polite option so I kept up my end of the conversation.
They finished their tea, paid up and then true to their word, drove me not just to the street I lived on but as close to my residence as the bus was allowed.
I got off the bus, my knees weak with relief and waved them goodbye.
Years later a much older girl got on to a bus on a busy Delhi street, at around the same time of night. She was with a companion, yet she got brutally raped and died.
She shouldn’t have been out so late they said. They shouldn’t have got on to a chartered bus they said. They shouldn’t have stayed on the bus when they realised there were no other passengers, they say.
I’ve spent a lot of the last month fighting these battles online. Trying to do everything I can to spread awareness. To stop the victim blaming. Because as a wise woman once said, when you blame the victim, you are defending the rapist.
Have you ever looked at it that way? Every time you think she should have avoided going out late, she should have taken an auto, she should have, she should have, she should have, you’re missing the point. It’s not what she should have. It’s what he SHOULDN’T have.
SHE and WE are just regular women trying to make our way in the world. We’ve all been educated by our parents in the hope that we’ll make something of ourselves. We work the same hours and then carry the same weary bodies back home on the same crowded buses that men do. The only difference is the way in which we hold our bodies. Arms folded against our chests, heads down, bag held defensively.
We all have the same series of events leading up to bad days. Late nights, working too hard, long days, missed buses and exhaustion that leads to us making that one mistake. Getting off at the wrong place, getting on the wrong bus, trusting the wrong people. Sometimes the only difference lies in that one mistake, taking that day from simply bad, to fatal.
The truth is, we can’t just sit home now. We’ve tasted freedom and independence, and we’re hooked. We’ve come too far to turn back now. We can’t live our lives cowering in fear. We cannot be stifled or restricted. We cannot be sheltered any longer. If I must live my life in fear and depend on my husband or brother to take me out, I shouldn’t have wasted my time getting an education. I should have just stayed home and stuck to cooking and cleaning. Why this false sense of equality where education is concerned when we can’t take that education and equality and make something of it? When we’re constantly being chaperoned or else at risk?
I urge you all, don’t stay home in fear. Step out. Fill the streets. Let them know they can’t push us back in. Let them grow used to seeing us out and about. Make it safer for yourself as well as the other girls simply trying to get home. From office, from a club, from hospital, from the airport. We’re living the same lives that men are. We have a right to the same safety they have. They just don’t want to see it yet. Someday they will.