Auto-rickshaw wala

The bus stops in front of Bikaner House.

Its almost midnight.

Way past the ‘decent hour’ for any woman to be out in the city.

I alight after a thoroughly enjoyable 7 hours of journey from Jaipur. Right behind follow my almost-6-year-old daughter and my mother.

We walk a few steps looking around for the best mode of transportation that would safely take us home. We have barely made it to the exit-gate, in comes a herd of auto-rickshaw drivers encircling us..offering us to drop us home. “Madam, kahan jaana hai?” “Auto mei baith jao”

We have another 20-25 kms of travel yet to cover to finally reach home.

Each of them has his eyes firmly fixed on us.

Right then, a flurry of thoughts come hitting me like a curse,“So which one of them would end up molesting us tonight?”…

“What if one of them drags us to a deserted land and rapes us?”..

“Which one of them would eventually succeed in looting us..and killing us?”

No sooner do these thoughts creep into my mind than I clutch my child tightly and hold on to my mother protectively.

I look around to see whether I can find a cab for us instead. Yet again the crippling thought seeps in.

‘What if the cab-driver ends up knocking us off?’

“Dont be crazy”, I tell myself. There has been no untoward action by any of the auto-rick drivers that drives me towards such thoughts.

None whatsoever.

Each one is merely doing his job of convincing us, persuading us to sit in his vehicle so he can earn his bread & butter.

Then why worry?

Brushing those thoughts away, I, along-with my mother and daughter get into an auto. My mother, the firebrand that she is begins to argue with the driver about the outrageous fare he quotes.

Paranoia hits me yet again and I urge her to stop provoking him lest he harms us in any way. I keep chiding her,” Stop it Ma, this is not a safe time and place for two women to get into scuffle with a man. We still have a long way to reach home”. Of course I tell her this in Malayalam. I dont want his ears to get what I am saying lest he thinks we are helpless and an easy prey.

All through the auto-ride I am alert.

The auto-driver is driving at the perfect speed. He is cautious and minds his own business.

Yet. Every time there is a sharp turn or a delay in taking a turn my heart skips a beat.

Every time we reach a dimly lit road my heart skips a beat.

In my own crazy head I prepare and plan to fight him in case he brings the auto to a stand still in those unlit roads and tries to come at us.

Nothing of that sort happens.

We, then, reach a well lit road. Vehicles plying either side continuously. But not a single soul in sight.

I wonder out loud to my mother about cities like Mumbai where people freely move around till past midnight with no fear of safety. Or so I have heard, correct me if I am wrong.

Wistfully, I wonder if I can even imagine a similar scenario in my own city. I wonder if I ever will get to associate my city with safety and security without a shudder or cringe.

On the way I spot two girls standing at the side of a road, perhaps waiting for a cab.

Our auto-driver swiftly turns to give them a look.

And my scary thoughts go on an over-drive again.

“What did that look convey?” “Did he see prospective passengers in them?”. “Did he hope to fetch them and earn some more money and retire for the day with a content heart?”. Or. “Did he have any lustful intentions brewing in his mind?”

As these thoughts play havoc in my mind, I realize that the auto-wala has safely brought us home. I pay him and walk in to the safe confines of home with my daughter and mother.

All of this sets me thinking….

Is this what my city has come to mean? Is this the city where I was born? The city that brought me up, made me stand up on my feet? The city where I didnt care what I wore, but today I stand the risk of being blamed for my dressing if I get attacked? The city where I didnt have to think twice before venturing out, irrespective of the time or day, but today I have to keep my guard up even in broad daylight? Is this MY city where I stand the risk of being blamed for getting molested because I went to the bar? Because I wore a skimpy dress? Is this MY city where I am forbidden to move around after 8 PM lest I get raped?

Is this MY city where I dont even have the freedom to walk freely as I please?

Never have I felt so helpless and unsafe in my own city.

Happy Independence Day BTW