Other than seven or eight years of intermittent self-imposed exile, I have spent most of my 55 years in Bengaluru. Because this city of mine has time and again beckoned me back to its beautiful and wondrous fold. Bengaluru has been an intrinsic part of my life much more than any partner has been.
There was a time when claiming to be a Bengalurean was like wearing a badge of superiority. Our city was blessed and we were everything that others were not. Outsiders envied our salubrious climate, admired our lush greenery and were impressed by our cosmopolitan nature. When we went to live in other cities, we were warmly welcomed. Unlike the dwellers of other capital cities, we Bengalureans were known as genteel people, as those who were not consumed by some kind of regional or linguistic chauvinism. Unlike the Mumbaikar’s “hatke” attitude, Bengalureans intrinsic philosophy to “swalpa adjust maadi” – adjust a little – and life made us ideal tenants, neighbours and colleagues.
Being a woman in Bengaluru also meant we had some privileges that women of other cities did not even dare dream of. For example, when 50cc mopeds were introduced to the Indian market in the seventies, it was the young women of this city who became their ardent users. For some like my sister and I, graduating from the moped to a 100 cc bike did not take too long. The sight of us whrooming on our RX 100 Yamaha motorcycles around the city would not even raise eyebrows. But when I rode the same bike on the streets of Delhi, I would get astonished looks by women and surly stares from men.
Likewise, when pubs started mushrooming in the city during the eighties, young women of Bengaluru were very much a part of the pub culture. A couple of times when I took women colleagues from Kolkata – which had become legendary as the safest city for women in the country – to pubs in Bengaluru they would be amazed at seeing so many young women on the premises. We women would happily tipple away and finally, when we tipsily got up to head home, no one would try to take advantage of us.
In those days, it was almost mandatory to welcome the New Year or mark some other happy occasion at the watering holes that dot MG Road and Brigade Road (today known as CBD). And let me assure you, young women in those days too did not wear a long skirt with a blouse when they hit these fancy digs: they wore either jeans or a fancy Little Black Dress.
Let me give another example of how liberated Bengaluru used to be. Even in the nineties, an unwed couple could find places to rent without being asked too many questions. What two consenting adults did behind closed doors was their business alone and nobody else’s. But this was not the case in Delhi. When the spouse and I had camped at a friend’s flat while house hunting, the landlord had barged in and asked for proof that we were indeed husband and wife.
Of course, even in those days there were bum pinchers, breast grabbers and disgusting flashers. And yes, there used to be the occasional Romeos who would follow girls on their bikes. But then, the atmosphere those days was such that if a girl stood her ground and said “haccha”, or yelle, “yenu, chappali seve beka?” (what, you want me to beat you with my slipper), they would vamoose faster than Lewis Hamilton.
I am certainly not claiming that the Bengaluru of old was heaven for women. The city had become infamous for a while as the capital of domestic violence and dowry deaths. It has also seen a high rate of inhuman acid attacks on women by frustrated men. These are examples of the macabre male power over women. But the Beast was always only in the background.
There are various historical factors that made Bengaluru a cosmopolitan city. But I can’t put my finger on why it has become what it is today. Is it the increasing attitude of fundamentalists of all colours who believe that women have to be shut behind closed doors for their own safety? Is it the increasing commodification of women in these neoliberal economic times? Is it the influx of outsiders who are new to the freedom and liberty that the women of Bengaluru have enjoyed for so long? Is it a result of “liberal culture” that promotes the male gaze but scuttles the women’s rights to choice and freedom? Is it a mere reflection of what is happening in other parts of the country too these days and not necessarily a Bengalurean blight? Or does this mean that the Beast of decades past has now come to the forefront and shown its face in public? Ultimately, should women of this city decide that “mass molestation” is the new normal and suffer it in silence?
What can women of Bengaluru do to reclaim their rights to live the way they used to? The way they want to? What can they do to lay claim to public spaces without fear of lecherous goons, fundamentalist fanatics and brainless men in power who point out to outfits that women wear instead of the muck that is filled between the ears of sick men as the root cause of molestation?
I don’t know.
All I know is that the Bengaluru I knew is no more.