As a pre-teen in the mid-1990s and the early naughties, every time I stepped out to buy something from the nearby confectionary store, I would be extremely aware of myself when walking. This was Kanpur, my hometown and an erstwhile industrial city in north India. From an early age I had been told to monitor, censor and diminish my outings as much as possible. I was a girl and repeatedly reminded of being one by elders.
These outdoor trips, however short, were the headlines of my days and nights then. After all these years, not much has changed and I understand that performing those walks was my instinctive reaction to being repeatedly told that I shouldn’t be outdoors. I subconsciously wanted to unmake the rules and create an act out of the few minutes I got out be outside.
My walking garnered attention. A neighbourhood boy, also a school dropout, started whistling songs meant for me. A first cousin caught me reading one of his letters. “I like you,” three precise words written in blue ink behind the wrapper of a chocolate bar.
Over the next few days, she stopped me from playing outdoors, warming me of the dire consequences. I should behave like “girls from good families”, she told me. Even though this never reached my parents, I was scared of going out for at least two months, afraid of the “consequences”, whatever they might be.
In 2021, this incident jumps out of my memory while reading the chapter titled “Good Little Women” in Why Loiter? written by Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade, published 10 years ago. The authors ascribe the myriad ways of limiting women’s movements to a bid to protect their respectability. They write:
“…the insistence on respectability actively contributes to not just reducing women’s access to public space, but also compromises their interests when they do access…The inextricable connection of safety to respectability, then does not keep women safe in the public; it effectively bars them from it.”
This made me reflect on my experiences of walking in six cities in India in the last dozen or so years. After leaving home in 2008, when I lived in the university precincts of Lucknow for five years, 80 kilometres away from home, outdoors meant being confined to the university campus. I stepped out mostly with my boyfriend at the time, lying to my parents on the phone.
According to them, it was not advisable for women to be seen outdoors at all, and least so in the company of women. On the rare occasions that I did step out with friends we would end up garnering excessive male attention. I just knew that I was away from home, and should not take the risk of injuring my or my family’s reputation. So I seldom went out.
In Why Loiter? the authors write:
“‘Respectable’ women could be potentially defiled in a public space while ‘non-respectable’ women are themselves a potential source of contamination to the ‘purity’ of public spaces and, therefore the city. For the so-called ‘respectable’ woman this classification is always fraught with some amount of tension, for should she transgress the carefully policed ‘inside-outside’ boundaries permitted to her, she could so easily slip into becoming the ‘public woman’ – the threat to the sacrality of public space.”
February 2020 marked ten years of the publication of this revolutionary book. Among other things, the book talks at length about women’s access to public places. The three authors made “a case for loitering as a fundamental act of claiming public space and ultimately, a more inclusive citizenship. We believe the right to loiter for all has the potential to undermine public space hierarchies.”
Coming from different streams of academic life, the writers began on the book length project as collaborators, and became friends on the way. At the time Phadke was an assistant professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; Khan was a Mumbai-based journalist and writer; and Ranade trained in architecture from CEPT, Ahmedabad, and also holds an MA in Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies from University of Arizona, Tucson.
In her recent blog for the London School of Economics, Tracy McFarlane reviews a collection of essays written by women: Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power and Resistance of Women in Academia. She welcomes this important book for contesting the fabled view of an equitable educational environment, while calling for more radically critical national, regional and transnational analysis to better understand how racism, sexism and classism are being reproduced worldwide with devastating effects.
This echoes my view of Why Loiter? While the broad-brush statements are keenly observed, and the essays display deep scholarship that is ever so timely, they do little to create a conversation.
As a feminist, auto-didact flâneuse when I started walking in 2015 at length on my own time, I was to discover a new world awaiting me. In 2015, during my first journalism gig, not owning a personal vehicle, I rented a flat near the office of the newspaper where I worked and walked to and back from work every day. On the one weekday when I didn’t go to work, I still went out, even if it was for a walk in my neighbourhood.
In Pune, I realised the city was largely oblivious to my gender. There was no dearth of public spaces where I could just be. If I sat in the park alone with a book, no one bothered me. If I wanted to go for a walk, even after 8 pm, no one cared. It was in Pune, in fact, where I first learnt to buy my own alcohol and to sit alone in a restaurant to enjoy a drink by myself. There was a generosity of space, a matriarchal air in the city, and a general flexibility towards what is and is not acceptable – what I did there with my time was only my business.
What happens indoors might be completely different, however. I realise my experience might be as lopsided as those the writers in Why Loiter? describe – there can always be in an incongruence between these two spaces. “While women often record feeling physically safer in their own neighbourhoods, which are known to them and where they are known, this does not however, translate into increased access to public space. In fact, spaces in which women are recognised as wives, daughters and sisters are often the most restrictive.” Who is to say then that whether my experiences would not have been different had I lived with a family in Pune.
In the south Indian city of Coimbatore things were frigid. Even though I went there with a dream job, the entire city was a land of zero possibilities. I moved there in late 2016, for another journalism gig. Finding a suitable place on rent took me three weeks there because of the vastly different societal structure.
Prospective landlords asked me bizarre questions about my caste, where I was from, if I was single, if I had run away from home, and so on. After I found a comfortable flat in a reasonably middle-class neighbourhood, I came face to face with another problem.
Apart from the north and south India divide, there was also a vast loneliness. None of my colleagues was of the same age as me, and later I was told that most people my age leave the city to work elsewhere. Trapped in a place like this, I had nowhere to go but just walk to the nearest supermarket and then back to my flat. In trying to connect with my immediate surroundings, whenever I tried to venture out for a walk or to the mall, I felt a stiffness rise within me.
I did not know or understand Tamil, the language spoken there, and this compounded my fears of being alone. I had thought that Coimbatore would be like Pune, but the social fabric, coupled with the innately closed nature of the places I visited, made my life miserable. This is not to say that I didn’t love my job. But just the fact that I could not be outdoors or interact with people made the rest of my life shrivel.
After five months, when I moved back to Delhi for a new job, it enthused me like never before. I had my apprehensions about being a single woman in Delhi with a low-paying job. But these fears were allayed when I saw things from the perspective of being able to enjoy myself in the city in many ways. In other words, I created a new discipline to frame my relationship with this city.
In the prologue to Why Loiter, Shilpa Phadke writes:
“Discussing this with other women, I realise that almost without being aware of it, every woman reflects deeply about how to access public space. Our safety is something that at a visceral level none of us take for granted but strangely enough, this need to plot, plan and strategise has come to assume the proportions of a taken-for-granted life-world for all of us. As I ask questions of them and myself, this sense of stoic taken-for-grantedness crumbles, producing angry and humiliated stories of harassment.”
Early on during my time in Delhi, I decided to walk to grow my roots there. Even if the roads were empty, even if there were only luxury sedans cruising up and down, even if I had to be alone. I walked to the nearby market, then I walked to the vegetable vendor. I spent time in the neighbourhood park and took pleasure in purchasing dairy products directly across the counter.
Before the pandemic, even when there was an option to get groceries delivered at home, I took it upon myself to go and buy things. I made small talk wherever I could, getting to know people and giving them a window to know me. And so I got to know the city by wandering on its streets, interrogating its corners, peeping behind façades and entering secret courtyards uninvited.
Delhi is also replete with constant arguments about its (lack of) safety. The vocabulary of the woman professional here is filled with words like “security”, “courage” and “harassment”. Among women, it is an accepted afterparty code to drop a text to everyone else after getting home. Defining the “narrative of safety”, the authors in Why Loiter? write: “All the ideas that people have, the stories they tell, and the beliefs they hold about safety that become part of the popular public imagination”.
This begets these questions: What does it mean when I ask a woman friend to “drop me a text once she gets home”? What does the presence or absence of that text indicate? Most of the times people forget to drop a message and then I, too, don’t follow up.
As I continue to find my place here, some spaces welcome me, while the others continue to elude me. Why Loiter? describes this juxtaposition perfectly: “We can hang out in the coffee-shops and night clubs but sitting ‘on the rocks’ at Bandra Bandstand…with our boyfriends is still frowned upon….We can jog on the ‘citizens’-committee-beautified’ promenades but cannot bite into a bhutta for eating is forbidden lest we dirty the place.” And this confusion only increases the more we go out of the home.