Monday, 22 December 2014

Why loiter? group in Jaipur kicks off in style!- Neha Singh

I was in Jaipur last week and met Mita Kapur,an extremely talented and respected literary consultant. This was my first meeting with her, organised by a common friend, to discuss a project that we are working on. When I reached her palatial house (understatement) I was intimidated. I had already visited her website 'Siyahi', the literary consultancy that she spearheads. But when I met her, all my apprehensions flew away. Her warm and cozy office was filled with young women, all busy working on various important projects. We began chatting over coffee and that's when my friend, Dhruv Lohumi, suggested I tell this young and bright bunch of women about 'Why loiter? Mumbai'. It often takes me about twenty minutes to explain the concept and the movement to people but Mita and her colleagues understood the value of it within a couple of minutes and told me that it was a wonderful idea. A few minutes later, Mita announced that she would love to start a similar movement in Jaipur. The other women in the room agreed unanimously and before my very eyes, they began brainstorming and were ready with the plan for their first loitering session that Saturday.
I met Mita only for a half hour, but I still knew that she would bring the idea alive, with complete conviction.
Today I received a mail from her with this little story explaining how their experience was, complete with little anecdotes and heartwarming moments. When I saw the photos, my heart danced with joy. So many women, all vibrantly dressed, looking beautiful and armed with guitars, goodies and what have you! This is their story, as told by Mita.

So 20th January evening at statue circle - its cold and windy, a start up NGO to teach kids from economically challenged stratas is holding a candle light vigil to share the tragedy in Peshawar and we reach to just hang….
just walking around the circle, Nandita pointed at Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh's statue to tell us that the scroll it was holding was cut off because it looked like his phallus jutting out...*giggles*

We grow from two to eight to thirteen and finally to about twenty five women - all ages, a school girl from Welhams, bridge players from Chennai, post graduate students from Raj university strumming on her guitar and singing old songs (my generation pop), some more walk in…Ritu and Neeru try to teach us all how to whistle like men do when we walk past…we talk, giggle and in all the bonhomie, anuja comes with freshly baked date bars, ritu (number 2) with roasted peanuts - just what we need to keep it going - we walk around, talk to people just generally who are also there to walk. in true spirit, Megha and Kanika decided to scale the statue which prompted a few shrill whistles from the guard asking them to get down...
some more walk in who are visiting from Bombay…

We are there for a about an hour and a half….Radhika Jagwani says "in truly believing in what we are doing here, I am going walk back home and not call my car." off she goes. Fifteen minutes later she messages, "a guy on a bike started chasing me, I had to call my husband to pick me up" - her home was barely half a km away. Devyani, who couldn't come but is heavily into cross country running and cycling also messaged on the group saying "I was chased this morning while I was cycling"
Jaipur as a city is just another small town where men think its their birth right to tease women
our next loiter should mostly be on Christmas.

We maybe in different cities, but we are all of the same sisterhood, a similar desire. The desire that one day all roads, parks, bus depots, railway stations, movie theatres, road side tapris, highways, hotels and homes will be safe and free and inviting for women to roam and loiter peacefully.  Now hoping more such groups start in other cities as well. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Raahgiri and Equal streets: new steps to reclaim space- Neha Singh

It first started in Gurgaon, on the 17th of November 2013. Raahgiri was a unique concept evolved by organisations, individuals and the public administrators to make the city more public friendly and culturally alive. 'Apni raahein-apni aazaadi' and 'ab na chalegi motor koi ab chalegi sabki raahgiri' was the tagline and true to it, Sunday mornings became a riot of festivities, all about freedom and reclaiming public spaces like the roads and streets. Men, women, young and old woke up early to come together and run, walk, cycle, skate, practice yoga or aerobics. Traffic would be closed off temporarily to let citizens enjoy the streets and roads on foot.

The event picked up so well that the Delhites couldn't wait to start something similar in Delhi. So apna, very own Cannaught Place, the hub of all recreational and shopping activities in Delhi, was chosen as the venue for Raahgiri, Delhi.

Raahgiri, Delhi chapter started on the 13th of July, 2014, in collaboration with the Times of India group with this tagline in the newspaper 'Want to shed some festivity weight?' but since then has become much more than that. I was in Delhi last month and couldn't wait to be a part of this crazy idea on Sunday. The November morning chill in the air was perfect and I dragged a friend along. It was still dark outside when we bundled up in jackets and warm socks and reached Cannaught Place at 7:00 am. I was ecstatic to see thousands of people there, in sports wear, uncles and aunties, teenagers, kids, couples, families, grandparents, all chirpy and energetic, running, jogging, cycling, skating, playing basketball, volleyball, cricket, badminton, doing yoga, aerobics, palates, dancing. It was probably the most encouraging and happy space to be in in Delhi, ever. There was a bunch of youngsters sitting on the road. Couples moved around holding hands and PDAing, but it was all accepted wholeheartedly, even by the octogenarians. Overweight men and women dressed it tight track pants were doing yoga or jogging on the traffic free roads and no one noticed. There was a sense of camaraderie,  trust and acceptance that is quite difficult to find in Delhi otherwise. There was absolutely no eve teasing, staring or discomfort.

Raahigiri Delhi
Raahgiri Delhi

Raahgiri Delhi, people practising Yoga

Reclaiming the roads, literally.

Inspired by the bunch on the road, I parked myself on the road too
Just as I was secretly wishing something like this start in Bombay, I got a whatsapp from Sameera Khan, one of the authors of the book 'Why loiter?' telling us that Bombay, the Mumbai police, the MCGM in association with Times of India and other organisations, is starting the 'Equal Streets' on the 9th of November, 2014. On the first day, 15,000 people showed up on the streets!

Some of the members of Why loiter?, our group, had already visited the event on Sundays and raved about it. I was itching to get back to the city and visit it. I did so last Sunday .

The reclamation starts at Santacruz and goes on till Bandra linking road. I began walking from the start point and walked past two yoga workshops, hundreds of children skating and cycling, tables set up on the middle of road and people playing carrom. A young girl sat on the road and was painting, not on a sheet, but the road itself, while her father looked on lovingly. Further ahead I witnessed a percussion workshop/drum circle in progress, with the artists facilitating regular people into creating a group rhythm with various percussion instruments. There was a Shiamak Davar dance workshop going on too, with his students facilitating. The experience was exhilarating.

Equal streets, Bombay

Similar sightings in Bombay, great minds think alike

Drum circle, Bombay

Equal streets, Bombay

Why loiter? Priyanka and I at the Equal streets, Bombay

Why loiter? at equal streets, Devina and Pooja

The inaugaration fiesta at Equal streets, Bombay

Since one of our Why loiter? group members, Archana Patel was performing the same day at another every-Sunday-affair at the farmers' market at Mahim nature park, I visited the market, The park was huge, lush green with hundred year old trees and the quaint little market was in progress. People stood in queue with bamboo baskets, browsing the vegetables, fruits and other products completely organically made and picked up whatever fancied them, to pay at the end of the queue. There were also food stalls with brownies, sandwiches, bhelpuri, coolers, etc that people were eating sitting on white garden chairs.

Farmers' market, Mahim, Bombay

Why loiter? Sanoober at the farmers market, Bombay

Enjoying the Sunday afternoon at the Farmers market

Shopping for organic veggies at the farmers' market, Bombay

My friend began her play performance as part of the NSPA, National Streets for Performing Arts, and it was the first ever play performance as part of the NSPA. NSPA is also a new venture that is meant to reclaim public spaces for the performing arts and have had several music concerts. This was their first play in a public space that was open for all. It was a lovely play about the balancing act that the new age modern yet traditional woman faces everyday.

Why loiter? Archana performs with Samridhhi as part of the NSPA at the farmers market, Bombay
National streets for the performing Arts put up a play at the farmers market, Bombay

Just as I was daydreaming about the day when all streets in all of the country would have such raahgiri and Equal streets events, I read a facebook update by my cousin Anu saying she was going for the raahgiri event in her hometown, Bhopal!!!

and then I chanced upon an article about raahgiri in Dwaraka.

I am waiting for an opportunity to go to Bhopal and take part in the raahgiri day there too! Sometimes I feel we are unlucky that we are born in times of so much violence, paucity of free and open spaces, deforestation, inflation, mistrust, pollution etc etc and then I experience these wonderful movements towards reclamation of public spaces and people embracing them with so much vigour and value, that I feel extremely lucky to be born in these times.

Our group 'why loiter?' started in June this year as a natural progression to the book 'Why loiter?' and aims at loitering in public spaces by women, to reclaim them. And then you hear of movements like Raahgiri erupting in Gurgaon, Delhi, Mumbai, Dwarka, Bhopal and your heart is just so joyful. These spaces make the community come together with a sense of trust, peace, love and togetherness regardless of gender. which is why these movements are so important in the process of bringing about a change in people's mindsets about gender related issues in our country and reducing violence against women.

Next time you find yourself wondering what to do over the weekend, instead of booking a table at the buffet brunch place, pick up your running shoes, set an alarm for six a.m, and get on the streets and feel the joy of running along hundreds and thousands of people, people that are part of your community, your city, your nest. The feeling is indescribable.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

How I escaped rape- Neha Singh

I was still a student at Lady Irwin College, Delhi University. My father had been posted from Guwahati, Assam to Agra, Uttar Pradesh. I was happy that now I wouldnt have to travel 36 hours to reach home, since Agra was just a few hours away from Delhi by train. Holi, the festival of colours was coming up and I had a sizeable chunk of holidays from college. So I decided to visit my parents at Agra. Since it was a rather impromptu decision, I had not booked my train ticket. I just packed my bag and reached New Delhi railway station, hoping to get a reservation in current booking. Alas! At the current booking counter there was a queue so long that if I waited for my turn it would possibly take my entire lifetime to reach the counter. I wanted to get on the Taj Express that left at 5 pm and it was already 3 pm. I confidently walked up to the counter, hoping to get a ticket through student concession or some such luck.
'Sir, is there any way I can get a reserved ticket for the Taj Express?', I enquired, with the most innocent and pitiable face I could make.
The middle aged officer in the typical black coat looked me up and down, smiled and shut the counter. I was surprised at this, but didnt think much of it since the urgency of reaching home in time for the festival was far greater than analysing his behaviour. After all, he was an employee of the government, in uniform, with a name plate, and therefore, someone to be trusted. He asked me to follow him into the office at the back. At first I was hesitant, but when I saw a few women staff sitting in the office and working, I felt reassured.
'Why do you have to stand in the queue? You should have come to me directly instead of standing in this heat', he said sweetly. I was grateful but also a little vary of his biased treatment towards me. He asked me to give him my details and 250 rupees. Then he called one of the other officers, also in a black coat, with a name plate, and much younger than himself, to go to the reservation counter and get me a reserved ticket for the Taj Express. The younger officer muttered under his breath, clearly upset with his senior's differential treatment towards a young student as opposed to the neverending queue of people desparately standing since unearthly hours to get that one, reserved ticket.
I knew this was odd, since neither was I a politician's daughter, nor was I offering a bribe. But I was only too happy to get this unpredicted help from otherwise indifferent government officers. Just to make sure the old man didnt get any bright ideas, I told him I will wait outside the office for my ticket. I went and stood out, hugging my bag and tightly holding my newly acquired cellphone. As I had expected, the old man came out of the office and started making small talk.
'Where do you study? Where in Agra do your parents live? Why are you going home?' etc.
I lied to him about my college, told him with a lot of effect and emphasis that my father was a colonel in the Indian army. It didn't seem to have any effect on the man.
I started looking the other way and playing games on my phone, only to make it clear that all I needed from this man was my reserved ticket and nothing more.
'Will you have some tea or coffee?' he asked me politely. I said no.
He went back in, and then reemerged after a few minutes. I quickly pretended that I was on the phone with my father, giving him details on the train, how I had been lucky enough to meet this 'good samaritan' that had helped me out with the tickets, I even read out his name from his name plate and told my dad, making sure the officer knew that if he tried any tricks on me, my father would know who it was. The situation was getting claustrophobic for me and in a way I was at his mercy since I needed that ticket. It seemed an eternity before the young officer showed up with my ticket.
I checked the ticket. It had my name, a seat number, and 250 rupees was the fare. I couldnt believe my luck, I finally did have a confirmed , reserved ticket in my hands that too without bribing anyone. Now, I was really thankful to both of them and started to leave. The old man stopped me.
'Check the ticket carefully. It is okay, right?' he asked me.
'Yes, sir, thank you so much!'
'Come, let me accompany you to the train so that you dont get lost', he offered
Why on Earth would I want this creepy old man to accompany me when all I wanted at that moment was to get as far away from him as possible?
'Sir, you don't worry, I will help her', the young officer said with a lot of authority in his voice. The old man seemed taken aback by his sudden interference.
'Oh, okay, alright. Make sure she sits in the right place.'
The young officer and I started walking away from the creep.
'Thank you' I said to him. That 'thank you' was not just for accompanying me, but also for getting rid of the old man. He understood exactly what I had meant by that 'Thank you'
'He is not a good fellow. You should never get in touch with him again.' the young man said sternly.
'Yes, he seemed really creepy' I said.
After that the young man didnt say anything to me and just walked beside me till we reached the Taj Express. In my head I thought, for every dirty old man in this world there is also a good man, who makes sure you stay out of trouble. I was lucky that he had helped me escape the old man.
We got on the train. It was choc a block with people rushing home in time for Holi. I found my seat. I sat down and extended my hand to shake hands with him, thank him and say bye.
'You haven't kept a bottle of water. I will just get one for you' he said.
Before I could stop him he had run down.
What a chivalrous man! I thought.
He came back with a paper glass filled with thums up.
'Sorry, this is all I could get' he said.
'Oh, thank you so much, I was really thirsty, infact!' I said and gulped down the entire contents on the glass.
I felt like I had downed an entire bottle of whiskey. Thats when I knew what a big mistake I had made. My eyes felt droopy, my entre body seemed lifeless and I could barely manage to keep my neck from falling to the side.
The young railway officer had drugged my thums up! As soon as he saw the effect the drink had had on me, his eyes changed. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me.
'You arent feeling well, lets get off the train. I will take you to the hospital.'
I grabbed the iron bars of the window and inspite of extreme grogginess I knew that if I let that iron bar go, it could very well be the end of me.
The man kept pulling me, his eyes looked like those of a vulture's ready to attack the weak prey and he kept shouting at me, incomprehensible to me in that state of delirium. I felt my grip loosening. I tried looking around me for help, I saw blurry images of men, women and children, I tried to open my mouth and say 'help' but there wasn't enough strength left in me to utter a word. All I could think of at that time was my impending rape and murder if I let myself get off the train. I mustered up all the strength left in my body and grabbed the iron bars with both hands, while the officer tried pulling me. My eyes were shut now and my mouth parched. But my hands stayed loyal and didnt let me die.
The train began to move, cruelly slow, and the officer tried a last attempt to pull me. Then he got off the train and let me go. I opened my eyes and saw his evil face staring at me from the outside. Thats the last thing I remember, because I fell into such a deep sleep that my mother had to nudge me violently at Agra station to wake me up.
'How can you sleep like a log, without a care for your luggage on a train alone? she asked me.
The events of the day came rushing back to me and a shiver went up my spine imagining all the possibilities had I got off the train. I didnt tell my parents anything about the episode.
When I got back to my college, I confided in a classmate about the incident.
'Its your fault', she said, 'why did you have to take a favour from the officer and why on Earth did you take that drink? Don't you know you should never take anything a stranger offers you?'
I believed what she said to me. I believed it was my fault. I believed that I made a mistake by trusting government officers in uniform. I did not tell anyone about this for a decade since I believed that whatever had happened was because of my own foolishness and naivete.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Answerable question - Devina Kapoor

Been away for a while now, from why loiter, city and life in general. Kept me thinking of how small we are when looked down upon from universe. I, wandering in a park am going to make a difference in the world, well guess not. Fully doubtful about the stand I took 5 months ago. The amount of time and efforts devoted to the group felt useless. Fortunately or unfortunately, in the company of people who asked me this simple question- why loiter?
Guess what- I was out of answers.

After reading the stories people posted on the blog, the amazing video by Shawn Lewis and (after a very long time) meeting one of the most courageous and inspiring woman in my life, Neha Singh. It kept me thinking the same, why loiter. Everybody in our group has different answer to it. For someone its social chilling, independence for someone may be. What was my answer, my motive?

Coming from a small town, to me Mumbai looked like a giant animal with lot of limbs, scattered all around. People running here and there and lost. Lost in gaining something even they don’t know. I remember my very first local train ride in rush hours for a job interview. Life never looked scarier to me. With the little strength in me, I actually survived the journey and train ride became a usual thing, to the extent that I got used to pushing and pulling. On such usual day, with ladies coach full of perspiration and high pitch voices a girl grabbed me with tears and fear in her eyes, asking for help to get down at the next station. I could see a weak me in her. That me, who if the other day didn’t get the courage of making it to the end, would have looked like her. From that day onwards, I never lost that courage. Its always with me.  

All these thoughts made me come to a conclusion. The answer was always there, I just didn’t realize it.

Its very simple – why not loiter.

This city has many sides to it. When it gives you fear, it gives you way to gain courage. If it gives you anger, it has its way of cooling you down. It surely gives you pain but just so that you can find love. And to explore all that, you have to loiter around. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Our first film- Neha Singh

Last Saturday we celebrated five months of loitering in the city. We loitered post midnight at Shivaji Park, Dadar and also made a small film. Here it is. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

'Want to fuck?'- an American woman's bittersweet memories of Indian streets- Kat Lieder

I have a vivid memory of the first time I was aggressively sexually harassed on the street in India. I was 19 years old. I had been in India for less than a month. I was attending a Hindi-language program in Jaipur and was proficient enough in Hindi to converse with my host mother about politics and watch films without the subtitles on. It was a hot day in July, and the sweat dripped down, pooling in the small of my back and causing my kameez to stick to me. I had my dupatta draped over my head, hiding my red hair and protecting my skin from the sun. I was walking home with a friend, another white, female student. A car with four men in it pulled up beside us, coming dangerously close to running us off the road, and one of the men leaned out the passenger-side window. “Hey,” he called. It was not the first time someone had awkwardly tried to engage us in conversation. With my pale skin, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a part of Jaipur where tourists never visited. But this man wasn’t done. “I want to fuck,” he called. “Are you ready?” What kind of response was this man hoping to get? Certainly not a “yes, certainly, take me here and now,” right? Instead, because I was angry and hurt and confused, I shouted back at him. “Behen chod!” Sister-fucker. “Go away!” He pulled his head back into the car, and it took off. We continued walking, shaken, but feeling victorious for having scared them off—until the car came back around the corner and drove straight at us. The part of Jaipur we were in had no sidewalks; there was no place to get out of the way. We stood there helplessly as the car came bearing down on us, the men inside shouting obscenities. The car didn’t hit us. I’m here writing this, after all. Instead, it stopped a few feet from us and then trailed us all the way home. As we walked through the front gate of our host-mother’s house, the men sat in their car on the street, their eyes on us. I felt vulnerable, outraged, frustrated by the way the situation had escalated, by my inability to do anything. And I had a strong realization that the streets of India were always going to be like that for me, a place where I had no control, no power over how I was treated, over who looked at me and how they looked, over what they said.
This incident was a long time ago now; I turned 27 this past summer. But it stayed with me for years, making it extremely difficult for me to trust the good intentions of any man who spoke to me on the street. Which is why, when I encountered a group of young women who dared to take up the radical challenge of Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade’s Why Loiter, who made a point of loitering in a public space in a way that women almost never do, even in the supposedly liberal city of Mumbai, I asked to join them. I am a Ph.D. candidate now, studying theatrical responses to the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. To me, the act of loitering seemed like a perfect act of protest against such atrocity. Women should be free to move through space as men do without being terrified of the potential for sexual harassment and assault, and the best way to make that argument is to do it, to take up public space and make it our own.
We were meeting near a chai stall in northwest Mumbai on a hot, late afternoon in July. I met a member of the group outside a large mall, hopped into an auto-rickshaw with her, and we were off. I am always nervous about finding my way around in new places in India; it’s that same fear of vulnerability, of helplessness, that I get from being regularly sexually harassed. So when it took us a few minutes of wandering to track down the group of women we were meeting, I began to worry. What if we couldn’t find them? Was this an ok neighborhood in which to be lost? Were we safe? I hate that I think these things, hate that I have to think them, to put my concern for my physical safety above my desire to explore new places and meet new people. We did, eventually, find the group and sit down together on a step to drink chai and eat some snacks. People stared. As we expected them to. But there was a safety in numbers, a feeling of power we shared as a group of ten-or-so women laughing and talking with one another, trying to feel and perform the same sort of nonchalance that men have in public space. We were just hanging out.
The chaiwallah seemed delighted by us, whether because of the extra attention we drew to his stall or because he knew our organizer, Neha, relatively well. He offered us free cups of chai and glanced back at us regularly to see if we needed anything. A group of men wandered up to the stand and looked confused about where to sit since we women were taking up the prime seating location on the steps. Eventually, they sat down next to us and started talking with us. A few of us darted out of the group to take pictures as the street scene unfolded. As afternoon drifted into evening, our loitering party began to break up. Nervous still about traveling home after dark by myself, I accepted an offer to share a rickshaw with another woman and we left.
It isn’t as if this one act of loitering, of protesting through placing our bodies in spaces in which others aren’t used to seeing them and demanding that we be treated as if we belong there, is going to change my approach to public space in India. I’m still nervous and on edge most of the time when I am out and about, waiting anxiously for the next incident of harassment. I’m still extremely careful about being out after dark. If alone, I record my auto-rickshaw’s plate number, call a friend, and loudly give them the information. However, these women give me a lot of optimism for the future. I hope that more women like them stand up, draw strength from one another’s sisterhood, and demonstrate that they have just as much right to public space as men do.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Because pictures speak louder than words...- Neha Singh

Why loiter? Mumbai Chapter approaches its fifth month of inception and with great pride and joy I share some of the images that we captured over our various beautiful days of loitering....

For those still unclear about what we do...we are a bunch of women in Bombay that meet up every weekend at a pre decided public space and just loiter. No purpose: no shopping, no waiting, no 'on my way' home or to work or to a party or to a dance class or to the, plain loitering.
Slowly trying to create a new mind space among men and women that a girl, without purpose, in a public space, is NOT a prostitute/slut/loose/suspicious/weird/inviting trouble/unsafe/rash/careless/to be protected/deserves to be raped/harassed/shown her place/rebuked/scolded/sent home/stared at/reported etc etc.

Inspired by the book 'Why loiter?' written by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, we were two to begin with and now over thirty women have participated in our loitering at least once, we are gaining strength, popularity and solidarity. We are cycling, walking, talking, playing, eating, sharing, reclaiming the night...

Here are some images from our loitering times

sharing a joke at a public park in Versova

Early one Sunday morning, it was pouring cats and dogs, and we decided to loiter at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Lazing around in a lovely park at Versova

chatting at the Fort gardens in Bandra....Sameera, one of the authors of Why Loiter? joined us

Juhu...past one a.m. ...nocturnal birds

sipping on cutting chai at a chai tapri in Goregaon...

Biking at Bandra

Stop over at a roadside cafe

If you are in Bombay and love loitering, or have been loitering and want to share your story with us on this blog, do write to us at

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Climbing Arunchala with Oma- Shaizia Jifri

It is difficult to write this piece without giving the woman I am writing about some context. I call her Oma. Which means grandmother in German. She's not my grandmother and we aren't related by blood. Yet she feels like family. Her granddaughter is one of my closest friends. Her son treats me like his adopted daughter and her whole family makes it to my A-list, of people I love and hold dear. Her name is Maya Krishnamurthy. A name she kept from an ex-husband who was her college professor, but not the father of her son. She is the daughter of Aurobindo Bose, who happened to be Subhas Chandra Bose's first cousin. 
Aurobindo Bose was a freedom fighter himself and was imprisoned in the Andamans, from where he escaped in a story not unlike "Shawshank Redemption". He made it to Tamil Nadu in a fishing boat and made his way to Tiruvanamalai. In Tiruvanamalai he acquired a property which is now known as "Bose Compound". Aurobindo Bose was well acquainted with Sri Aurobindo, The Mother and Ramana Maharish. Ramana is said to have spent much time at "Bose Compound". 
Today Oma owns "Bose Compound". It is a sprawling property just down the road from the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvanamalai. It sits at the base of Arunachala and for me is the place where I learnt to let go of a lot of fear and face many of my own inner demons. 
There is a forest of trees on "Bose Compound", mostly planted by Oma over the years. Various cottages peek out from the trees each one with a special name. Oma mostly stays at "Nirvan", which is a big airy bungalow at the back. 
In 2007 I felt like I needed to get away somewhere and sort out my life. Thanks to her son Aaron, I ended up working for Oma at "Bose Compound" in Tiruvanamalai. I lived in a cottage called "Peace", while I ran six rooms in various little cottages as a guesthouse. We also re-built and ran a restaurant called "Kafé Ram". Together with Oma and Aaron and a team of three men we put together Kafé Ram brick by brick and then painted and thatched things ourselves. When the men wouldn't let me do heavy lifting work, I would spend long hours raking leaves and cleaning out the compound and the various rooms that had been locked. 
Oma is also fondly referred to as "Sarge" by her son. She has worked at the library and mental institute of the US army where she learnt to drive big heavy duty trucks, at some point in her life. Till very recently she used to ride her Java motorbike between Bangalore and Tiruvanamalai. She really is made of tough stuff. The fact that I drive long distance alone and don't shirk at manual labor gained me her approval. She is the sort of lady who doesn't care for either fluffiness or anything airy in someone's personality.
Once we opened Kafé Ram, Oma, Aaron and myself decided that it should be the sort of place where people of all walks of life should come and eat and feel welcome. We had a wall dedicated to saints, spirituality, spiritual sayings and religious symbols. Sathya Sai stood tall in the centre of the wall, at the end we had St Francis staring down from a large antique print. Sayings by Aldous Huxley flanked a photo of "Hugging Amma". Soon our customers started coming up and adding little things of their own to this wall. It really gave Kafé Ram a feeling of harmony and unity. 
The food at Kafé Ram was simple. South Indian "tiffin" in the morning. South Indian "meals" in the afternoon followed by vegetarian specials like Gobi Manchurian and Veg Fried Rice or Palak Paneer and Rotis in the evening. The menu changed according to what we had in the kitchen and the mood of our cook Anand.
Tiruvanamalai is a small town with some small town problems. When our modest restaurant started doing well, people got jealous. I started to have problems with the power going out every evening when business was picking up, while every other place near us still had lights. Finally Oma figured out that someone was cutting our power line. She happened to know the ex-commissioner of the town and called him up to tell him what was happening. Within a week our power problems vanished and the lights shone brightly at Kafé Ram all evening long.
Oma decided that we needed to thank the ex-commissioner and said I should go with her. She fished out a box of chocolates that she had brought down from Bangalore and we walked across town to his house with it. Only his son was home so we left the box of chocolates with a message and made our way back. As we were walking back we happened to cross the entry point to the main route up Arunachala. At that point Oma turned to me and said "Shez have you been to the top of the Mountain yet?" 
The truth was I hadn't been to the top. I had climbed up, but always stopped somewhere along the way and never really felt like finishing the climb. I told her this.
"Well you only climb to the top of Arunachala when you are ready and I think you are ready and need to climb it today" replied Oma.
I tried to begin an argument with her and tell her it was 5pm and would be dark soon. Not the best time to be climbing up. Now the thing with Oma is, once she decides something, you really can't argue with her. So we started climbing. As we began we came across a little boy selling bananas. We picked up a bunch of six bananas and Oma had a pack of Charms cigarettes with six cigarettes in it. We had no water and no torch. Also I happened to be in a sleeveless kurta with rubber chappals on. Not the best gear for a hike up Arunachala.
At first the going was easy we chatted and it felt like we would get up fairly easily. After all Arunachala, just about classifies as a mountain and in my head wasn't that high.
Then night fell. At that point Oma asked me to walk in front of her because she really couldn't see. I asked her what she could see and she told me she could make out my white pyjama bottoms. So I hiked my kurta around my waist so she could see my pyjamas clearly and walked in front of her. It was very slow going because I would take a step and literally wait for her to shuffle her feet in behind me. The climb started to get steeper and it was hard going for both of us. We stopped a few times and ate bananas and smoked cigarettes just to keep our spirits up. Soon we only had two of each left.
At some point we both began to sense that the top of the mountain was close and just then clouds descended. What ever visibility I had vanished and  from then on it really was the blind leading the blind. I gingerly felt my way up as Oma shuffled behind me. When I really was in doubt I sparingly put on my old Nokia cell phone which gave me enough light to find a hand or foothold. 
Finally we made it to the top. By this time the clouds had settled in thick over Arunachala's crown and visibility was zero. But we both felt a sense of achievement of finally making it to the top. We squatted on a couple of rocks and smoked our last two cigarettes, with a deep sense of satisfaction. At this point Oma turned and told me "You know Shez, I think I was hallucinating while climbing up. I kept seeing a wall on both sides of me and a white light at the end of a tunnel in front of me." When she told me this I was truly worried. I couldn't help thinking of all those stories of people having experiences of tunnels and white light while they are in comas or when they lose consciousness completely. Did Oma just drag me up for her very last climb to pop it on me at the top of Arunachala?!! Later I figured out that we had climbed on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She had been thinking about that during the day. The white light happened to be the back of my pyjamas, guiding her failing eyes through the darkness.
Oma on the other hand didn't seem worried at all. In fact she actually made me call her son and granddaughter to tell them we were on the top of Arunachala. Her granddaughter worried me more by telling me to look after Oma and make sure nothing happened to her.
Oma was showing no signs of concern. Instead she turned to me and said "Come on, let's find a place to sleep." 
I managed to find a small shelf just down from the top of the mountain that gave us a bit of shelter from the wind, that had started to blow quite strongly at this point. Oma curled up with a rock as a pillow and suggested I did the same. She was soon snoring gently, like she was sleeping on a comfortable bed. I was not as peaceful. At this point I was shivering and also wrought with worry about her. I kept waking up to check on her and the night dragged slowly on as I fretted about waking up to find her dead beside me. She was after all over 80 and not as invincible as she used to be.
Dawn finally came and it was spectacular. It literally felt like the world was unfolding in front of us. Oma and I ate our last bananas and started on our descent down the mountain. Now climbing up was difficult, but going down was just as hard. We had no water and the sun had started to beat down hard on the mountain. There is vary little shade on Arunachala and dehydration was getting to both of us. "This is how it should be" said Oma "When you climb Arunachala you shouldn't drink water. This is how I always do it." 
Then the sun really started getting to us. A couple of climbers were coming up and they offered us a drink of water. I happily accepted. Oma refused. She was adamant about finishing her descent without drinking a single drop of water. Finally we got to a stunted frangipani tree. I made her sit in its shade. 
"Go on without me!" She started yelling at me. "I am slowing you down!"
"Listen you crazy old goat!" I yelled back "I am not sending a hearse to come collect your body from the body the bottom of this mountain! So just keep going with me!" 
We launched into a full blown argument where she began insisting that she wanted to finish the climb alone and I was more likely to make her fall if I stayed because she sensed some expectation from me. I told her she was being ridiculous and I would just settle into whatever pace she chose. At some point she changed her tune and insisted that she wanted to just sit under the frangipani tree for some time and would only move when she was ready. She then screamed at me to leave her alone and just go ahead without her. I finally relented. 
In my head I thought that she was making me go because she was ready to quit completely. I had promised her son and granddaughter that I wouldn't let anything happen to her. I am not much of an athlete, but that day my feet grew wings. I raced down the mountain and  at the base I managed to flag an auto to take me to Bose Compound. On the compound lives a man called Raja. He has known Oma since he was a boy and apart from doing all kinds of odd jobs around the property for her, he is also her friend. He knows how to deal with her and is as stubborn as she is if he wants to be.
I found Raja gave him a bottle of water and told him to go and get her down. For three hours I sat in my room in 'Peace' and worried about her. At 2pm my phone rang.
"Come to 'Nirvan'!"chirped Oma on the other side "I have beer and biryani for you!"
I ran across the compound to 'Nirvan' to find her happily drinking beer and smoking her Charms cigarettes.
"Come on you!" she said with a big grin "We have lots to celebrate....and you have lots of catching up to do."

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Claiming the night...- Neha Singh

I would often hear my friends talk about their night time adventures...stepping out for a midnight snack or for the crave of that one smoke. They would tell me about their heartfelt conversation with the 'coffee anna' as the night time coffee sellers are fondly called in Bombay. Or their misadventures with the stray dogs in the gullies when they had to run to escape the snarling mutts. Or just sitting on the rocks at the beach, pondering over life's mysteries. Needless to say, all these midnight tales belonged to my guy friends.
I wished I could just get out of home without looking at the watch, without having to care whether it was an 'ungodly' hour. I wonder why that term was coined, because for me, breezy, lonely nights are so much better than hot, sultry, crowded days sometimes. 
When why loiter? began its weekly loiterings, I itched to propose a midnight loitering, half fearing it would be shot down immediately. Much to my delight, it was accepted without any discussion or hesitations. That's why I love these girls so much. :)
So we began walking from Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, at 1 a.m. Just four of us. 

We walked past Juhu Circle and the roads were still crowded, we took the Juhu Versova Link Road since our final destination was Yaari Road.

We walked without any fear or worries, laughing, clicking pictures, buying water from the Chemist shop. We walked further, now it was almost 2 a.m and the roads were more empty than I had ever seen them in Bombay. Yet, there wasn't any reason to be fearful. 

We stopped and clicked some more pictures at a divider on a lonely residential road. 

A couple of noisy cars passed us by, maybe they were returning from a party. We kept walking towards our destination, when suddenly a man on a motorcycle approached us with a surprisingly sharp sense of authority. 
'Aap log itni raat ko yahaan kya kar rahi hain?' he questioned us, as though he had a right to ask us that question without bothering to tell us who he was. 'We are walking', was our matter of fact reply.
'Do you know a couple of cars have been following you? I have been watching you girls for sometime now. I am a police officer. Now get into an autorikshaw and be on your way home. This is no time for girls from 'good families' to be out on the roads'. After this, he continued to demonstrate his brazen sense of authority over us by stopping an autorikshaw and commanding us to get in.
We tried explaining to him that we aren't doing anything wrong, just exercising our right to walk on the streets at anytime we want. If he feels that the boys in the noisy cars can harm us, shouldn't he be stopping them, rather than us?
He still couldn't for the life of him understand why us 'girls from good homes' would want to loiter at night when there are entire days available to us to loiter. We told him about the purpose of Why loiter? and how it encourages women to take risks, to loiter in public spaces, at day or night, in groups or alone, and to be seen by others and to reinforce the thought that it is alright to see a woman on the roads, without purpose, at any hour, and you need neither harm her, intimidate her or protect her. 
Things seem to seep into his system and when I asked him 'What, according to you is the solution to women's safety on the roads?' he replied 'I think the only solution is that more and more women come out of their homes and claim spaces'. There was a collective 'Eureka' feeling that we all felt as our hearts melted for this 'protective-conservative-self proclaimed big brother cop'.
To declare peace he offered to treat us to coffee at a coffee anna close by and we agreed. After some more conversation on the pleasures of loitering we bid him goodbye and left.
Now, the funniest part about our entire interaction with him was the fact that he had said that he was a police officer, but none of the things he said to reinforce his stature seemed true. I asked him what his post was or which police station he was attached to, to which he just mumbled something and much later came up with 'I am junior inspector Rishi and am attached with the Versova Police station'. He was dressed in black pants and a black shirt, had diamond studs on his ears and long-ish hair. He even tried hammering his statement by picking up a call (fake) and saying 'Yes, Sir, I have patrolled the entire area and everything seems to be alright' and after he hung up he told us that he was talking to the ACP!! He went on explaining how he had similarly 'rescued' a girl in Borivali a week before.
Even though we gave him the benefit of doubt, we were all pretty sure he was no real cop, just a cop in his head that felt he had to go around 'policing' people into what he felt was right and wrong ways of behaving. We were glad we made a dent in his thought process. And of course, had a good laugh at his desperate attempt at making us believe his 'cop' status. Ironically, soon after Junior Inspector Rishi went off, we were stopped by cops in a patrol vehicle, in uniform, and asked us to head home lest someone stole our purses, but when one of us retorted 'We are fine! Thank you!' they just said 'Jaao jaao ...ghumo...dhyaan se par'! 
By the time we reached Yaari Road it was 3 a.m and we had had a perfect loitering session. 

Sometimes, I feel that the demons in our heads are bigger than the real ones. I had denied myself the pleasures of breezy, lonely nights outdoors just because of the fear of something wrong happening. I don't deny the fact that crime against women are committed every day, every minute. But I also feel that it is high time we learnt to take risks in order to lead a life that in a parallel, un-oppressive universe would be a regular life with the freedom of movement without fear, no matter what your gender.