Sunday, December 24, 2017

Riding with ladies

Last week, I was very upset with Kirron Kher for shifting blame onto a gangrape victim, suggesting that she shouldn't have gotten into a share auto-rickshaw when three men were already seated inside.

The day after she made the statement, I found myself getting into an auto-rickshaw with three male passengers and one male driver. This is actually fairly common across small and big cities in India. The suburb I live in currently is quite far from the centre of town and there was a time when sharing a rickshaw was the only mode of transport available. Cabs were unheard of. Sexual assault was also unheard of.

Many nights I'd be dead tired, having travelled nearly an hour in the over-stuffed ladies compartment of the local train, loathe to enter another crowded space. Auto drivers simply refused to use the meter in those days, so I'd often pay three passengers' fare just so I could travel alone. Even so, I'd have to argue with the drivers before they would let me hire the auto as a solo passenger. Things have changed now and the autos have fallen in line with meters. Even so, if I try to hire an auto solo, it takes twice as long to get home.

Many drivers are reluctant to take a solo passenger and not just because of the few extra rupees. They like the ease of working set routes without having to go off the main roads. Besides, there are too many passengers waiting. In the monsoons and in the sweltering summer, mosquitoes hovering overhead and around everyone's feet, the wait is particularly galling. People get annoyed if they see drivers taking solo passenger.

Still, male passengers seem to understand if a woman doesn't want to share. They may feel insulted by the insinuation that a potential co-passenger doesn't feel safe with them. They may feel she is over reacting, or ultra orthodox, if she doesn't want to sit next to men. But they don't usually say anything.

Female passengers also seem to prefer travelling with other women. They don't say anything, but there is quiet relief in their eyes, a relaxation of their posture, small smiles exchanged as three women tie up to share a ride. I suppose there is similar relief in my eyes too.

Every so often, I think of Kathmandu. The memory of shared tempo ride, in particular, is vivid in my mind. Me and my friends got into a tempo. Most of our co-passengers were male. The driver was missing. A moment later, the door opened on the driver's side and a woman got behind the wheel. A woman wearing a traditional blouse and saree and bright red lipstick. I was the only one gawking.

My friends informed me that this was not an uncommon sight. Women were starting to drive shared tempos in Kathmandu. Fourteen years later, the startling delight of that moment hasn't faded. The presence of the women tempo drivers had brought me a great sense of safety in that city, despite the curfews and sporadic reports of violence. It even brought me joy, though I could not manage to ride in autos or tempos driven by women most days. Still. It was enough to know that they were out there, lipstick on their mouths hopefully, and a fun song playing on the radio.

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