We've all seen the video of the woman being catcalled relentlessly while she walks the streets of New York. As a woman who spends a lot of time in both New York City and Mumbai, I shudder to think what a similar video filmed in New Delhi or Mumbai would capture (and I'm not talking about the suspiciously staged one that did the rounds which I will not link to because it is also doing a huge disservice to women everywhere).
Recent violent gang rapes in India have been in the news and women--locals and travellers--often have horror stories of the streets. Women of all ages, classes, races, and appearances will tell you about how harrowing it can be to simply walk down a street in India. We learn early on to try to protect ourselves, to travel only in the women's compartments, to dress modestly, to get home early, and to avoid eye contact, despite the fact that eyes are seeking us out. But every so often, the streets surprise you.
At nearly midnight one night during the last monsoon, I had to catch an international flight out of Mumbai. The monsoon is not always kind to Mumbai and this was one of those ruthless nights. It was difficult to see through the windshield of my local taxi. Men on motorbikes had slowed down, using whatever they could to shield themselves from the rain--umbrellas, briefcases and plastic bags, rarely helmets. The slums along the sides of the highway were covered in blue tarp for protection. It was one of those nights that make me love Mumbai, but only when I'm safe at home, watching the rain, while I sip a cup of tea and marvel at the city outside the balcony.
To get to the airport from where I live, you have to drive through a 100-foot long, narrow underpass that floods easily and often in the monsoon months. Water pours into it at the entrance. The mouth to the underpass is just wide enough to accommodate one car at a time. And at that mouth, under the water that was rushing in from above, the taxi I was in broke down to a grinding halt. Mumbai being the real city that never sleeps, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, scooters, and bicycles quickly lined up behind us, honking angrily.
The taxi was stuck. It could not go forward, it could not go backwards. The old, bearded driver looked at me apologetically. A few men from vehicles behind us all gathered around the taxi shouting instructions at each other, peering in at me with curiosity and trying to push the car. I stiffened. Sitting with my purse and laptop bag, with a large suitcase in the trunk, in this rain, I didn't have too many options. The men, all getting wet, pushed more. They managed to get the taxi moved enough for motorbikes to start going past. I sat there trying to call a friend, making my peace with the fact that I was going to miss my flight, grateful that nobody was taking advantage of the single woman obviously looking nervous in the back seat of the car.
Two men pulled their bike near my window and rapped on it, motioning for me to lower it.
"Do you need to get to the other side?" one of them asked me in Hindi. I nodded.
He waved over another bike that had only one man, clearly not a friend of his, on it. He negotiated quickly with that man, turned to me and said again, "My friend will go with him. You can get on the back of my bike. I'll drop you off wherever you need to go."
"That's very kind of you but I can't do that. I have luggage. I'm on my way to the airport. I'll just wait."
"How much luggage do you have?"
"A suitcase in the trunk. A big one."
The man who had taken charge asked my taxi driver (who was also trying to dial-a-friend) to open the trunk.
"Okay, come on," the man in charge said to me. The two men behind the taxi lifted my suitcase out of the trunk. One of them got on the front of the motorbike while the other one lifted the heavy suitcase onto his lap on the back of the motorbike. The taxi driver came over to my door and held a newspaper over my head while I got out and got on the back of the first motorbike. I held on to my purse and laptop bag and figured that if the two other men took off with my suitcase, it would be bad but not a disaster and this seemed like a better option than sitting in a stalled taxi waiting for help to somehow make its way through the chaotic streets of Mumbai towards me. I reasoned that the streets of Mumbai were still busy enough at this hour that I could easily jump off the bike and flee if I sensed he was driving me somewhere other than the airport.
Twenty very wet minutes later, my suitcase and I were dropped off at the main terminal of Mumbai International Airport. The men hopped on to their respective bikes and took off into the night.
India is often dreadful for women. I have no intention of defending, justifying, or excusing the petty and not-so-petty sexual harassment that regularly takes place. Indeed, I have sometimes felt unsafe and often felt uncomfortable. There are other countries and cities in the world where I feel much more relaxed walking down a street alone. Even New York City. But, in New York City, would three strangers drive me safely all the way to JFK? Would I let them? I'm in New York City now and the snowstorms are here so maybe I'll have a reason to report back in a few months. I always love being surprised by places I think I know well.