Take a train from Lower Parel to Mahalaxmi. Gaze out of a west-facing window. You will spot the tall black chimney with ‘Shakti Mills’ painted down its edifice. It towers over the picturesque ruins of my city’s industrial history.
You will wonder what the crumbling columns look like from within. One monsoon evening, when their overgrowth appears irresistibly lush, you will want to enter.
Last week, a twenty-two year old boy and a twenty-two year old girl, did.
For years, I’ve wanted to take my photographer friends there. We are all twenty-two years old. One of them is a girl.
We were walking back from New Delhi Metro station to our hotel nearby. On a whim I still cannot explain, I walked behind my friend, instead of beside her.
In the next twenty minutes, I observed her being ogled by seventeen men. Including two policemen.
To describe what she was wearing would defeat the purpose of this post. Fortunately, we were part of a group, and reached our rooms quite safely. I remember thinking then – this won’t happen in my city.
Our Fresher’s Party ended late that night. In a bout of chivalry, I volunteered to accompany my friend in her train back across the city to Vasai.
She had a first-class pass for the entire route; I didn’t. To avoid the crowd, she boarded a ladies’ first class compartment. I boarded a second-class general one.
Gradually, the train emptied out. And for fifty minutes, I, her supposed protector, twiddled my thumbs in my compartment, completely unaware of how she was faring in hers.
When we alighted at Vasai, I felt very silly. We laughed about it then, and we’ve laughed about it ever since.
It doesn’t seem laughable anymore.
As usual, we worked on the project in college until eleven. Usually, we’d take one of the last trains home, and her parents would pick her up at Parle station.
That night, her parents were not in the city. Her brother came to pick her up instead.
No one found it absurd that the person deputed to escort her home was of school-going age. He was male, and that was security enough.
Another night. Another train. Through a window in the partition, my gaze meandered to a young woman seated in the ladies’ first class.
There was no one else in her compartment. Why is she travelling alone so late? Doesn’t she know enough to be careful about certain kinds of men?
She noticed me. Her expression changed. A strange man is staring at me. There is no one nearby.
She shifted herself out of view. For her, I’m no different from the men I wished she’d be wary of.
Don’t take that route. Don’t enter that area. Don’t wear that dress. Don’t come back that late.
One half of my city’s people – locals and migrants, old and young, rich and poor – don’t feel safe here. This is not my city anymore.
Reclaim my city. Take back the night.
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