Leading to the weeks of my departure, amidst all the shopping and tedious list-making, I stood in front of a rack of ceramic plates. I held a blue dish in my delicate hands. Curved at the edges and smoothed in the middle. Moulded with heat, the plate felt soft yet like putty in my hands. The way my body is, and I have thought it to be. A fragile and shiny object that I must take care of. Covered in bubble wrap and delicately placed amongst other clothes. The night I left my mother whispered in my ear while hugging, ‘You are responsible for your own self.’ I wondered if the same words would be uttered with a similar yet stinging heaviness if I were a boy. The heaviness ran down deeper when I read the headlines’ 28-year-old, Sabina Nessa, murdered in a park, 5 minutes away from home.’ It drew chills down my spine and left marks that of a witch’s nails. For a brief moment, I saw myself lying covered in leaves, discovered days after by a dog walker.
While the MET issued a statement,’ We won’t ask women to change their behaviour’.The problem remains age-old and rooted in the conscious and the unconscious. Women are conditioned to occupy as little space as possible, without making their presence felt. This has happened to all of us as we often find ourselves in a bustling street. We shrink our shoulders, tuck our bags into our stomachs, and wiggle our way through without making any sort of loud cry of our existence.
‘They tell us stories of Sita being bound to Laxman Rekha, a line drawn around the dwelling that the exiled group occupy in the forest. But mustn’t we ask, why did Sita need a boundary?’
There comes a time in your adulthood where your identity gets pierced by the tabloids when the mere utterance of an event is no longer just that. Does it not turn into an incisive introspection into whether I am safe? To my horror, I realized I was in a city that was no different from Mumbai. The country I hail from has no sense of mediation between the female body and female presence and its interaction along with the external world.
The external world belongs to men with power in their pockets and lines on their foreheads. Those with cigarettes in their hands in the nook of a street and those who sprawl their legs in scattered seats in the metro. There is no winning in this case, you must either choose to stand or squeeze your body between the two men who sit a seat apart despite having enough ahead of them.
Their roles as homemakers are extended even beyond their homes. The moment arrives in the short film where the concept is solidified when Manju asks her friend to pass a cup to pour some tea for her domestic help. There is visible discomfort when her friend hands her steel tumbler instead of ceramic cups for the others. In reply to which the domestic help politely refuses to drink tea and takes leave accordingly. The social hierarchy is solidified in this simple act of pouring a cup of tea.
Manju is beckoned by her husband who asks her to look after the kids and stop them from loitering in the drawing-room. To which Manju reprimands them by saying ‘Don’t you see the men are talking here?’Manju is called several times by her husband and eventually, she drops everything, pours herself a glass of juice, and drags a chair to the living room. The well-ventilated living room is only meant for swirls of smoke accompanied with inane political chatter. Manju breaks the barriers and situates herself in a room full of men. Men are entitled to leisure and women are meant to labour. It is only with a determined purpose that we must encroach on the surroundings.
The difference between the settings in which the two groups are situated is evident.
The first time I tried to navigate in this huge metropolitan I did marvel at how better managed it was than the public transport back at home. The infamous Mumbai Locals are chaotic yet systematically planned commute. The vehicle is divided into separate coaches not on a randomized basis, but each berth has a different meaning. The fare of those tickets varied and most importantly there was a separate coach for women. While the remainder of these are mostly occupied by men and called the ‘general compartment’.
I did expect no such provisions catered for the commuters in London, I had no qualms till the time I had an experience of my own. The seats were occupied in a staggered way. With couples squished into one part of the berth and men with newspapers and phones in their hands in the other. Each one apart, strategically placed with one seat away from the other, hence making it impossible for you to find a lone seat.
Walking over to the gentlemen with newspapers, I asked with a sense of hesitation if I could sit there. I was met with a scoff and a stare that immediately reminded me of how violated I felt and embarrassed. Often I have found myself criticizing the ladies who sat in the Mumbai Local, I had some newfound appreciation for the way they unabashedly claimed their space. Many of these women find these spaces to use with the leisure that they rarely find. This can be anything from watching a movie on the phone to reading a book. You might perchance upon a woman who carried her vegetables to peel and cut them while she commutes to her office.
A lot of these realizations led me to understand that gender and other identity signifiers cannot be stripped from the way an individual reacts with social spaces. There is some truth to what I say when I came across this specific study conducted by Shilpa Ranade which sheds light on women negotiating with public spaces. She looks at four populous spaces in the metropolitan city of Mumbai. One of which is Nariman Point, a continuous cascade of office buildings. Ranade’s study traced the path of hundreds of corporate workers. It was observed that during lunchtime, women mapped out a meticulous trajectory that involved only going from their office to the vendors for food and back. While men tend to take their time and in a leisurely manner hop from one vendor to another. More importantly, their tedious yet unhurried venture at lunchtime happens in groups.
Another instance of such a phenomenon is studied at Kalachowki where women possess what Ranade calls, purposeful movement. A fairly middle-class neighbourhood, Kalachowki has inhabitants of all ages and strata. It consists of a playground adjoining to a co-ed school largely meant for children. However, the research suggests that men of all ages occupy this playground mostly. Adhering to the idea of purposeful movement, girls and women made use of this park only as a pathway to shorten their time of transit from one place to another.
If you look at the maps laid out by the research, it is always men who are found occupying public space at rest – they are found sitting and hanging out on low wall adjoining the play ground, standing near the paan shops, newspaper stands or just sitting around in the middle of the playground, alone and in groups. Women, on the other hand, will be rarely found standing or waiting in public space – they swiftly move from one private space point to another with almost a ghoul-like existence.
Now here’s the thing, I have envied men for a very long time. For multiple reasons but most importantly for being able to acquire public spaces at the ungodliness hours of the day. Whether it is to have a smoke or to just simply feel the wind against their faces. My path just like yours remains not just a physical but a mental neurosis. Men are taught from a young age that the spaces they occupy belong to them without purpose. It starts very early on. They tell us stories of Sita being bound to Laxman Rekha, a line drawn around the dwelling that the exiled group occupy in the forest. But mustn’t we ask, why did Sita need a boundary?