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View: Women riding vehicles are busy wresting their freedom to be a person, forgetting their worst fears

Most women learned to drive as soon as they could to avoid the bus. They saved for two-wheelers and second-hand cars to resist family pressure to go everywhere accompanied because duniya is kharaab.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Dec 09, 2019, 10.19 AM IST
Some strategise for the spot near the door in the Mumbai local where you gaze at the horizon, hair and chunni flying, like Hema Malini, hawa ke saath saath...
How can you not know how to ride a bicycle?” a man once asked me. “What kind of a feminist are you?” “The kind of feminist who takes public transport!” I said. I feel freest when I can get about on trains and cabs, by myself.

Many women like that. Maria, a 42-year-old senior analyst from Bengaluru, just moved jobs. People keep saying to her she must be so happy that her commute is down by an hour. Maria isn’t. “That hour of commute was my me-time between home and work.” This leisure is writ large even in the sweaty sardine tin of the Mumbai local ladies’ compartment. Women chat, play video games, read, eat cheap idlis, buy hair clips, chop veggies, mend clothes, fight for space, are lost in thought or music or texting smiles. Some strategise for the spot near the door where you gaze at the horizon, hair and chunni flying, like Hema Malini, hawa ke saath saath, ghata ke sangh sangh.

I still feel awed that the Delhi Metro lets you come home late, something I never did through college, or tweet your people-watching observations.

That the city’s buses allow working class women — in a country where women’s participation in the workforce has been steadily dropping — the possibility of travelling free.

I took the DTC bus to college. I expected to be molested, although not as much as I was one day when six men did not let me get off at my stop and everyone laughed at my terror.

But I did not stop taking the bus or going to college. Those were the available choices.

Most women learned to drive as soon as they could to avoid the bus. They saved for two-wheelers and second-hand cars to resist family pressure to go everywhere accompanied because duniya is kharaab.

Angela, a young woman I knew, gave tuition to put herself through college. She walked everywhere and was always exhausted and late. Finally she saved up enough for a second-hand bicycle, fittingly called Devil.

She compensated for its missing bell by whistling to ask people to make way. Her smile became broader, her dreams bigger. Today she is an FM radio jockey. In my 2002 film Unlimited Girls, I interviewed Kanchan Gawre, Bombay’s first woman taxi driver. She chose to drive a taxi, to augment the family income, over homebound options of pickle- and papad-making. “I love driving fast,” she said, as I clutched the dashboard for support.

“Look, if you want to go slow, you can take a bus, right?” Greta lived on the ground floor of my tenement building, in a cloud of aata dust from dozens of chapatis.

Money from her husband in the Gulf had dwindled so she had begun making dabbas, delivering tiffins on foot.

Finally she saved enough for a moped and zoomed about precariously, vegetables hanging from the handlebar, offering me lifts which I timidly declined. Years later, I ran into her on a scooter, in sparkly gold jewellery.

“Don’t you look grand!” I exclaimed. “Yes, sweetheart, I’m doing very well,” she said. Greta Lambretta, as I think of her, had become Bombay’s only women’s driving instructor for two-wheelers. Her photo album of students included grandmoms, modish teens, ladies in salwar kameez .

“The male fantasy of a liberated woman on wheels is always a biker chick,” grumbled a writer friend. But in truth, the abiding image of freedom are these women on two-wheelers and little cars. Whether it is the women of Puddukotai bicycling in saris, fetching water, dropping kids, going to work, or Saira Bano in a cherry-print shirt with her girl gang, singing, “Main chali main chali, dekho pyaar ki gali”, or women at smalltown traffic signals, covered head to toe against pollution and tanning.

Yet, for women, these measured personal freedoms, like the grudging, guilt-laden concessions of private family life and the unpredictable progress and minimisations of public life, are still a topography of watchfulness and inhibition.

In Dorothy Wenner’s documentary about the Mumbai ladies’ special train, a woman demonstrates things they must mind when boarding the train. Secure your pallu. Tuck your bag tight under your arm. Put your mangalsutra between your teeth so it can’t be snatched in the melee.

I could add, squeeze every last drop of pee out before you leave home. Drink very little water till you have loo access. Wear a scarf to cover your breasts. Keep your elbows close to your body to prevent groping. Don’t park in a deserted spot. Don’t forget to fill petrol in case you get stranded at night. You get habituated to those wheels constantly turning in your mind, busy wresting the freedom to be a person, forgetting your worst fears.

Then one day some worst fear comes true. A young woman in Unnao is raped and burned to death. A vet in Hyderabad finds her scooter tyre punctured, is abducted, raped and killed. Uber admits it has had thousands of reports of sexual violence. You forget to forget your fear even as you persist with living your life.

Like many women who cannot drive, I frequently dream that I am driving a car or riding a bicycle. In these dreams, I am constantly, predictably, trying to escape from some predicament or save myself from some danger. After all, who else is going to?

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