Battling Delhi’s demons

A year after a notorious gang-rape, film-maker hits the streets of Indian capital to discover the dangers women face.

Many women are forced to invent their own survival strategies in the violent city [Akanksha Joshi/Al Jazeera]

It was winters when my body released blood for the first time. I remember the warmth of the sweet pudding mother cooked in celebration. Father invoked the Goddess, ringing the bell. Mother chanted ancient prayers. I ate the pudding. My initiation into womanhood. Sweet.

For Sudha’s daughters, it wasn’t like this. In fact there was an undercurrent of tension. Palpable. Real. Their negotiation was no longer with the web of relationships in the village. Or in the interior spaces of family, of home. Sudha and her daughters had to deal with the mega city. The streets of an impersonal Metropolis. To which their only relation was that as a body, of a woman.

“I came to Delhi as a newly wed, a big purdah covering my face. I had never stepped out of my village in Bihar. And here was this big city! So many strangers, such huge buildings! I felt small!” recalls Sudha.

In the 20 odd years Sudha has been in the capital of India, Delhi, it has expanded exponentially. Gobbling many small towns, many villages. Simultaneously, it has witnessed a terrifying escalation in violence.

“Delhi is huge, porous. From the surrounding areas of western UP, Haryana, Rajasthan, criminals come. They commit a crime. Go back. Within hours. Arms, drugs, chain snatching, even cattle theft.” These words are of Shyam (name changed), a private investigator.

In his late 40s, he has grown up understanding the criminal mindset in and around Delhi, assisting the Delhi Police in many major cases.

‘Freedom of the night’

In a gang rape that took place in 2010 in a moving truck in South Delhi, the clue to the suspects was a ten rupee note.

Shyam says, “The rapists gave it to the woman, so she could go back home. The note was folded like a ‘parchi’, a slip, characteristic style of the people from surrounding region of Mewat.They had come into the city to steal cattle. In this highly criminalised scenario, a woman’s body is just an object of desire. Throw money, get her. If not, then use force.”

Sudha Jha lives in Govindpuri[Akanksha Joshi/Al Jazeera]

Sudha Jha lives in Govindpuri. The biggest slum in posh South Delhi. Dark narrow lanes. No sunlight. Over 20,000 households with people from different cultural regions of North India. Multi-storied houses. Crammed, one upon the other. A large population of young men, most not educated. Looking for work that is hard to find. Waiting. For the freedom the night offers.

As the sun sets, many shops pop up. Selling substances that make them forget, if only for a while. Sudha narrates, “The other evening I was walking with my daughter, one of these boys tried to touch her. I don’t know from where, didi[sister], but I got the courage! I took out my sandal and started thrashing him. Then I dragged him to the police station. How much can we tolerate, no? Its important to act ourselves.”

The urban challenge in Delhi is not just the fear of rape or murder. It is the everyday violence. In words, gestures, touch.
“The norms which held the society together are breaking down fast. The anonymity, the individualistic nature of modern urban life makes such violent expressions easier,” explains Ashis Nandy, India’s eminent sociologist.

To every challenge, there comes a response. For many dealing with violence, creative responses start emerging. Increasingly, many women in Delhi are finding their own language to deal with this challenge. And it begins, from the body.

I am out on the streets with Rajani Kumari, 17, photographing her and a few of her friends. Inside she had been laughing, but suddenly, as she steps on the streets, her face changes.

I peek from behind the lens asking her, “Why no smile?” She responds, “On the roads I become stern. It is a natural reaction now. No expressions, no softness, no smile. That way the boys don’t mess with me. They get scared.”

Pinky, her friend adds, “I glare at the men. I use my elbows to cover my breasts in crowded places. If anyone tries to touch me, I push my elbow into them.”

Despite the escalating violence, more and more women are engaging with the streets. Ahemadi Begum, Sudha’s close friend, puts it well, “When you know anything can happen anytime, you are prepared to meet the worst. That feeling of living in danger gives you courage. Jab marna hi hai to, lad ke margenge! (We will not die without giving a fight!”)

Many use accessories: pins, heels, bags, even nails to deal with men who grope in crowded spaces like market or buses. They tell me they walk, not with the traffic, but against it. This way, Ahemadi explains, “…you are not vulnerable to being pulled into a car from behind. You have a chance to run away.”

“Where are the Schools of Courage?” This question comes from Atul Pandey, father of a young woman. Atul had a choice. To send his daughter to Delhi, alone. Or to accompany her for safety. He made what he calls, the courage-choice.

“There are schools to teach English, Science, History… Where are the schools to teach courage? Most parents just feed fear.” For many like him, it is clear, “…there is a war going on the streets. I tell my daughter. Don’t be stupid. But don’t be a coward. Be alert. Be aware. Take precautions. But live your life, fully.”

Wisdom as weapon

Atul gives examples of Indian women like, Rani Laxmi Bai, Durgavati, who exemplify courage.

His own mother – 90 years old now – used to walk from her village through a forest to study. This, at a time when women’s education was not top priority.

“She carried a knife slung outside her saree on her waist. They also had rings in those days, Bagnakha – Lion’s Nail. If you clicked it, it would open into a huge iron nail. Then there is a fruit called Kewanch, the top covering of that fruit can be made into a powder, that causes itching. But in times of war your biggest weapon is Wisdom.”

Delhi has expanded exponentially and witnessed escalating violence [Akanksha Joshi/Al Jazeera]

Do not feed fear. This I hear from many people – men, women, both. Another, is to take charge of the situation yourself. Which, many women I meet – most just 8th class pass – are increasingly doing.

Vijay Yadav, my auto rickshaw driver, has been hearing some of these conversations. Unable to resist he gives an insight from a young man’s perspective, “The city is a very lonely place, Madam. These boys come from small places. They loose themselves in this big world. Everybody is a stranger here. Delhi offers many temptations. If you are not clear, you are gone. Its tough on the streets. There are no values. Only thing that works is money or power.”

“In the west both Power and Activity are considered masculine pursuits. In India, power is Shakti and activity is Leela. Both are feminine.” says Ashis Nandy, adding, “Stillness, serenity, these are considered masculine pursuits.”

As I wind my way back from these conversations, I feel a taste in my mouth. The taste of all the women I have met, all their words. I sense, belonging, rootedness. To their society, to their culture. To the earth. Perhaps, in that lies true power, Shakti.

Source: Al Jazeera