I was talking to this friend after a long time and the first two questions he asked me were, 'What movie did you watch last weekend?' and 'Where are you traveling to next?'. I refused to answer his questions till he first asked me how I was. We laughed and he said that he keeps seeing my updates on movies and travel and wonders when he will find time to do that.
I have always loved to travel. I remember once my parents asked my brother and me to make a wishlist of things that we wanted. I had added 'Trip to Delhi' to that list. Then came a time when all the focus was on board exams and competitive exams, and the joy of traveling was forgotten because it mostly meant going to a new city to give some exam.
It all restarted once I came to Mumbai, 13 years back. Before I landed in this city I had turned into a shy, timid girl whose friends used to help her cross the road and get a rickshaw for her so that she doesn't have to talk to the rickshaw-wala. I can't believe I was that person who used to bail out from all outings planned by my friends. But Mumbai changed me. Just a couple of trips in a local train and a few late night movie shows in Regal, and I was spoiled for life.
Aah! That freedom to go almost anywhere in the city without worrying about safety, that feeling was so liberating. It was very different in Delhi, First, I hardly ever went out of campus and at times when I did, I used to get panicky if we had to take a bus anytime after dark. Hardly ever did I travel by a bus in Delhi without being touched, pinched, or groped. That fear of getting into a fight stopped me from raising my voice and confronting the person. Mumbai is different, though. I know things do happen here. It has happened to me a couple of times and for some reason, I didn't even think before verbally and physically lashing out at those who crossed the line. I don't know when, but I had slowly transformed into a person who would not hold back or run away without raising a voice if something unjust or unlawful happened to me or around me. I was beginning to feel proud of myself.
A recent incident taught me a different lesson though. I am not brave enough, I have my fears, I realized. l still have that timid girl somewhere within me, a girl who doubts and questions herself, who is afraid to raise a voice. I don't know whether deep inside, I have always been like that or something around me has changed because of which those fears and doubts are resurfacing. I don't have the answer to that.
It was the last day of my trip. Before heading back to Mumbai, I decided to stay in Haridwar for another day and see some of the places I had read about. One of those was the Ganga aarti at Har Ki Pauri. I had seen pictures some of my friends had taken and I was determined to see the beauty of it myself. The chanting of hymns, the swaying fire bowls, the floating diyas...it was a sight that cannot be forgotten. There were people of all ages, kids, young couple, older men and women, taking a dip in the holy river and praying. I stood close to the steps to click pictures of floating diyas. Just ahead of me, a man was taking a dip in the river. After he was done, he climbed up the steps and I moved aside. He came ahead and in that moment when he stood closest to me, he groped me. I was dumbstruck. I had my camera in my hand and I was standing too close to the river so I could not act immediately. Instead I just kept looking in his direction, with a hundred questions in my mind. Wasn't this man praying a moment ago? Should I run and catch him and yell at him? But I am alone, should I still run after him? What if he abuses me or gets physical? Should I take the help of the policeman standing close by? Will the police help? Will he ask my name? Will he still help me, after knowing my name? Or, will he question me what I was doing all alone at their sacred place? I kept thinking, standing at the same place, as the man vanished in the crowd.
I wasn't ready to take a risk of getting into an altercation, with no one beside me, in an unknown city. What was it that stopped me from taking an action that day, some fear that I had not experienced before...that feeling when you are scared because of your religious identity. As if the fear of being a lone woman traveler in this country wasn't enough. No, I am not proud of myself after that day. But I also don't know what I could have done.