A few weeks ago I had a really great day. The kind where you don’t do anything special, and don’t necessarily remember a month later, but the kind that, in the moment that it happens, makes you feel overwhelmed by the unexplored potential and possibilities of your life and your feelings and yourself. The kind of day that, when it’s over, leaves you with a feeling of satiety – as if, for a tiny moment, you’d glimpsed what you were living for, what you were moving towards. The kind of day that Mumbai offers you once in a while, when you have the luxury to stop and breathe.
That particular day I’d been loitering with a friend. We spent the afternoon at a coffee shop, reading poems out loud, and as the sun began to set we took advantage of the almost cool summer evening by walking along Bandstand while the wind was busy spraying bits of salt on our bodies or slapping our hair in our faces. A good day.
Until we took the bus home.
My friend won the fight over the window seat, so while I was leaning over her to get my share of the window breeze I felt something nudging my arm. I looked up and saw a man resting the lower part of his body on my arm. Now, I’ve lived in Mumbai all my life I wasn’t unfamiliar with the hazards of a crowd. People push and people step on you and by the time you’re home you are a not very pleasant melange of your sweat and the sweat of a million others. I know that, I’ve lived with that and I don’t really have a problem with that.
It was a crowded bus. So I allowed him the decency of doubt and asked him if he would be so kind as to turn around and stand with his back towards me, if he absolutely could not help having more than half his body on my seat. He nodded, he smiled and he didn’t budge an inch. Which is fine, maybe. Maybe it was just a crowded bus. Almost immediately I feel something vibrating against my arm, then my chest. His hand was in his pocket and when I looked up he was still smiling down at me.
My friend asked me to slap him, but I was still too shocked to actually say anything. It was a crowded bus, could he really be doing what I thought he was doing? Apparently. I also had the strange urge to laugh. I would’ve normally thought of this as violating, and it was. But the ridiculousness of the situation had momentarily triumphed over it’s outrageousness. I almost immediately got off the bus, still unsure how to feel about what had transpired.
When I look back now, almost three weeks later, a different question plagues me. That of public space and my right to be in it.
That man in the bus did what he did, apart from a score of other reasons, also because to him the space of that bus was his. To him, he probably had more right to be there than I did. To him, I was the outsider, whom he could get away with mistreating. I said nothing to him, partly because I was shocked, but partly because I didn’t possess unquestioned right to be in that space. In my head, as much as I’d like to deny it, I didn’t yet possess the right to that space – the bus – as he did. In my head, it was merely a place of transition, not one I had any authority in. We are always most at ease in places we consider home. Or in places we think we have the right to be in.
If I didn’t have unquestioned authority over the space outside of my home, I didn’t have the right to seek or expect security. I then, automatically, didn’t have unquestioned authority over my body outside the confines of my house.
This is a disturbing thought with dangerous repercussions on the way we, and others, view our bodies, our safety, and our right to live respectably as human beings. It led me to look more closely at the events of that day, prior to the incident in the bus.
What I had loved about the day, what had instilled in me that overpowering sense of self worth, had been the liberation that came with the act of aimless loitering. We were two girls just sitting at a coffee shop. We were two girls just strolling along the sea. We were two girls just sitting at Bandra fort.
But even as I write this, I know that’s not quite how it happened. We were more at ease in the coffee shop than we were at bandstand – the coffee shop was a place we’d claimed legitimately as paying consumers. Bandstand, on the other hand, was not so easily claimed. Our “loitering” there was careful and deliberate. We walked rapidly along the relatively sparsely populated stretches, chose a place to sit next to a young couple on the fort, and left almost immediately when it began to get dark and people started drifting off.
Negotiating spaces, that’s what we were doing. It was something that I’ve always been implicitly aware of, but the politics of which were only explicitly brought to my attention after a combination of the events of that day and a book I read a few months ago – ‘Why loiter?’ by Shilpa Phadke.
It was still a great day. The loitering, planned as it ultimately was, was still liberating. It was us claiming ownership of the city, of our right to be in it. It was us claiming ownership of our bodies in that space, us claiming respect and acknowledgement.
It’s a dangerous proposition, that women don’t feel like they belong in the cities they’re a part of. It would be even more dangerous to leave this issue unaddressed.