Are you a woman with a ‘loose character’?
It was November 2012. I was a hiking enthusiast and was returning from the Langtang-Gosainkund-Helambu trail in Nepal. It’s been 3 years since I went back to mountains.
Maintaining a positive cash flow, quarterly revenues, projects in pipeline, estimates, forecasts and other such delusions has taken over my life now. I love it, so I don’t want you to think that I am living a miserable life.
Just that I trek in my head now. Imagining my fitness and conviction, my book shelf is filled with a section titled ‘mountaineering.’ Old photo frames randomly placed on top of the fridge, bed side tables and shoe rack remind me of a time when I was always sun tanned, covered in the Himalayan dust wearing clothes not washed for more than a month and aching ankles.
Now I am waiting to become an entrepreneur suffering from arthritis and ambition.
While exiting Nepal, I asked a street side travel agent to book my train tickets from Gorakhpur to New Delhi. I said “get me anything”. He did.
The train was scheduled to leave at 2am from Gorakhpur on a weekday, went up to Guwahati and then turned down towards New Delhi. A very very tiring, discouraging long route.
It was chilly and I was tired. All I wanted was to board the train, find my seat and fall asleep. The train arrived and I realised that I am the only passenger boarding from the station. I waited at the door, hoping a family or a few woman would climb it. A few coaches away, I noticed an ascetic and a rag picker boarding the train. Both didn’t have much to loose, I thought.
“I will get down and find another way to reach New Delhi. A train so empty, at 2am departing from Gorakhpur. I recollected seeing many men and youth at the entrance of the train station, it was hard to figure out who was sleeping and who was drowsy from a drug. Gorakhpur, infamous as the town where human trafficking is often reported”. I felt my stomach turning.
Then the train moved. I was still at the door wearing my backpack, undecided. I thought about having to reach work on time.
My mind said, “Fuck it! Find your seat but stay awake until people board from the next main station in Guwahati at 5.30am. Its just 3 more hours.”
My heart said, “Fuck it! This is your country. And you will travel when you want to, how you want to.”
So I walked in, found my seat, took out my sleeping bag and tucked my backpack under the seat. Really cold wind was blowing outside. So I pulled down all the windows and kept the lights on. I was the only person in that coach.
Being alone doesn’t scare me. Being with people who won’t leave me alone, does.
I wrapped my hair with a scarf, wore my thick jacket and covered myself with the sleeping bag. I was hoping if someone passes by, they will think I am a man. I hoped the sleeping bag would cover my female form, and protect me from the male form.
Strange, no? To protect myself from men, I had to pretend I am one.
In the train, cover my body. In the boardroom, cover my feminine traits and let myself be blunt and brutal, until someone tells me I am being too tough, too aggressive, too ambitious… and that I should smile more. The last one really gets me! Have you ever told a man to smile more?
The warmth of the sleeping bag was overpowering. I had just finished 14 great days, trekking alone, through the central Himalayan trail climbing through 6,450 m (21,160 ft) through the Langtang National Park, across the frozen, unforgiving Gosainkund Lake, and ending it in the highland village of Helambu.
I fought my sleep, but eventually surrendered.
You know that strange feeling when you think someone is looking at you? In the middle of my sleep, I felt that way. Almost panicking, I opened my eyes.
A man dressed in a police uniform sat across me. He was wearing a uniform that said Railway Protection Force (RPF). I could see he was struggling to understand if I am a man or a woman. I kept quiet unable to decide if my ‘female’ voice will bring me misfortunes. I looked around, the train was still empty.
The RPF dude leaned closer, I panicked and said, “Ji Bhaiyya. Boliye?” (Yes brother, what do you want?). I have never understood why we address men we meet in public spaces as ‘Bhaiyya’.
He sat back, surprised and awkward. At this moment, it was tough to tell who was more scared. I for my body, he for his reputation.
“Aap yahan kya kar rahi hain?”(What are you doing here?) said the RPF guy.
“I am going to New Delhi. Do you want to see my tickets?”, I said.
“I mean what are you doing boarding this train at 2am. It takes a long route and remains empty till Guwahati. Why did you board this train?”
I wanted to tell him that my heart told me earlier, “Fuck it! This is your country. And you will travel when you want to, how you want to.”
But then I am smart. This wasn’t the time for his education in the feminist narrative and gender studies.
“I have to get to work Bhaiyya, I didnt have a choice. Also, I didn’t realise it is a weekday and this train will be empty.” I hated that I had to be apologetic about being in a public space, using public transport in a free country at 2am… alone. I mean, what the fuck!
He started quizzing me on where I come from, where I work and eventually, as all conversations with men in public spaces, he drifted towards why am I alone and if I am married.
Usually, in situations like these, I make up a husband or a boyfriend. There are two things I learnt in India’s dusty crowded streets and the air conditioned glass buildings: 1) To protect myself from men, I had to pretend I am one. 2) To protect myself further, always say I am taken by a man. In India, its safer to say you have a husband. Having a boyfriend could make you look like woman with a ‘loose character’.
I remembered hanging out with a German friend years back, who was very amused with this term ‘loose character’. I remembered laughing with him through the lanes just besides Leopold’s Pub in Mumbai.
To explain the term I gave an example, “ The fact I stand with you at 11.30pm, having had 2 glasses of wine earlier this evening with a cigarette in my hand, in an alley next to a bar, laughing so loudly, would qualify me as a woman with a “loose character” according to most Indians”.
My German friend, “But smoking is just a bad habit, whether you are a man or a woman. It says very little about what kind of person you are. Going by that analogy, are people who overeat, loose characters?
I replied, “If you are a woman in India who overeats, perhaps.” We laughed again.
He couldn’t understand and I couldn’t explain. The humor emerged from that struggle.
The train was slowing down as it neared a small, dimly lit station. I am a facilitator. I facilitate conversations and I get paid for it. It was his turn. I looked him in the eye and asked him his name, what he does and where he lives.
A child was selling tea from a kettle on the train platform. He was wearing a torn shirt, a worn out pant and was barefeet.
I called him and asked for chai. I looked at the RPF guy and then said “make that two.”
Chai (tea) is often a solution to difficult conversations. Beer is even better.
I paid for the chai and we both sipped the warmth in our cups. He looked up and said, “Thank you”.
With that cup of tea our investigations were over. We were becoming friends. Chai works, sometimes!
I asked him what does he have to do in his job. He said he was completing his 3rd year in RPF. He spends most of his time on train stations or travelling in trains.
“Oh! So you must be meeting a lot of people?” I said.
“Yes, but mostly I am looking out for children in groups or travelling alone. There is a lot of trafficking going on. I was concerned when I saw you alone and sleeping. So I came over to check you were not drugged or drunk.”
Not yet. I thought.
“I have never seen Indian women travelling like this. It is usually “phirangis” or white people who do these strange things and walk around with a backpack.”
“So what do you think about an Indian woman doing these strange things?” I quizzed him.
“I don’t think this country is ready for it.” He promptly replied.
“How much more time do you think it will take?” I asked.
He said, “I don’t know. But to reach Guwahati, we need only 20 more minutes.”