Ever since I returned from my trek, I have been boring the ‘eyeballs off’ the people I know with my ongoing chatter about the trek. However, this is not about the trek per se. Well… there may be a reference or two.
This post is about perceptions and reality; with specific reference to travelling in India. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone at night.
We have all heard about how unsafe it is for single women to travel in India. Rapists, murderers, and kidnappers seem to prowl the streets of India. This is not to say that women haven’t been kidnapped, raped or murdered in India. They have been. Too many of them.
However, I would be doing a disservice to the people I met and the Indian Railways if I don’t record my experiences.
When I signed up for the trek, I was to tie up with a friend in Delhi and we were to travel to Haridwar by the Nanda Devi Express. A train that is nocturnal in nature as far as the Delhi-Haridwar stretch goes. It arrives in Delhi just before midnight and reaches Haridwar at 3.55am. Similarly, on the return journey, it reaches Haridwar at around 12.45am and reaches Delhi at 5am.
I have always led a protected life. I have travelled alone, but on flights. I have explored a few European cities on my own during the daylight hours while my husband attended to his work. That is about it. I have never stayed alone… not until I was in my 30s and that too when my husband would go away on duty travel for a couple of weeks. And I have definitely never travelled through the length and breadth of India alone by car, bus or train. Someone, a family member or a friend, has always accompanied me.
In itself, it is not a big deal. In fact, in a way it reflects how much my family loves me. But it has always rankled. I have never been out there on my own. Would I be able to manage if I had to figure it out all alone in a place that mixes chaos and calm, with as much ease as India does?
Two days before I arrived in Delhi, my friend messaged me and told me that she had been diagnosed as suffering from whooping cough, and therefore her physician had advised her against the trek. I was disappointed, as I was really looking forward to enjoying the trek with her and another friend.
It was another moment before I realized that the real problem (or challenge) for me, however, was not going to be the trek. It would be the train journey.
The plan had been for us to meet up in Delhi at my brother-in-law’s place and then proceed to the railway station and travel on to Haridwar. Since there were two of us, it would be an adventure. Nothing to worry about. But alone! Alone in a train from Delhi (Delhi for Pete’s sake people!) to Haridwar, at an ungodly hour! For a moment I did reconsider, changing my travel plans and maybe flying into Chandigarh and making it to Haridwar with the third member of my party. However, that plan did not work out.
It was at this point that I realized that this was my chance. I had always wanted to travel on my own. Here was my opportunity. Sure it was only for a few hours, to be followed by a 10-hour drive with a fellow group of trekkers who I would be meeting for the very first time. Pretty much everyone in the trek team was travelling in groups of 3 to 5. I would be the only one travelling solo. But hey! Perfect recipe to strike up new friendships.
This is not to say that a lifetime’s habits of being risk averse and cautious just disappeared in a flash. No. The doubts were there. So was the fear. Most of us non-Delhi-ites have heard such nightmarish stories about Delhi that we are worried about even going to CP in the daytime. What we forget is that the only stories that make it to prime time and headlines are the nightmarish ones. We forget that for every negative story out there, there must be at least a few dozen positive stories. Stories and people that we never get to hear about.
It was 11.20 pm or so when I was dropped off at the Delhi railway station. A sea of people, most of them asleep on make-shift beds on the station floor, greeted me. The train arrived on the dot. I got settled into my first class AC compartment. (Before you wonder, I did my bookings at the nth moment and no other tickets were available.) This compartment had two berths. I had not had time to cancel my friend’s ticket… so technically the compartment was all mine. However, my brother-in-law cautioned me saying that if the TT (Travelling Ticket Examiner) sees the empty berth, he is within his rights to allocate it to someone else.
After I got settled in, my brother-in-law and his wife left. I locked the door and wondered what I should tell the TT. I did not want anyone else in the compartment. Maybe I could lie and say that my friend was in the bathroom. That way there would be no probability of my having to share the compartment with a stranger.
Now here is something you need to know about me – I was 9 or 10 when I decided to avoid telling lies… as much as I can. (White lies don’t count by the way. Those are the rules! :)) Not for any ethical or moral reasons. But purely for reasons of convenience. When you lie, it never stops with one. You have to utter a few more lies to keep that original lie going. Something that always gets me tied up in a knot, because I invariably slip up, speak the truth at some point or don’t hide the damning evidence well enough, and get caught.
Just then there was a knock on the compartment door. It was the TT. He checked my ticket (which had my friend’s and my name) and then asked me where my co-passenger was. I opened my mouth to say ‘bathroom,’ and instead said, “She could not make it.” Bugger!
I now had no choice but to tell him the whole truth. So then I requested him that he not allocate anyone else to the compartment as I was travelling alone. And if he had to allocate it, to please, please make sure it was to a lady. My head was already abuzz with thoughts of how if I screamed for help in an AC compartment, no one would be able to hear me. The TT smiled and said, “Don’t worry Madam! Aap darwaaza lock kar do. Aap akeli lady hai, issiliye, hum kissi ko nahi bhejenge.” [Translation – You lock the door. We will not send anyone else to share the compartment since you are travelling alone.]
Needless to say, I did not sleep like a baby. Not because I did not feel safe. But because I did not want to miss the station. How I envy those seasoned traveller types who can comfortably nod off anywhere, anytime! Eventually, I did arrive at Haridwar.
Getting down at Haridwar, in the middle of the pilgrimage season (or is it always the pilgrimage season here!) I found myself surrounded by the hinterland experience and ambience. I decided to hunker down in the waiting room till 6.30am when the trek team vehicles were to pick us up. The waiting room was everything that movies make these waiting rooms out to be. Crowded. Dirty.
There were families and individuals who had come for their pilgrimages. Guys who had just arrived from wherever, walking around with a towel wrapped around their protruding bellies, after taking a shower in those dirty-as-hell waiting room bathrooms! Two little babies who could not settle down comfortably. Families who had taken up those uncomfortable metal seats en masse – like a package deal.
As I settled in I realised that I needed to use the bathroom. Dirty, wet messy affairs, there was no way I could carry my day bag with my tickets, money and mobile into it. And forget the rucksack. For a while, I decided to just grit my teeth and bear it. No way I could carry bags into those bathrooms! But when nature calls, she calls.
So I asked this lady sitting next to me to watch my stuff and went away. I came back, half expecting her to have decamped with my goods. But she was still there. So was my stuff.
Later, I wanted to charge my mobile but the only plug point I could fix my charger with its square pins into was in one corner. I was seated in the other. In Dubai, I would not have thought twice. The notion of safety and security is so ingrained into us that most of us would casually leave our mobiles charging on an unattended restaurant table if we had to. But in India! I plugged in my mobile. The railway employee who sits in the waiting room (presumably to help the passengers) bolstered my mobile with a few blankets so that it could charge smoothly and without any interruption. As I went back to my seat, a lifetime of being told to be careful and not to trust anyone, especially if you are alone, was pushing against the need to close my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, sleep won. When I opened my eyes, my mobile was still there. So were my bags.
A week and a lifetime later, when I returned to the Haridwar station for my return trip to Delhi, it was again an ungodly hour. I had managed to cancel my friend’s ticket. The train arrived and I walked up to the TT and asked him about my seat number. I was about to go into the spiel about how I am travelling alone blah blah…! Before I could say anything, he checked my ID and said, “Aap akeli lady travel kar rahi hai na? Aapke saath ek family travel kar rahi hai.” [You are a lady travelling alone, right? Your co-passengers are a husband-wife team.]
I don’t know if the Indian Railways have a system whereby they try to accommodate single female travellers and ensure their safety the best they can. Some may even think that I received this treatment because I had tickets booked in the first class AC compartment.
I, however, don’t think that is the case. Four of my friends who too were returning on the same train (different compartments), also found the railway authorities helpful. Two of them had confirmed tickets and the other two were on the waiting list. However, they had flights to catch the next day. Again the authorities helped them out.
We hear the negative stories of rude officials, corruption and lack of safety on a daily basis. I wish the stories of helpful officials, kindness, and a supportive system would also be spread with the same alacrity.
This experience also made me realise how many fears I have been lugging around with me since childhood. Most of us growing up in the 70s to 80s grew up with a litany of ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘that’s not safe’, ‘don’t even think of it’, ‘don’t go there’, ‘are you mad!’, ‘come back before it’s dark’.
Messages that encourage a safer lifestyle for sure. But these very same messages also ingrain in us a deep-rooted sense of caution intermingled with fear… denying us a shot at adventure. The differences between adventure, and risky behaviour get blurred. We were taught to not just be risk averse but also adventure-averse. Now as I slowly stretch out and deliberately do things that scare me, I realise that most of the fears that I have held on to are as ephemeral as the mist on the mountains. They melt away and let you see a few meters further as you walk towards and through them.