Saturday 19 January 2019

Journalist on why she moved to Ireland: 'Back home, I had to carry a knife for my safety'

Payu Tiwari
Payu Tiwari

Payu Tiwari

Nobody just decides to pack up everything, press the reset button on their lives and move to a different part of the world if they don’t have a good reason for it.

I moved to Dublin from Bombay last September to pursue a career I’d been vying for since I was 15. I had several reasons, and one of them was the hope for a better- and a safer life.

I lived in India’s financial capital for 20 years of my life and I love that city. It’s got character, and it helped me build mine. It’s supposed to be one of the safest cities for women in India. To some extent, it is.

And yet, as the clock ticks past 10 pm and the crowds thin around the major spaces, a solo woman venturing out is never a good idea. Different spaces in Bombay have different “curfews”- for example, South Bombay bustles until the wee hours of the morning. But no matter what the space, if I ever saw the crowd thinning, it would only be a matter of time until I packed my bag and got the hell out of there.

There were some areas in Bombay I called my “safe space”, where I used to hang around. This was until I was jolted with the news of a gang rape in one of these “safe spaces”. A photojournalist and her colleague had ventured to a deserted mill in one of the hippest areas in Bombay- where a gang of men had raped the photojournalist and beat up her colleague.

Bits of news like this occasionally poured in, and I experienced, witnessed and heard about several daily instances of harassment and groping in Bombay’s crowded landscape. Every once in a blue moon, I lived it. I would be making my way towards my daily local train, and a strange hand would appear, grab a part of my body, and before I could see who it was, the faceless person would disappear into the crowd.

Hence, my freedom came with several restrictions. My parents would insist that I be accompanied by a male friend (escort) everywhere I went, and after 10 pm, I should ring home every 30 minutes with my whereabouts.

Once, my mom was reciting her daily night safety instruction manual to me just as I was about to step out. It was after 7 pm, so she was extra sharp. As I was fumbling around in my bag, she spotted something.

“Payu?”, she asked. “Is that a knife?”

I shrugged at her, zipped my bag and mumbled, “You guys won’t let me buy the pepper spray, and I’m going to be out late today. This is just in case.”

She looked at me for 30 seconds, and said: ”Okay. Be safe.”

It might come across as the most extreme of things- downloading safety apps and having the police on speed dial was the common culture. Carrying a knife is not logical for several reasons.  But when deserted walks were laced with the feeling of a sword hanging over my head ready to kill any second, I pulled out any method of self-defence I could.

All my friends have been extremely startled upon knowing that I had a knife tucked away. Most of them look at me with “are you crazy” eyes. I personally don’t understand why anyone is surprised.

Most girls in Bombay prep for self-defence, albeit in different ways. Some carry pepper spray, and others take self-defence classes.

Bombay is a very loud city, so when you turn a corner at 1 am in the night and see a street laden with eerie silence and no sign of life, the fight or flight mode kicks in. The dark corners feel laced with doom, and on many occasions, I’ve bolted across the streets on my way home because each step I take with a normal pace seems like an invitation to trouble.

In situations like these, a standard film used to play in my head- what would be my life if I was assaulted in that situation. How many people in my family would blame it on me, how many times would the legal system disappoint me, and how the support I know I will have might not be enough to drown out the voices that’ll all say it’s my fault.

When I moved to Dublin, I expected ironclad safety. Anyone who reads the news knows that’s a shallow dream. Dublin has its share of no-no spaces- there are areas that I’ve been strongly advised against venturing into. I cringe royally every time I’m harassed in night clubs, which is often. I’ve been shaken out of my reverie every time I hear about a new shooting. It was very surprising to me and I did not expect it in the least.

But even if I’m fully aware of how unsafe some areas are, I’m still not propelled into a crisis mode every time I see a deserted road. The fact of the matter is, even if I’m walking down Ballymun road at 12 am in the night, I feel safer than I did while walking down an empty street in Bombay at any time of the night.

I don’t know what it is- maybe a blanket sense of fragile first world security, or a hope for a faster legal system should something happen. But there’s something that doesn’t make me cower while I’m walking the streets. Whatever it is, for now, I’m taking it.

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