A late return home

I was at Leiden University yesterday evening. A friend of mine had organized a 3-day Film Festival this week, focussing on Neo-Realist Classics from India, and had invited me to speak in the Expert’s Panel with which the festival ended. I was only too happy to oblige – not as an expert, but as a film enthusiast. And all the more so because I got to speak about favourite films and filmmakers of mine on a topic close to my heart. Our Panel discussion went well; what went even better was the free-flowing conversation we had with the audience at the end for more than an hour, way past our designated time, which continued unabated in the dinner afterwards in a nearby Indonesian restaurant. Since one delay led to another, I got home pretty late. I was supposed to return by 10 pm, but I returned by 11. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for either the train or the tram afterwards. Otherwise, I would have reached another 15/30 minutes later.

My house is a good 20 minute walk from the nearest tram stop. I walked home alone on a chilly winter night through deserted streets, with just the odd car zipping past me and the stray pedestrian or two on the road. I was humming a song from a film that had been shown in the festival. I’ve known that song forever, and was struck – as I walked home, lost in my thoughts – by how much it resonated with my life now. In the train, I had wondered whether my 5 year-old had already gone to sleep or whether she was still awake, defiantly watching “Quest means Business” with her dad! On Friday nights, she just refuses to go to bed, and usually resigns only around the time we settle down for the “The Graham Norton Show”. I’d thought of her in the train – but while walking, my mind was totally taken up with this very old Hindi film song.

 

India & the Netherlands

I can’t imagine this scenario in India: walking an empty 20-minute stretch alone at 11 pm, thinking only of a song, without even a hint of fear or foreboding, and without multiple anxious calls from my family asking me about my exact whereabouts. Just a text about my delay – as I did here – would never have done!

When I write about the Netherlands, or think about my life here, comparisons with my home country is inevitable. My experience in India as an Indian colours every bit of my life as an expat in the Netherlands. It is not simply a question of being better or worse, or more or less – I’ve realized after all this time – but a qualitative difference in the texture of lived experience. Seen one way, there has been a continuity in my life – I’ve after all come from one cosmopolitan city/capital to another, from Kolkata to Amsterdam. And yet, the biggest difference I’ve felt in my 10 years here is the way I’ve felt as a woman.

I am seldom out late in the evenings. The days I am have occasionally to do with University events like yesterday, or book-events in Amsterdam, but mostly with my writing-group meetings once every fortnight. It is an Amsterdam-based group, and though it has changed several avatars, all members remain Amsterdamers. The rule is: the person whose piece of work we are critiquing on a given day has to host the session. Hence, we all get a chance to travel a bit around Amsterdam, visiting each other’s homes in different parts of the city. If you are commuting by public transport, then buses are usually 15 minutes apart, and after 8 pm, twice an hour; but trams and the metro are more frequent. Our sessions are from 7.30 to 9.30 pm; depending on the location of the host’s house, it takes me between 30 mins to an hour to reach home. If any session goes longer, then it takes a little more. I’ve been with the group, off and on, over 9 years – and not even once, in all that time, did returning home late make me feel unsafe/insecure or involve any kind of fear. I take this fearlessness for granted now; but back in 2007/2008, it was a different story.

 

Liberated ‘Citizen’

Back then, it was shockingly new and liberating for me to walk the streets at night without fear, or to board its trams and buses during the day without even the hint of eve-teasing. It was liberating to go out any time I liked, dressed any way I liked (usually very boringly), without anyone even looking at me, and without any subliminal anxiety of mine about my physical safety. It was liberating because I had arrived here with a different kind of cultural baggage.

Kolkata, my home city, had been a relatively safe place to grow up in the 1970s and 80s. The streets were safe – in the sense of the absence of random acts of abuse and violence against women. But subtler forms of abuse were rampant: especially eve-teasing on the streets/lanes/by lanes; I don’t think there were exceptions in any neighbourhood in any part of the city in this respect. And there was another nuisance: sneaky body-contacts by men, if you happened to use public transport. All through my high-school, college and university years, I commuted in crowded buses – because all the institutions I studied in were located in a stretch of north Calcutta that was dotted with important traffic junctions. Hence the flow of traffic was invariably dense. It was a rare day that I could sit for the entire commute or travel in a relatively empty bus. Just ‘less crowded’ was good enough for me. All through that decade, I remember, I would hold my bag across my chest in the bus, and use my elbows – whenever required – to ward off seemingly unintended body contacts by men. It was a daily reality of my life, just like thousands of other women commuters. But it was very strange: because I lived a peculiarly polarized existence every day, with a very liberal atmosphere at home and college, filled with the buzz of equality and possibilities in life, and a somewhat different reality on the streets. Hence the first opportunity I got to forego public transport, I did – when I started working as a lecturer in an undergraduate college. I whole-heartedly embraced the luxury of the taxi then! Had I continued to live in Kolkata, I would have earned enough to buy a decent car by now, or else have tried the many other options available now – uber, ola, rented cars, air-conditioned buses. But the fear on the streets would have persisted – if not my own, then that of others for me. Every winter when I visit home, that’s the impression I get. And this, even when Kolkata is far safer than many other cities in India. And I can’t help but wonder about all those who have no choice but to commute in crowded buses and trains….

When I came to the Netherlands a decade ago, for the first time, I felt equal to men at a very everyday mundane level – I was equally free as them to go out in the street any time without much fuss. After coming here, when I walked the streets of Amsterdam, for the first time in my life, I felt like a ‘citizen’ instead of a ‘woman’; a ‘citizen’ in the original etymological sense of the term – “an inhabitant of a city or town”. A resident like any other.

Of all the things that I like about Amsterdam and the Netherlands, this fearless safety on the roads – & this de-sexualized form of human identity that it has allowed me – is what I cherish the most.