Since the beginning of the 21st century, the situation concerning the education of women has undergone a very positive change, especially in the Indian middle class. People nowadays want their daughters to study so that they are capable of earning for themselves, and do not have to be dependent on males or male family members in order to sustain them. While being a much-required positive change, the concept of independence is yet to overcome some glitches.
While this article shall bring up quite a few social issues, the foremost one is that of a woman’s “independence” in today’s society as compared to a man’s. I wish to examine this idea of “independence”, what it means to parents, what it means to their daughters and their sons, and what it means to the society at large. In order to accomplish this, I am taking the example of two young women going on a trip by themselves, for the first time in their lives.
Ananya and Priyanka, two young women who finished college last year, have been working and living in the city of Bhubaneswar for the past year. After months of procrastination and delay, they finally plan their first trip together-to Vizag.
With excitement, as well as a little fear (as this was the first time they were doing something by themselves), they set off for their journey. Everything was in place, dinner had been made, bags were minimal, sunglasses and stoles were bought, pampering of the body had been done; now all that was left was to board the train and sign up for a weekend pampering of the soul!
Due to some quickly made bad decisions, they almost missed the train. It was 9.24 pm when they entered the station, the train was about to leave at 9.35 pm, and the train was on platform number 6. With their rucksacks weighing them down, they ran as if for their life, pelting left, right and center wherever a gap could be seen among the throng of people. Upon boarding the train, the first thing out of Priyanka’s mouth was – Jab We Met.
The train pulled into Vishakhapatnam station at 4.03 am in the morning. As both the girls climbed out of the train, their first adventure was - to have a seat on one of the benches. While traveling with parents or with family, they never would have the time to just sit and catch a breath after alighting from their vehicle, there would be places to go and people to meet. This time, the girls were having none of that. They were intent on making this trip their own, with their own memories and their own mistakes, no longer dictated by the demands of other people.
The coffee at the Rail Dhaba at Vizag station was like a pot of pure joy, it tasted that good.
The homestay they had booked was quite near the beach. The meticulously-planned itinerary included watching the sunrise from the beach, and then heading to the Simhachalam temple directly as the temple would become very crowded later on in the day.
The sheer beauty of the sunrise was worth missing the entire night’s sleep and rest.
The autorickshaw ride through the city on the way to the temple was bumpy but very enjoyable. Ananya was enchanted with the stylish lamp posts, colourful flower pots, and the huge trees along the sides of the road. The paintings on the walls were simple and beautiful. Motifs of leaves, flowers, animals, birds, greenery, Indian Gods and Goddesses, adorned every inch of the canvas that was the city. Owing to the deftness of the rickshaw driver, the girls reached the temple around 8 am. The temple was set on top of the Simhachalam hill, surrounded by various old-fashioned buildings and mostly, by greenery. The main structure of the temple was very old, with its exact age and architect being unknown. According to local legends, Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Temple was built by Prahlada in order to revere the Lord Varaha Narasimha, who had saved him from the murderous plans of his father.
The entire temple complex was teeming with life and exuberance, vendors engrossed in selling their divine paraphernalia, people moving here and there, some to offer their prayers, some to have their head shaved in order to dedicate their hair to the deity and yet others, just enjoying walking around in the serene, divine atmosphere. The hilltop view from the premises, the gentle breeze soothing the travelers, the satisfaction of being surrounded by greenery and the feeling of content permeating the entire place was perfect.
The free rice Prasadam distributed by the temple is a must-try at the place.
In the evening, they had planned visits to the Submarine Museum and the Aircraft museum on the Rama Krishna beach. The girls strolled along the beach road, enjoying the sea breeze, the view and the general chatter and bustle of the area. Here again, they ditched worrying about the time and chose to stroll instead of hurriedly running through their agenda like tourists. The girls were in no hurry at all, they could waste time doing anything they wished. At one point, both of them laughed for a full ten minutes on seeing crows loitering about a statue of a man who was freeing a bird!
The submarine museum features INS Kursura, the 5th Indian submarine, which upon being decommissioned in 2001 was converted into a museum for public access. A feeling of awe envelops you when you’re inside it, a realization of the heights of human achievement as well as admiration for the sailors who live closeted and cramped inside it for months on end for the sake of their country.
Opposite the Submarine museum is the VMRDA TU 142 Aircraft museum, which houses the Tupolev Tu-142 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The entire service lifespan and features of the aircraft were on display, and the aircraft itself was open to public access. A play-by-play voice option was offered to the interested guests, which explained the features of the aircraft. The museum was very informative and interesting.
It was nearly 11.30 by the time they reached the hotel.
As they awaited sleep, the girls wondered at the events of the day, how they had nearly missed the train, how they had both made mutual decisions about where to go and what to do, what time to spend on what activity, where to dawdle and where to run, how they had had 3 cups of coffee at the railway station because they loved it, how they returned at 11.30 in the night without someone telling them they were too late, how they could watch the sunrise without being mocked for it. A feeling of liberty and freedom was blooming in their hearts, along with the accountability of one’s own self that comes with it. The adage “One travels not to discover the world, but to discover oneself” couldn’t have rung truer than in that moment.
The next day, they left early for the Kailasagiri hilltop park. The numerous attractions there included a ropeway which would take tourists up and down the hill, a circular train running atop the hill offering a spectacular view of the sea and the hills, activities like cricket nets and the trampoline tarp, and many local cuisine outlets. The girls paused to watch as a young teenage girl screamed her heart out every time the trampoline bounced her up and down.
The ride on the circular train was wondrous, to say the least. Enchanting gardens full of trees, flowers, bushes, and rock statues dotted the scenery surrounding the route. The sea and the city were visible from the heights and the wind teased the passengers in the late afternoon. It is to capture such refreshing and illuminating experiences that one travels. The beauty of nature lies in its rawness and imperfections, and only after coming face to face with them do we realize that imperfections in ourselves are not as big a deal as we make them out to be. All cares are washed away with the feeling of wonder and awe which accompanies any person traveling to a new place. These feelings, which were once constant companions during childhood, are completely lost in the day-to-day lives of most people.
Before departing for the railway station, the girls spent their afternoon at the beach. Their last indulgence was jet skiing. The two girls had attracted stares throughout the trip but here, at the beach, it was much worse. Being alone, they started feeling uncomfortable and soon left.
With the day coming to its close, the girls left for the railway station in time for their train.
The train to Bhubaneswar was running late by 4 hours when they reached the station. Instead of leaving at 9 pm, it would depart at 1.40 am. Rather dismayed, the stranded travelers killed time at the station cafeteria.
Around 12.30 am, they discovered that the train was 10 hours late at that point and would depart at 6 am in the morning. Worried now, they started looking for other options as both had to return to work the next day. When they found bus tickets available online, they jumped at the opportunity and booked two tickets for the bus leaving at 2.40 am.
The girls couldn’t have imagined what was about to happen next.
They booked a cab at 1.30 am and left the station for the bus stand. The bus stand turned out to be nothing more than a bus stop on a deserted stretch of road gripped in darkness. Now, our ladies sure had enjoyed their freedom but were wise enough to realize that it is very dangerous to wait on a deserted street at 3 in the morning. The cab reached the location at 1.45 am, and as the duo had no wish to stand out there alone in the dark, they requested the driver to wait until they got on the bus so that they wouldn’t have to wait alone in the dark street.
The cab driver was a really nice fellow who agreed to stay with the girls till they boarded their bus. If he hadn’t, the girls would have been in serious trouble that night.
The three of them waited quietly for half an hour. Around 2.20 am, Priyanka expressed her doubt that there was a man standing behind the trees behind the bus stop, and he had been watching the car since they had arrived. As nothing whatsoever was visible to the other two, they didn’t think much of it.
The driver tried then started the engine and made a small detour to a nearby lane to find out if they weren’t at the wrong bus stop. As the car moved slowly along the lane, the man came out from behind the trees and followed on foot. The girls were slightly panicky now.
As the driver didn’t discover anything on his tour, he turned the car around and returned to the original spot. As he too was apprehensive of the pursuer, he kept the engine running. Meanwhile, the man had turned around midway and was now approaching the stationary car swiftly. The girls saw him clearly for the first time, he wore a black shirt and dirty jeans, had a beard, and the look on his face was murderous. The man had a crazy look about him as if he cared for nothing. He walked along the side of the car and stopped in front of the bonnet, not exactly in the middle, a little to the side.
The look on the man’s face suggested that he was about to attack the car or climb on the bonnet. The girls were terrified, clenching each other’s hands and the pepper spray they had brought with them. The man muttered something with clenched teeth, to which the driver shook his head (the girls were clueless as to what was happening), and then walked away to the bus stop, which was barely 6 feet away and stood staring at the girls.
The girls were by now in a complete state of panic. They implored the driver to move away and leave the road. The driver was stuck in limbo as it was already 2.42 am by then and there was no sign of the bus. When Priyanka asked the driver to take them to a shop to buy some water, the driver quickly revved his engine and started down the road. As the car returned across the parallel road, the girls saw the man climbing over the median and trying to cross the road. The driver sped along quickly and turned into another street. Both the girls were looking for signs of the man still following them. The terror that the girls were feeling at that moment cannot be described.
The cab driver saved the girls’ lives that day. They shuddered to think what would have happened had he not agreed to stay with them till they could board the bus. The crazy, bearded man would surely have attacked the girls had they stood by themselves in the bus stop. One small thoughtful act on the part of the driver was responsible for saving two innocent lives from ruin.
Such was the girls’ dread that they refused to go back and wait for the bus. They asked the cab driver to drop them at the railway station and intended to return on the late train no matter how much time it took them. The driver managed to persuade the girls to check if the bus had arrived one last time. When they reached the neighbourhood again, the girls frantically searched for any sign of the bearded man hiding somewhere or approaching the car.
When the bus finally arrived, the driver pulled up right next to it, and gathering their entire luggage in one go, the girls ran to the bus and boarded it. They calmed down only after the conductor locked and bolted the gate securely. Neither of them could utter a word. After a while, they cried. They couldn’t remember the happiness and content they had been feeling two hours ago. All that was left in them was the dark feelings brought on by the terror they had faced.
On the face of it and while reading about this, I am sure that not many would think it an incident of great importance. However, having been present at the time of the incident, I can vouch for its horror. I may not have been able to do justice to writing it or creating the exact atmosphere of terror which prevailed at the time, but I can guarantee the fact that this was the most frightening stalker I have ever encountered, and I have encountered a few. What made him so dreadful was his manner, which seemed like that of a madman. At the time, I had actually felt that he could do anything and wasn’t bothered about any consequences.
It took just one incident to traumatize the girls so much that they started finding fault in their own actions, such as the fact that they hadn’t researched the bus stand before heading there, or had booked the tickets in a hurry, or hadn’t waited for the train, however late it was. But, the actual, appalling truth is that the girls shouldn’t have had to question their actions because they hadn’t meant anyone harm. The fault lied entirely with the man, who had chosen to terrorize the girls in that manner.
It is sad, that dreams were shattered that night. The girls, who had for the first time ventured into the unknown with wonder in their eyes, and their own responsibility upon themselves, were broken-hearted at the terrible incident, and couldn’t help but question – can we never do anything by ourselves, without the need for men to protect us?
Ananya and Priyanka had never gone traveling by themselves, before. Being from a small town, they were from conservative families, who would not have considered “allowing” the girls to travel alone anywhere. When the girls would ask their parents for permission to travel somewhere, they would be met with the one inevitable answer: “After marriage, you can travel wherever you want with your husband”. The girls are nearly 25, earn enough to get by on their own, but “are not allowed” to travel anywhere, alone. Most people would say this is for their own safety and would use the unfortunate incident that happened with them in order to drive further their point that girls shouldn’t be “allowed” out alone anywhere. My question is, how independent are these girls if they are not allowed to make a small decision about where to go for a vacation by themselves?
Now, what does that simple “After marriage” saying mean? Why are girls told that they can do whatever they wish to, but *only after marriage*? What is the significance of that marriage then?
The significance is this: a girl must never be left alone. A girl must always answer to someone, be it her father, brother or husband. She must not; she cannot be allowed to make her own decisions. What if those decisions lead her into trouble?
The issue is no longer that parents don’t want to educate their daughters or see them make their own place in society. Parents do want their daughters to be “able to work”, but the principal reason is that they should not have to face financial problems in the future due to their inability to work. The problem now is the definition of the “independence” these parents want for their girls.
Most parents seem to think that educating their daughter in order to make her “independent” is her insurance in case of a bad marriage. If by any chance, the girl’s in-laws turn out to be cruel people and she is unable to live her life with them, she will be able to support herself and any children she has, financially. In case of a bad divorce or the early death of her husband, she won’t be left to fend for herself but will be able to take care of herself and her children, if any.
The question arises, how independent a woman actually is, how much right does she actually have over her own body if she has to ask “permission” from her parents before, I don’t know, doing something as normal as traveling somewhere, getting a tattoo, colouring her hair? Is “independence” only equated with earning money so that she can increase the household income? Is not the true meaning of independence making your own decisions and taking accountability for your actions?
I must make something clear here, I am not against asking advice from your parents or family. My issue here lies with the rigidity of the system in which a legally adult woman has to ask for “permission” to do stuff. Asking for suggestions or help is not “being dependent” on someone, it is being rational and cautious. However, having someone else make decisions about your life without involving you in them is undoubtedly a mockery of your independence.
Independence is not exclusively restricted to financial stability. A woman might be financially stable, but completely dependent on someone else to make her decisions for her. She might be earning her own money, but someone else might be deciding what happens with the money while excluding the woman from the decision.
Independence insinuates the freedom to make your own decisions, but also the accountability for those decisions and the responsibility to clean up after them if they go wrong. For a person to be truly independent, he/she must be financially stable, balanced and informed enough to make his/her own decisions, and be accountable for them.
The day parents begin to realize the meaning of true independence will be the day women are actually empowered.
Ananya and Priyanka have not informed their parents of what happened with them that night. They won’t be allowed to travel alone anywhere if they did. It is sad that people feel the need to hide trauma from their near and dear ones so that they may not be barred from living their own lives.