Turning Off the Sirens.


 

Contributor : Aditi Dubey

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I am from the city. I was born in Hong Kong, spent a year or two in Punjab, then California, then Bangalore, and then finally settled in Pune, where I have been living for the past 11 years. So for all intents and purposes, I’m a city girl, through and through. Now there’s lots of advantages to being a city girl. My life is vastly different from the lives of my rural counterparts. But being a city girl (emphasis more on the girl than the city here), there is a certain way you are conditioned to be, certain things you have learnt to do.
You are conditioned to fear. You are conditioned to fear unknown men at the door, and bus and cab drivers, and dark alleys and the setting of the sun. You learn to constantly be on edge. You learnt o always look over your shoulder, to say ‘text me when you get home’ to your friends and hear the same from them, to ignore stares and catcalls and stray hands wandering in a crowded bus. Subconsciously, you close yourself off, building up walls around you, guarded by a carefully constructed security system that makes sirens go off at the slightest breach.
That is what it’s like to be a (city) girl.

For now, however, I am not a city girl. I am hundreds of kilometres away from my city, in the gorgeous mountains of Kumaon, Uttarakhand, and I’m having the time of my life. Being here, I have learnt so much, and I have felt myself change in particular ways. Life here is different, so I am different. One major change that is quite notable, and that I noticed early on, is how the walls around me have slowly been crumbling down.
In the city, when you want to go somewhere, you have several options. You can take the bus, or a six-seater/tuk-tuk/tempo/whatever you call it, or a rickshaw or a cab. In the mountains, unless you have your own vehicle, your options are fairly limited. You walk or, if you’re lucky, you get a ride. There are a handful of buses, but they are too small in number and too infrequent, and there are also private taxis that ferry people between towns, but they too are not always available. What fascinated me the most (and what will probably fascinate you the most too) is the hitchhiking. 
Now, in the city, if I ever said that I was going to hitch a ride in a truck or a car passing by, everyone would look at me like I’m insane. The idea of travelling through almost empty roads in a closed vehicle with random strangers is one that would never even occur to most city girls. It ticks all of the boxes, makes all the danger signs pop up, sets all of the sirens blaring – it is almost a death wish. Yet, here, I did it four times on my second day at work.
Granted, I wasn’t alone, I was with a local, someone who knew what she was doing. But she has definitely done this alone, countless times – it is a completely natural, almost daily activity for her. That kind of inherent fearlessness is not commonly found amongst city girls.
With her, traipsing through the mountains, I have found myself slowly unlearning, gradually disabling the security system one lock at a time. I have done so many things I would never even have imagined doing back home. As someone who plans her entire route in her head before stepping out, and who has to call her mother once she gets into the bus, it has been wonderful to just wander. To simply walk out and not know where we’re going (technically, I know the names of the towns, but they are all unfamiliar to me), to not be sure how we’ll be coming back, and to just set out and figure stuff out on the way.

You don’t really realise how high-alert you are, how cautious you subconsciously always are, till you don’t have to be. I’ve noticed it in the little things. I am, like most other girls, used to being stared at. On the road, in the bus, wherever you are, wherever you’re going, men stare. They do it unabashedly, like it’s their God given right to stare at you like you’re a piece of meat. Here however, I don’t feel the pressure of eyes constantly on me. Yes, I do get stared at, but that is probably because my hair has weird colours in it and I look very obviously like an outsider. But these stares are curious, innocent, not the ogling, leering kind I’m otherwise subjected to.
I feel so much of my fear dissipating. In Pune, when I take a rickshaw, I feel the panic start to build in my chest if it takes a route even slightly different from the one I’m used to. I remember how, on the way here, on the cab ride from the train station to Satkhol, I was too afraid to fall asleep. I was tired, and my eyes were drooping, but I kept snapping them open because I was travelling alone and we have all read the horror stories in the newspapers and I didn’t want to wake up in a strange place in a terrible situation. But then, two days later, I was travelling across rocky roads I had never been on before, squished in a truck with four men I didn’t know, and I loved every second of it.
In Pune, 7 pm and the oncoming darkness signal the buzzing of my phone, agitated voices coming through it asking where I am and why I’m not home yet. Here too, the night is to be feared, and people always warn you to get home before sundown. But that is for different reasons, mostly because there might be a leopard lurking in the shadows on your way back. In a way, it is strangely liberating to have to be scared of ferocious animals instead of fellow human beings.

I am not completely free, of course. When something is drilled into your head for nineteen years, one month away cannot make it disappear. So I still, sometimes, find myself avoiding eye contact with unknown men when I’m walking on the street, or questioning their motives when they brush against me in a taxi. I have also, without a doubt, found myself relaxing, and letting go, feeling my inhibitions slowly melt away. My inner mechanisms of fear are still there, even if they are temporarily not in function, and I know they will whirr back into action once I’m in the city again. But, for now, I’m just really enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with turning off the sirens.

About Aditi Dubey: Aditi is a 19 year old who is passionate about languages. She is currently doing her BA in English, is fluent in French, plans to learn Japanese and Korean this year followed by other languages. Aditi is a voracious reader, does not like Kindle, and sometimes writes. For now she is enjoying  a month away from her busy life in Pune, doing an internship at Chirag, a Kumaon based NGO.

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6 thoughts on “Turning Off the Sirens.

  1. Dear Aditi,
    It feels great to read your writing style. I shall be looking out for whatever you write (being passionate about languages myself !) And please pursue English literature as your field of study.And then grow into comparative literature, linguistics ,phonetics etc. etc. etc. in as many languages as you can!

    Women down the generations have forever experienced what you have so vividly described. We have been taught to build cages around ourselves.It is the bane of womanhood.The urban world is innocent no more.Women ,whether urban or rural, must constantly remind themselves that Shakti is feminine for ever. Inner strength that women hold is irrepressible!
    The rural world may be called backward but one thing they know and we so-called educated people don’t seem to realize is that we can’t flourish in peace if we turn away from nature.

    As for the Kindle, I don’t dislike it , but books have memories of melancholy or mellow moods and recollections of repeated readings of the same pages tucked away between them. I still have the tattered English text book of my first year of graduation!

    Best wishes, Always !

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  2. Dear Aditi, keep travelling and writing. Keep disliking kindle. Isnt it confusing to learn so many different languages? Just curious. I am trying to teach myself Nepali.
    Whenever anyone starts rattling of kindle’s virtues, i get a glazed look in my eyes which says, go on keep talking, i am not listening at all. 😊

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    1. I shall!I hope to travel and write (and dislike kindle) for the rest of my life.
      Haha, it can sometimes get muddled in your head, but I think you learn to compartmentalise the different languages. It feels kind of like having different settings, like on a mobile phone- an english mode, a hindi mode, a french mode, etc. Mostly, it just feels really great. The process of learning a language is absolutely wonderful, and the feeling when you really start learning and understanding things is indescribable.
      I hope the nepali learning is going well! Teaching yourself a language requires a lot of dedication.
      I know exactly what you mean, I have a similar reaction most of the time!

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  3. I can absolutely relate to what you’ve written about; also probably because I did a month long internship with Chirag as well 🙂
    Whilst I was there and walking to Reetha one day, I saw two young men on a motorcycle grinning at me. They were still at quite a distance when I first saw them. This struck me as odd, and back home in Delhi, something like this is an unmistakable danger sign. As they drew closer and my heart rate increased, the man sitting at the back opened his mouth and shouted ‘Namaste’. I was so terrified, it actually took me a few seconds to process what he’d said and to register that this was in fact a friendly greeting from a familiar face and not a jeering catcall. It was then that I realised how attuned we had become to fear seemingly friendly people, even though once in a blue moon, they are genuine.

    Make the most of your time there! 😀

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    1. Ahh I can completely understand your reaction. It is quite sad, the way we’ve been conditioned to be, but i guess it is borne out of necessity.
      I am! I’m having such a great time here and trying to make my time here as productive as I can! 😀

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