Location: In central Mumbai (India) – Wadala East, Wadala West and Five Gardens, Matunga
I was curious to explore this area as I have often felt anxious here at night. I wanted to conquer my fears. As the time to walk neared, my anxiety rose. I had chosen an area that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me in the day. But at night, I had usually accessed it with someone else. It seemed to have a lot of dark spots, isn’t lit up particularly well at night, and it was an area crowded with tempo-truck traffic. It’s mainly a residential area - with several pockets of government/port trust employee housing, fairly vast slums, and new apartment blocks for middle class residents. Initially I walked at a faster speed especially when I noticed that predominantly the visible people on the street were men. I seemed to always slow down when I spotted a woman/women – always seen with male companion/s. Eventually I walked more at ease, ambling at points. This was particularly so when the places I passed were well-lit and had a mixed crowd of men and women. When I was the lone woman on the street and there were a fair amount of men around, I was watchful but calm. But when I was the lone woman and there were just one or two/three other men, I was quite anxious. At those times, every step behind me seemed ominous.
There was two positive experiences: 1. I was crossing a busy broad four lane road in Wadala. Halfway across, an older man next to me quietly held up his hand and said, “ Not know, don’t cross now, Traffic is fast here.” And then as traffic eased , he quietly said “ Now we cross” . He did this as we crossed two lanes of that busy arterial road and then quietly disappeared. He seemed to look out for me in a gentle manner and I appreciated it. 2. The open maidan at Five Gardens, Matunga was all lit up and several people were walking around there. Lounging, eating at the corner where street food (egg-pao) was available, chatting. But the centre of the maidan usually filled with men’s teams playing football or cricket had a large family of men, women, children playing several rounds of badminton. This sight so lifted my spirits that I spent several minutes watching them feeling quite elated at how city open space was being used for sport and recreation late at night.
The city seemed more deserted than I thought it would be at this hour. This was Central Mumbai close to midnight at the start of a weekend, yet was fairly empty. And where there were people they were only men, men and more men. Saw two women in a queue outside an ATM at 11 pm. Then three laughing women on the pillion seat of three motorbikes (they seemed to be a group). Then some women as part of a family playing badminton in Five gardens maidan. One other woman walking with a man. And, of course, women sleeping in some roadside shanties. That was it. Otherwise the places were so dominated by the presence of men that the absence of women was perceptibly felt. At Five gardens, there was an open air gymnasium in one corner of a large maidan and it was packed with men working out at close to midnight. No women here.
Largely, the places were not well-lit except in parts. Lots of cars/buses/trucks/tempos parked blocking access to pavements. Or in some places, the pavements were so blocked by pretty plants/trees, they cut street visibility. Or there were people sleeping on the pavements. So you felt more comfortable walking on the roads. Spotted one toilet block. Noticed that fast motorbikes took over the streets at night, roaring away with only male drivers. I didn't feel threatened by anyone on my walk but I wasn't entirely comfortable either. I think I need to do this more often in order to start feeling more at ease.
I got back feeling triumphant, contented, and happy. I was more than glad I had participated in this venture. I have walked/loitered in the city very often – but usually alone only in the day. At night when I have loitered, it’s usually been with male- female friends or women participants of the Why Loiter movement. Being in a group – even an all-female group – gives you more courage to access the streets fully. To stop for chai. Laugh more loudly. Feel a bit bolder. So this experiment to access the night in my city alone was challenging but also quite a learning experience. Afterwards, I felt slightly elated , my mind full of the possibilities of what a new city of the future could look like if more women accessed public space in the city and accessed the night in particular. How different my walk could have been if instead of just men, I had also met many other women loitering/walking alone. It would have made it a more inclusive city!
My final thought is this : more than the actual walking alone what really made me anxious was what you had asked us to do : document the walk using your cell phone. Taking out the cell phone and shooting pictures meant receiving extra attention from the men you met on the streets. But as I walked that fear sort of dissipated. I thought it would be virtually impossible to shoot a selfie on the dark streets but actually at one spot I did manage it (though I am not sharing that).