Friday, 28 April 2017

Breaking the "Rich kids loiter freely" myth- Neha Singh

I was invited by a very rich, international, prestigious, with-it school to conduct a session on gender and public spaces with their seventh grade students this week. This school has been very active in sensitizing and working with their students on gender related issues and I gladly accepted the invitation.
Now, a lot of criticism that Why loiter? faces is usually "But what abt the poor girls? What are you doing for them? Rich and middle class women loiter all the time, they are privileged. What is the point of you middle class, educated women loitering? You should "help" the poor women loiter, because those poor women are the ones that never loiter. Rich kids dont need your activism, You should start Why loiter? in villages because THAT'S where it is really needed. "

NOT TRUE. Rich, middle class, educated, super educated, south Mumbai, so-called privileged women/girls DO NOT/CANNOT loiter. Public spaces are considered as UNSAFE by them as they are by anyone else.

Case in point, the extra ordinarily rich students of this extra-ordinarily rich school.

I designed an activity where I marked different public and private spaces in their library through the use of simple placards taped on walls. The spaces I marked were as follows


First I asked the boys to do the exercise. I asked the boys to roam around in these spaces and tell me how unsafe/uncomfortable they felt on a scale of 0 to 10. I kept changing the time of day. Sometimes it was morning, sometimes, afternoon and sometimes post midnight.

Spaces like home, nieghbourhood, mall and coffee shop got an average score of 0 or 1 from the boys. As the spaces became more and more 'public', and as the time of day turned to night, their scores had a gradual progression to 3-4-5. Public toilets at night time scored the highest with a boy scoring his level of fear and discomfort as 10.

Most of the boys said that the reason that they would be scared after dark in spaces like dhaba, chai tapri and BMC park is because "there would be people of DIFFERENT IDENTITIES" and that there was a fear of being "KIDNAPPED".
Some boys said that they had never been to a dhaba or a chai tapri so they dont know how they would feel if they were there.

"Fair enough!", I said to them. "Now sit down and lets see the girls take on this exercise."

While planning this exercise for a group of 12-13 year old students studying in a high-end institution, I wasnt sure the girls and boys would have different scores, but I still wanted it to be a boys-only and a girls-only exercise.

The girls entered the space. They were given the same instructions.
By the time the girls finished the exercise, I wanted to cry.

NONE of the girls gave a score of zero for ANY space, at any time of the day. NOT EVEN HOME.

Their scores hovered around 4 and 5 in so-called safe spaces like gated neighbourhood, malls, coffee shops and school and shot up to 8 and 9 in spaces like chai tapri, slum, BMC park and dhaba.

Their reasons were also more complex and articulate.

When one girl gave a score of '3' for home in the afternoon, I asked her why. She said "it depends, if there are relatives and servants around then I feel unsafe, but if its only immediate family then maybe zero."

When two girls gave a score of '2' to school at 10 a.m, the reason they gave was "because there are security gaurds and cleaners and people we dont know, so no space is completely safe."

When a girl said '8' for feeling unsafe in her OWN GATED NEIGHBOURHOOD at 7 p.m and I asked her why, she said "because there are gaurds and neighbours."

The same reasons for feeling unsafe at malls, coffee shops too. And none of the girls said that they would feel unsafe because of a fear of being kidnapped! 'Sexual abuse' was the most pertinent fear.

After the exercise, we all realised that even 7th grade girls who are extremely 'privileged' live in a state of constant fear EVEN AT HOME AND SCHOOL and their entire life experiences and personalities are based on the foundation of this fear.
For the boys it was sort of an eye opener, and I hope they would be more sensitive towards their classmates.

I told them about Why loiter? and reclamation of public spaces and why its important to not operate on the fear-principle but exercise our right to taking risks and enriching our life experiences through interactions that are not based on prejudice but an openness to engage and learn.

But I also came out of the session with a greater resolve to loiter INSPITE of being middle class- educated- privileged etc. etc. etc, because there is NO GREATER MYTH than the one that says "RICH KIDS LOITER FREELY AND DO NOT NEED MY ACTIVISM".

Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Kamathipura showed me the mirror- Neha Singh

Last night, to celebrate International Women's Day and to commemorate the many, many struggles and fights women have had to go through to get us some of the most basic rights, we decided to go to Kamathipura to loiter.
For those who arent aware, Kamathipura is the (in) famous "red light district" of Bombay, or the place where a majority of sex workers live and carry out their daily work.
The idea seemed simple and innocent. We planned to meet at 8.00 p.m at Merwan's bakery at Grant Road East, and then start walking towards Kamathipura, which is about a kilometre or two away from the bakery. We were ten of us, eight women and two men. Some of us were friends already, some of us meeting each other for the first time, some just acquaintances who wanted to be part of the session.

We began walking and slowly the landscape changed. From more well lit, families infested lanes and gullies, the streets became darker and narrower, with mostly men standing, working or walking around us. A few men walked by extremely dangerously, brushing their bodies against mine. But we were a group of ten and we were determined to visit this much-talked-about place called 'Kamathipura'.

Prior to our visit their had been discussions about buying red roses and handing them out to the sex workers, but the options were open to those that wanted to do it and others who didnt. I personally didnt feel I wanted to hand out red roses to sex workers, so I chose not to. Some of us bought chocolates instead.

Slowly, the lanes became narrower and stuffy. There emerged small and gaudily lit old cinema halls that were playing Bollywood films from the eighties and ninetees. We seemed a bit lost, not having managed to reach our destination yet. We checked google maps for Kamathipura while some of us just asked the men working on the streets for it. Somehow, it took a lot more effort to ask, "Bhaiyya, kamathipura kahaan hai?" than the amount of effort it would have taken to ask for any other destination in the city. We subconsciously even judged the men who did know where Kamathipura was.

Finally, I saw a sign that said 'Kamathipura, Lane 3' on an inconspicuous small blue board. My smartphone carrying self immediately clicked a photo. It would definitely bring a lot of 'likes' on facebook. We were finally in Kamathipura. Another discussion ensued, about whether we should divide ourselves into smaller groups and just roam around and meet at a fixed point at a given time, or stick together. The majority voted for sticking together. So we did.

The place was a let down for us since it looked so 'normal', it didnt seem at all like the red light districts I had seen in films, I couldnt hear any titillating music, or spot vendors of gajras, paan and itar. No drunken men eyeing women, no pimps looking evil, no little children running around getting business for their unfortunate mothers. In fact, I couldnt spot a single sex worker! Then one of the loiterers whispered in my ears to look above. And thats when I saw the three to four storeyed dilapidated buildings with tiny, iron barred windows. And from behind those windows and balconies, women staring out on the streets.
I felt excited. I stared at them, they stared at me. It was getting real now.
We walked some more and I saw a bunch of women dressed in bright saris sitting on the steps of closed shops. They sat there waiting to get some work. I began talking with them. Some of us joined me. We asked them their names, where they came from, where they lived and how business is these days. They didnt mind talking to us. They told us their names, where they came from, how business was and where they lived. Some of us gave them chocolates to take home to their children. They accepted it gracefully and smiled at us. Some of the men that were inhabiting the streets gathered around us, wondering what we were doing and why we were talking to the women.
The crowd around us was growing and we kept talking to the women. And they were kind enough to entertain our questions and attempts at small talk.
Some of us bought some more chocolates and gave them to other women that thronged the streets.
To some of the women I said , "Aapko pata hai aaj antarrashtriya mahila divas hai?', they were clueless and laughed when one of us said, 'Aaj humara din hai, aapka bhi aur mera bhi'. They told us how demonetisation had hit their business severely. They told us, 'jab aadmi kaam karega tabhi toh yahaan aayega, jab aadmi kaam hi nahi karega, paisa nahi kamaayega toh yahaan kaise aayega?'.
As the crowd of men and women around us grew bigger, we decided to begin walking to the end of the street. It was around 10.00 p.m.

The crowd dissipated. We spotted a small casino. A tiny space with some screens and numbers that you needed to press to try your luck. I was curious. I entered the casino and saw a lot of men inside, playing. But they werent scary. They were just playing. The man at the counter asked me to give him some money for the entry charge and try my luck, but I didnt go ahead. I just saw for a while and then came out.
We walked some more. We spotted a video parlour that was playing films. We saw posters of old Bollywood films but some of us thought that that was probably a guise for the pornographic films that actually play inside. There were also some bars and eateries on the way that looked inviting, but we decided to walk to the end of the street. No untoward incident happened and we all felt very safe. We spotted a small restaurant at the end of the lane and decided to eat a small dinner, sitting on the small plastic stools outside the restaurant. We ordered nalli niharis, noodles, chicken tikka, caramel custard and some cold drinks. We sat and chatted and laughed and had a good time. And then slowly, one by one, we called it a night and went home.
Overall, it seemed like a good session. We had clicked photos which I shared on the Why loiter? group. We had met new people. Visited a new area.
But something didnt feel right. After I reached home, I began to question myself.

Why did we go to Kamathipura to loiter?
Why did I have a notion in my head about a red light area?
Why did I stop and talk to the women when I was clearly disrupting their work?
Why did I click a photo of the board that said 'Kamathipura Lane 3'?
Why did I ask those women if they knew today was International Women's Day?
Why did I subconsciously judge the men that told us the exact directions to Kamathipura?
Why do I remember what colour saris the women wore, or the fact that a lot of them were from Bangladesh, that they wore big nosepins and had put on bright lipstick?
What purpose did it serve us or them for us to loiter there?
Why did it not feel satisfying, joyous or good as it does after every loitering session?

Why do I feel that I am never going to choose Kamathipura as a space to loiter in again?

I realise now that I was loitering in Kamathipura with an extreme (although covered under layers of articulation) sense of middle-class-good-girl-entitlement. That reflected in all my actions and interactions in that space.
I realise that what for us was a 'unique experience' was maybe nothing more than a hindrance in someone's daily work.

I realise that we need to have discussions and rethink about what these loitering sessions mean to us.

The critics of Why loiter? often dismiss our movement as a 'frivolous', 'elitist' exercise and uptill now I have felt that none of our sessions fit the bill of being frivolous or elitist. But for last night's session, I have no defence. It did feel a bit 'frivolous' and 'elitist' simply because I dont think it managed to do what other sessions do. That is, bring about a change in the women loitering and in those that watch us walking. Last night, we were more like a bunch of tourists without any deeper engagement or reflections of the space we were in.

I am happy that this happened. It will help us rethink and revisit our reasons for loitering with a greater fervor than ever before.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The importance of being repetetive

Why loiter? the movement, is now in its third year of existence and the one thing (among many other things) that I have learnt from doing it for more than two years, repeatedly, is the importance of repetition.
Not to take away from events and mass protests or their importance in making people get up and take notice, expedite the judicial process or just to vent anger and frustration over incidents of gender based violence. Such large scale protests, events and walks are essential to keep reminding those in power that we care and we are not happy.
The sustainability of Why loiter?, however, is a miracle in this fast paced lives of ours. When Devina and I first took our tiny step of rebellion on a Sunday morning in May, 2014, we had absolutely no idea that we were onto something much bigger than ourselves or our ideas. We didnt even do it for something bigger, one day. We went to a park with our mats and our music, for just that pleasure of being in a park, on a Sunday morning, exercising our right to be there, and gleefully taking selfies, like any other regular person. What was irregular was, however, our politics. What was unique was, that we knew that our bodies on the grass that morning meant a lot more than our bodies on the grass that morning.
We continued loitering not because it was going to become bigger and we were going to be featured in newspapers and TV shows and we were going to become famous , but just because it was so much fun. We continued loitering because it came from a sense of pleasure, fun, being proactive and with a very political vision.
I cannot emphasize enough the value of sustainability, in not just changing the world, normalising things, but changing yourself, really. Doing something over a sustained period of time helps you discover your own fears, your own politics and your experiences lead to a braver, more articulate and assured individual. Mass protests that last a few hours dont do that.
A lot of women call me after incidents of sexual violence and ask me to participate in protests they are organising and my question to them, always is, yes sure, but do you have a plan for after that?
A lot of people feel bogged down by the largeness of the issue of gender inequality and feel that just a bunch of women loitering wont solve anything. I agree. But we didnt start loitering to change the world, we started loitering to change ourselves and to have fun. and look what all has happened in the last two and a half years.
There are loitering groups coming up in several cities across India, and Pakistan. There are people writing about it, making films, plays, talks, lectures, workshops, and more, across the world. Students are writing papers, making presentations and writing PhDs about it. The authors of the book, the people from the various chapters in cities, the people who do the play 'Loitering' have all become friends.
But most importantly, women are getting inspired to just loiter, to just have fun, and have stopped taking 'no' for an answer from families and guardians. This is a lot more than we could have ever imagined our first little loitering steps would do.
Sustainability, repetition, consistency has become of a much greater value to me than ever before, and is the key to normalizing a gender equal world.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

'Any room available for single ladies?'- memoirs of Neetole (loiterer) Mitra

I’ve been loitering my entire life. Just loafing in some corner, ambling away time in road side tea stalls and taking indefinite long walks to nowhere in particular. Now, I’ve qualified to solo travelling, drifting from place to place without purpose. That’s me.
I travel unplanned, without a set route or list of destinations that must be covered. I don’t journey for beautiful sights alone, neither for historical monuments. Instead, I reach and go where the place takes me. No prior planning and very little budget.
But this isn’t really the Indian way of life. And it’s definitely not our way of travel either. Most destinations don’t expect a solo traveller to appear with a backpack and an uncertainty about the number of days they’ll stay and about what they are going to do in the given destination. Even more so when this unplanned traveller is a woman.



The first thing I heard even when I was standing on the station stairs at Kanyakumari, is – “Yahan single ladies ko room rent nahi deta hai.” Almost a proud utterance. As though it was the decidedly moral thing to do. What was I to do now? The solo traveller looking for a very cheap room, standing there with an increasingly heavy backpack and two days of craving for a shower? Welcome to solo female travel in India.
Our country expects its travellers to be planned. What to do, where to stay, where to eat and when to leave. These details must be at the tip of your fingers. Else, you are a probable source of nuisance and are bound to make people around you suspicious. Here, we reserve the right to loitering primarily for local males. Prowling their territory I guess.


Of course all voyages start at home. Mine started when I was in the last year of school. It was sort of a late realization that the ‘safety of the daughter’ was an alibi that stopped me from venturing beyond my gully or beyond the premises of my school, alone. It was like the fear of shakchunni (Bengali version of chudail). Don’t go out at night, the shakchunni will get you. 
Somewhere during the last year of school, I had a tiff with my mother. I told her I will take the public bus back home instead of the school bus. I should get a hang of how the roads work. College starts soon, right? She didn’t speak to me for a couple of months after that. This made me really curious, like the road was a horror story and I needed to get to the bottom of this.
Since then I’ve been going vagabond a few extra hours every year and now I’m proud to say, I full time at it. Over the last one decade of loitering in Delhi and elsewhere, I’ve walked many indiscreet roads and have loitered at both godly and ungodly hours and almost always I have come across friendly help in case I have lost my way.



But it sure is a lonely affair because the only possible source of exchange stays limited to men as they are more easily available. It’s mighty difficult to find unaccompanied women on the streets that you can stop and talk to for a couple of minutes.
In Calicut, I see men standing about cigarette shops having a post lunch cigarette, some simply picking out with a toothpick. I see there’s always a walk in section to most restaurants where working men come in to eat at noon or maybe just stop for a cup of tea in the midst of the day’s errands. When I enter, I’m politely pointed to the family section – a more closed set up on the first floor, with waiting time, because it’s proper. There you get a table all to yourself. No one else comes and joins. The ways we limit casual interactions for the fairer sex.
I’m an outsider in this walk in section at Paragon restaurant as I’m hogging on a plate of very flavorful biriyani. Almost everyone turns to look at me. Some continue to stare. I feel relieved when I see one more girl as I go to wash my hand. But she’s with a male friend.
Yet, it’s not such a problem if a woman goes exploring. Mostly people are just shocked at the odds of a woman walking down the road. But beyond that mostly they want to help out. I took a walk from Varkala’s north cliff and found myself somewhere near Kollam at about 10.30 pm. Half an hour’s failed attempt later, I find myself resting my legs as an old man hails down an auto for me.
However, there is a clear lack of understanding and sympathy towards the need to ‘travel’, and a woman making a firsthand claim to public spaces is almost unheard of in India.
While staying in a Thallassery PWD rest house, I have to deal with the chetta who is watch man there. I have to pay him the rent, and make an entry in the register. He’s visibly annoyed with me. He’s caught that I don’t understand Malayalam. In fact all the Malayalam I know is Malayalam illa. So he puts on a frown on his face and starts mumbling. Angry mumblings; which gives me the impression that he is insulting me. Asking me questions and then getting even more annoyed when he has to translate to Hindi or English. He calms down only after I ask looking him squarely in the eyes – What chetta? You are not happy that I’ve come to stay here? You are angry that I’m travelling alone?


Then he gets over friendly, and spends some part of the evening reeking of alcohol and whistling in the corridors. I am the only occupant of the rest house. He’s my guard.
Overlooking these slight set-backs that crop up once in a while, I have to say that I will do this a thousand times over. This is what I want to do. This is the only thing that makes me feel happy and alive.  To land in a random station and then get lost in random lanes, and enjoy the rhythm of life somewhere I’ve never been before.
In Kerala I made many friends, wonderful people I would have never known had I not loitered. I ate at their tables, they tried to teach me Malayalam while I earnestly tried to learn. I helped myself paint a real picture of a place that was so far only a vague pop –culture and book accumulated hotchpoch. I explored its cities, beaches and hills and eventually realized that mostly the roads are welcoming. It can give you a hard time yes, but if you can keep a straight face and hold your own, then happy loitering to you my friend. I shall look out for you.



Neetole Mitra is a solo budget backpacker, writer and ardent instagramer. You can visit her at

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Let's start a revolution...but how?- Neha Singh

Last Saturday we had a special show of our play 'Loitering' directed by Satchit Puranik, which is based on the ideas of the book 'Why loiter?' and the movement 'Why loiter?' for a group of 35 odd seventeen year old students from an international school.
This bright and articulate group is attending a workshop on 'Gender and photography' and as part of that their teacher has exposed them to the book, the movement and the play. I personally think its a brilliant idea and wish I had teachers when I was growing up who would do the same. Expose me to ideas so real and so idealistic, without having to sit in a dreary classroom and read from boring books. Hats off to such projects and such endeavours by young teachers.
After the show we had a question and answer session with the students which was supposed to last half an hour but lasted for almost two hours. They had several questions about the movement, particularly.

Most of these questions were something like this

'How do we extend this to poor women?'

'Poor women don't have time to loiter, so what about them?'

'How do you plan to expand this movement?'

'Do you think your movement will have any impact on the billions of women of India?'

'How do you plan to reach out to the masses?'

'How does a few upper class women loitering change anything?'

'How does loitering make any difference in the statistics on crime against women in India?'

'What about our house maids?'

'You think what you have achieved in 2 years is good enough?'

'Do you have a plan in place to expand your movement?'

'How does you loitering make any difference in the mindsets of people on the roads?'

'Why is a play about why loiter? directed by a man?'

'Don't you think limiting the movement to you and people you know is selfish?'

'Don't you think loitering is a privilege restricted to the middle and upper middle and the rich?'

'How is your movement going to bring about a positive change in the country?'

'You think what you do changes the mindset of men?'

At first I was defensive and felt they were attacking what I do so passionately, and being insensitive. But as the questions kept coming and I realised they were all basically asking the same thing, 'how is what you do important if it cannot change the world/the society/the country?'

I tried to quickly go back to when I was seventeen years old and how did I think then. And my own seventeen year old self told me that I should be more tolerant and accepting of the questions because even my seventeen year old self thought that something that doesn't change the world or at least a few billion people isn't worth it, something that seems small and slow is to be dismissed and an individual, internal change is so blase that it is not even worth a mention, not even to myself! My seventeen year old self also had vague and absurd notions about the 'poor' people, that they only work work work, their lives are so miserable, they don't have a concept of 'fun', they never crack a joke, they never laugh or smile or tease or flirt, or sing or lie down on soft grass and stare at the stars and dream. Oh, foolish, ignorant, stupid seventeen year old me!

Then I imagined this group, that is seventeen year old NOW, when their lives probably are enriched by social media, google and Wikipedia and most of them lead much more protected lives than I ever did. I also realized that as a seventeen year old I did not have to think about changing the world, if I could just iron my school uniform and polish my shoes and take out the dog for a walk once a day, my parents were happy with me. But these children face the pressures of being so much more than that. They have to be entrepreneurs, leaders, debaters, thinkers, activists, and what not. They know everything about the whole world, the problems the world faces, the problems India faces, the bleak future ahead of us, global warming, crime against women, terrorism, nuclear deals, Donald Trump, ISIS, Boko Haram, blah blah blah blah blah!

Then it struck me, that they found the idea of 'pleasure', 'fun', 'doing something for oneself', 'changing things one person at a time', 'changing something internally, for yourself', so alien, so foreign, so distant, because they have forgotten what simple joys are, or atleast find the idea of simple, personal joys 'not worth it'.

'Because the problems are so huge, the solutions have to be huge too'

Maybe, but maybe, just maybe, because the problems are so huge and complex, the solutions could be small and simple. 

Satchit and I kept reiterating that loitering is simple fun, and would become an oxymoron if I had a loitering 'Head office' in Mumbai from where I was in touch via skype with all the loitering 'branch offices' where my loitering 'workers' made people loiter, and then send me the attendance sheets that I then filled into my main excel sheet and mailed to the CEO of the multi national company that was funding our loitering!

It sounded just as absurd to them as it did to us. 

I also confessed to them that if I had asked myself all the questions that they were asking me, I would have felt so hopeless, small and depressed that I would have scrapped the idea of loitering even before doing it. They all laughed!

I told them that when I read the book, it spoke to me, not to make a large scale movement, but to just, get out of my own house, and loiter. It just so happened that others found the idea interesting and joined me. Loitering cannot be forced, it cannot be asked of someone, it has to come from the individual, it has to be fun and joyful and simple, otherwise it is not loitering, it is work.

We told them that this idea of 'expansion' and 'what about them' and 'how do you plan to change the world' may not be quick and straightforward, but may take years and decades and may never happen, but its important to keep doing it to change yourself, your friends, your family, your neighbourhood and ideas spread, ideas are replicated, borrowed, are sources of inspiration. I told them that similar movements have started in Jaipur. Aligarh, Pakistan and it is not a coincidence, its a collective. The only way something like a why loiter movement can be sustained is if it is locally pioneered, is fun, is personal.

I told them about the blog and that we have readers from across the world that often share stories of their own individual loiterings and how sometimes what they read here inspires them to loiter. I told them that I conducted a workshop with tribal women in Jharkhand about the ideas of loitering. That seemed to impress them a little. By the end of the two hours we did manage to erode some of their ideas of what a movement means and what it CAN mean. Some of them also said that they would love to start loitering with their friends in their own neighbourhoods. I said, 'of course, there is no copyright on loitering, in fact, there is a copy left on it!' They laughed, but it is true. Loitering is a phenomenon as old as life itself, its just that we have now forgotten its simple pleasures.

The idea that a movement, a revolution has to be for OTHERS and not for MYSELF is something that is propogated, but is so not correct. How are you going to change others when you arent sure of what you think, practice and advocate? How are you going to 'make' others loiter and have fun when you have forgotten what loitering and having simple joys means? How are you going to sustain something that you, in your head, have made so serious and joyless?

'Be the change you want to see in the world'- M.K. Gandhi.

Simple words, but so true. Lets revisit these words by the man who did change the world by changing just  himself.