As I sit down and think about loitering, I can’t but wonder why I actually need to explain my need to wander around. Even as the concept of settlement and community living emerged as we organized ourselves into civilizations, the need to loiter and savour a moment as an individual is perhaps the most basic of human instincts. When I was at the school, I used to take my cycle to attend music class, promptly circling the nearby park thrice for no apparent reason. And then, on odd days, I used to stop by at a less-crowded, smelly, old temple, circumambulating the corridors at my own pace, smiling, observing, thinking. Then it became long drawn bus journeys to random places, mostly from terminus to terminus. (autos, share autos and cabs creep me out) Later, my trusted two-wheeler took the spot and the absolute freedom that I, as a woman, felt is incredible. I can go anywhere, anytime I WANTED TO. So, when bicycles are portrayed as symbols of women empowerment by P.Sainath, I tend to accept wholeheartedly. Blame it on centuries of depending upon others; the sheer drama of seeking permission at every point from the family; the very real possibility of tackling violence, the process of a woman being out on her own is essay-worthy in itself.
But then, I thought I had crossed that stage, after all I am practising advocate at Madras High Court. I have practically spent my college days at the Law College on the shores of Marina Beach, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. I generally prefer walking, because when a woman sits, she is asking to be stared at, self-exhibitionism, right? A few days after the first phase of Chennai floods, I had a rather boring day at the Court. It wasn’t in my plan to visit the beach. On my way to office I had turned to the Beach lane, rather impulsively. I picked my usual spot, that between Kannagi statue and Vivekanandar Illam. (‘V’ House) To those of you who have visited Marina, it is a usual sight, the Cotton Candy men, the Sundal vendors (usually kids in their school uniforms), the bajji-selling akkas, the student gangs – from the University of Madras, Presidency College, Stella Mary’s College, the couples in love –arguing with each other, chasing each other playfully, maintaining a respectful distance, entwined to their very DNA, the fisher folk drying their nets, saree-wearing aunties power-walking in their Adidas shoes, parents negotiating with the kids on their wave-quotas, the daredevil swimmers – well, you should visit sometime. I sat by an empty boat and soaked my feet in the slightly moistened, soft sand. At my sole’s reach was the powerful yet calm sea, rising and crashing against the backdrop of the twilight sky.
I felt the gaze of a person behind me and decided to ignore. A few minutes later, that person, a tall, bearded man in his early 20s sat beside me. My fight and flight hormones surged up promptly. I occupied the boat, ready to pounce upon (verbally to start with) the stranger if he stood up to sit beside me. He didn’t. I didn’t want to move an inch from the place as the thought felt like a failure. Why retreat in a battle, right? As I sat confused and alert, he apologized to me. Yes, he sat next to me because he saw a group of men staring at me. He said he thought if he sat next to me, people would think I was with him and won’t trouble me. I was seething with so much anger that words failed me. A little later he took the boat behind me, this is when the said group of men he so feared cleared the place after a selfie session. All the while I felt this stranger observing me from the back, like a specimen, as an odd woman out, quite literally. Unmindful of his unsolicited voluntary protective disapproval, I stared at the sea, smiled, engaged with the kids passing by and played with the sand. As I was leaving, he smiled at me and asked why I was at the beach alone. Did I not have friends? A good looking girl like me would have a boyfriend or two for sure? I asked him why he was at the beach. He said he was a postgraduate student of Political Science at the Madras University and was distressing at the beach after a particularly difficult examination. Apparently he would stay at the beach till 7.00 p.m., and I can stay at the beach till then. I asked why he was at the beach alone. He gave a sheepish grin. I told him it was none of his business to barge into my personal space, notwithstanding the polite apology and patronizing smile. I tried talking to him about the concept of feminism, he nodded as if he understood and promptly went on about the duty of the man to respect and protect women. He repeated a line that I hear very often from people, “I have never seen a woman sitting alone in the beach.” Honestly, I haven’t too, I replied, “now you do.” I wasn’t going to lecture upon why I prefer solitude or why the beach, it was too personal to be discussed. I thought of telling him about my profession and the kind of people I meet on a daily basis, the rapist and the rape survivor story usually has the desired effect. I decided against bragging, who knows, he may not change even if he met a female Army Chief . He may find her an aberration and explain how a potential perpetrator may not know that the survivor is indeed a trained soldier. I walked back, having tried and lost. As I peered through my helmet, I saw my savior fly away in his bike. The time was 6.05 p.m. Just saying.