Deccan Chronicle

Sucheta Dasgupta | Why can't we be friends?

Deccan Chronicle.| Sucheta Dasgupta

Published on: March 12, 2022 | Updated on: March 12, 2022

Why is women's safety' a bugbear? Is slut-shaming and middle-class paranoia not its effect but its cause?

The rickshawwallah pedals us to the arcade where Maa finds her shop, meets her lady friend and conducts her business. (Representational Image/

The rickshawwallah pedals us to the arcade where Maa finds her shop, meets her lady friend and conducts her business. (Representational Image/

The muse struck as I slept.

I am bringing my mother from the airport into town. Into G. City, to be precise, where I have a flat in the present moment. She will live with me here while I go back into ‘big bad Delhi’, to earn my living. As we ride up in a scooter rickshaw that we boarded from the Metro to the gates of the G. City boulevard, pavilions of tall buildings greet our eyes, with turrets and spires and watchtowers, each 20-storey high, standing on cobbled service lanes full of joggers and rollerskaters, with vibrant markets flowing with food and wares tucked in-between tastefully.

Now, Maa has an appointment at the greetings card shop in the arcade up the next row of houses parallel to our boulevard, located in the last building in the far corner, where she will notify her lady friend who owns the shop of her arrival, buy some gifts and set up kitty parties in my house. Which will no doubt take place in my absence, but that’s the way I prefer it. I give Maa the spare keys to my apartment, and we board a cycle rickshaw together. I will bring her back to the flat and then I will be off.

It is evening and the light is already fading. Night duty calls at my storied newspaper, located in ITO crossing, in another half an hour.

Enter the cycle rickshawwallah, a working class hero with a high regard for Indian mothers. He also holds a preference for damsels in distress and a nasty opinion of trouser-clad, independent female blighters. He does not know that I personally abhor using his manual contraption. Yet hiring one for Maa, the old one with arthritis, and accompanying her in it is the pragmatic decision.

The rickshawwallah takes an immediate liking to my conventional mother and simultaneous offence at my dutifully stolid and somewhat stubborn presence beside her which he construes as forwardness and potential for intrusion. He is rude, both obviously and sneakily, right off the bat.

Two things Maa could have done differently to let me down that she doesn't. She does not instruct or obstruct me nor ask me to apologise or humour the man for expediency’s sake and instead hears and bears my so-far-verbal righteous incivilities with a neutral expression as I set out the parameters of the transaction. And by her look and her timely remarks addressed to me, in particular, signals that she is depending on me, and not him, unquestioningly to take her to her destination.

The effect of this behaviour on the rickshawwallah who has unequivocally liked her is that I gain his respect. He decides to ally with the both of us, and from that point onwards, we connect emotionally. Or not, for all any of us cares, but at least we understand each other.

The rickshawwallah pedals us to the arcade where Maa finds her shop, meets her lady friend and conducts her business. On the way back, the rickshawwallah will stop over at a tree-fronted portico on the street leading to the inner courtyards of a marble mansion. There, in the leafy shade, he will take Maa’s permission to invite us both to a princess’ wedding taking place inside the mansion. The princess’ bridesmaid is his friend and he needs to deliver her a parcel. He wishes us to accompany him. It is his treat to Maa and her daughter.

The palatial mansion is not well-lit. There is a power cut going on, and the generator is being fixed. Inside the darkening halls, a ball is in progress as beautiful maidens dance to heavenly music in men’s tuxedoed arms. None of them is the rickshawwallah's friend, so he goes off to find her. I wander room to room, hallway to hallway. In one cobwebbed corner, there is a water cooler; in another, sixteen glasses of orange squash neatly arranged in a square plus canapés. Somewhere near the entrance, where I had not noticed it at first, on a table tucked away next to the wall is a buffet. I am tempted to investigate what's on offer when the rickshawwallah returns. He is triumphant, he has helped repair the generator. True to his pronouncement, the next moment, the generator starts with a roar which dissipates into a steady buzz. Fairylights twinkle from treetops.

I collect Maa and we mount the rickshaw again. Buses are plying on the road now carrying home rush-hour passengers. The bungalows lined up on the opposite side of the road along the T-junction and beyond still do not have the globes installed on either side of their wrought iron gates switched on. There is a hill at the end of this road with a temple about two-thirds of the way to the top. One by one, the lights of the establishments close to the temple and leading up to it switch on and shimmer like glowworms in the blue distance.

Maa has to go on the other arm of the T, up the road to buy pleated brocade dresses for her baalgopal, or gopal as she likes to call her favourite deity. She will take the rickshaw and its driver along with herself. I wonder if she will go all the way up the hill, into the blue of the gloaming. She has the keys to the flat and can make her way back home. Just as she implicitly trusts in my good sense and abilities, I trust in hers.

Reluctantly then, I get off the rickshaw, hop onto a running shuttle scooter rickshaw and begin, as always, my familiar journey in the opposite direction of the traffic to my newspaper.

This is an account of a vision I dream up in my subconscious mind while asleep one night. It is before the outbreak of the #Bullybai slur campaign. Yet before outraging, which is now a verb so frequently is it engaged in, let us ponder the following questions: Why is ‘women’s safety’ such a big bugbear? Are those who challenge it all so terrible? Is slut-shaming and middle-class paranoia not its effect but its cause? Should the ones who thus enable it be spared? Are they not guilty of a much greater sin of omission of sitting out the revolution?

Mone karo jeno bidesh ghure maa'ke niye jacchi anek doore (supposing that having travelled strange lands, I am taking Mother far from home), goes the fabled children’s rhyme. And yet, for all his preponderance on united Bengal’s radical heritage, the Bard is not my personal favourite. I rather like the stories of Mr T. whom he chose to condescend on. But more on that in another time and space.

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