I actually don’t remember the first time I ran on the streets but I do remember the most recent, which was this morning. It was a brisk five kilometre run through Mumbai, swerving through slow joggers, temperamental auto-rickshaws, and maybe a cow or two.
Unlike many around me, I love running. I love the early morning sea breeze before the 8 AM office traffic renders the outdoors unbreathable. I love dashing past groggy early-morning commuters, or startling street dogs with quick turns or sprints. I even prefer running without music. And I do this every day, at 6.30 AM, for the last one-and-a-half years. On weekends, I push my limits and go up to or beyond 10 kilometres. Sometimes, uncles and aunties observing my cool-down in the park stop by to tell me, “You run very nicely, beta.”
But I’m not here to brag.
Everything I've described here is, in fact, a rare privilege, which I've acquired only very recently. As a young woman growing up in India, it’s difficult to fathom a life without various acts of self-preservation and self-censorship, and especially in public spaces. Because, you see, on Indian roads, women aren't afraid of being hit by a speeding car as much as we're afraid of harassment and violence.
Women in India have been denied access to public spaces for generations.
Elderly women in my family recount incidents of catcalling and leering on the streets. “Hota hain (It happens),” they say consolingly. Studies show that most Indian cities have been designed for men, an urban development plan that stems from the country’s legacy of patriarchy and gender inequality. And it’s terrifying how making the streets a domain for men has affected everything from public safety to unequal participation in the workforce. Naturally, this skewed gender representation is unsettling for women, and emboldening for men.
My fear of Indian roads began quite organically—as it does for many of us—when, as a teenager, I was roughed up by a stranger’s hands in a crowded flea bazaar in New Delhi. My 16-year-old instinct was to walk away really fast, unwilling to look at the perp’s face in the sea of humanity after a glimpse of his hand frisking my waist. I clutched my college bagpack close to my chest, mostly to calm my racing heart, and rushed to rejoin my friends.
I didn’t talk about it for a very long time because back then, my naive self thought: Sexual harassment doesn’t happen to girls like me, right? I remembered an informal discussion with a nun at my convent school two years before this incident, where she told, with theatrically-wide eyes, a story about “a girl in a tight top” who was groped in front of her by a man at a traffic signal. “She was riding a scooty, and the man groped her breast and drove away,” she told us. What happened then? We asked. “She just drove away, really fast. That’s what happens to these kinds of girls,” came the abrasive response. No one spoke, but we all understood the implied shame of wearing a tight T-shirt.
Two years later, while heading home from a run, I was groped again by a man on a motorcycle. He snuck up from behind me, stretched out his pudgy arm, and just went for it.
This time, I screamed—by now, I’d dismissed the morality-induced shame my convent school had tried to instill in me—but still, I walked back to my room swathed in sweat, trembling. I didn’t step out of the campus for almost a full semester after that.
There are five stages of fear, they say. The first is panic. Panic was my natural reflex in public spaces for almost a decade. I always moved in my female herd. It trickled down to my clothing as well—I began to wear looser clothes, sometimes not even my size (I even ended up wearing my father’s golf T-shirts for my rare morning jaunts).
It took me a year to summon enough courage to go out for a run one day in my hometown. At around 7 AM, I ventured out on the empty roads. My hometown, Dehradun, is at the foothills of the Himalayas, so you can imagine how good the cold breeze feels on your face when you’re jogging lightly down a boulevard of eucalyptus trees. Suddenly I felt a violent smack on my right arm and before I could register what happened, a man cycled hurriedly past me. And as he rode away, he looked back with a grin. A grin!
Since then, the few running expeditions I planned with friends have involved men passing by me, looking back and either giving a thumbs-up and drawl, “Helloooo,” or just singing some Bollywood song while maintaining eye contact. Soon came stage two: Inertia. After a brief attempt to become a runner, I stopped trying altogether. I made sure I wasn’t on the streets that much.
I signed up for a gym or swimming membership instead, and for years, I believed that receiving friend requests from strange men at the gym never made eye contact was better than being smacked or leered at in the street. This was perhaps stage three of fear: striving. That phase when you’re successful at dealing with your problem, but not entirely.
Moving to Mumbai two years ago helped me graduate to stage four: Coping. And this is where everything changed. Considered safer than most Indian cities and also one of the world’s most expensive, Mumbai became the first habitat where I dropped my defenses. And boy, did it feel light. For all its flaws (poor infrastructure, overpopulation, etc), the city presented public spaces where women don’t just stand out—they are the crowd. I saw women running early in the morning, or late at night, sometimes even during the day. I saw them run in the scorching May heat, and even in the August rains. They were everywhere, alone, resilient, and most importantly, unperturbed by anyone else.
I observed at first, coolly, from a distance. And then one day, during a regular health check-up, my doctor told me to ditch the gym and step outdoors. “Outdoors? But it’s raining!” I exclaimed. “So?” She asked with a barely concealed surprise. It’s just a run, she said. And so I ran, in baggy clothes, at first. I got tired easily; running on concrete is very different from a treadmill. The former is all about impact, and I’m not even sure what the latter does to the body.
But there I was, on the streets I once feared so much. It’s not that easy to shed years of distress being on the streets caused me; I looked around a lot, ready to confront any aggressor with a retort, or a simple kung fu kick to his face.
But the more I noticed that nobody cared, the more I let go. And finally, stage five: Actualisation. It’s been over a year since my first real run. I still see very few women out there, but that number is enough. I have replaced the oversized T-shirts with proper running gear, which improves my form and pace, and with that, my confidence to occupy the streets with a more vengeful purpose.
There’s an ongoing (albeit bitter) joke among most of my female friends, which is that women bond over our shared stories of trauma. I don’t remember the last time I befriended a woman in Southern Asia and didn’t start the conversation with: “This one time, I was in a bus/metro/on the road, and this guy….” But ever since I’ve started running, be it alone or with a group, I know it’s more than just that. It’s never just running. It’s my way of protesting what’s denied to us. A form of rebellion, if you will. And I’m just glad for that because, honestly, I’m tired of whining. I just want to run.
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