Safe at 11 pm

Coming home late

I was at Leiden University today. A friend of mine had organized a 3-day Film Festival this week, focussing on Neo-Realist Classics from India, and had invited me to speak in the Expert’s Panel with which the festival was rounded off. I was only too happy to oblige - not as an expert, but as a film enthusiast. And all the more so because I got to speak about three favourite films of mine by three filmmakers I adore on a topic close to my heart. Our Panel discussion went well; what went even better was the free-flowing conversation we had with the audience at the end for more than an hour, way past our designated time, which continued unabated in the dinner afterwards in a nearby Indonesian restaurant. Since one delay led to another, I got home pretty late. I was supposed to return by 10 pm, I returned by 11. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for either the train or the tram afterwards. Otherwise, I would have reached another 15/30 minutes later.

My house, from the nearest tram stop, involves a 20 minute walk. I walked home alone on a chilly winter night through deserted streets, with just the odd car zipping past me and the stray pedestrian or two on the road. I was humming a song from a film that had been shown in the festival. I’ve known that song forever, and was struck - as I walked home, lost in my thoughts - by how much it resonated with my life now. In the train, I had wondered whether my daughter had already gone to sleep or whether she was still awake watching “Quest means Business” with her dad. On friday nights, she goes to sleep only after “The Graham Norton Show”. But that thought was a flicker. My mind was totally taken up with a very old Hindi film song.

Inevitable comparisons between India & the Netherlands

I can’t imagine this scenario in India: walking an empty 20-minute stretch alone at 11pm without a hint of fear or foreboding, and without anxious calls from family about my whereabouts (exactly where I am and when I’ll reach).

When I write about the Netherlands, or think about my life here, comparisons with my home country is inevitable. My experience in India as an Indian colours every bit of my life as an expat in the Netherlands. It is not simply a question of being better and worse - in facts. It is not about more or less, but the difference in the texture of lived experience. There has been one continuity - I’ve come from one cosmopolitan city/capital to another. And yet the biggest difference I’ve felt in my 10 years (short of 4 months now) is the way I’ve felt as a woman.

I am seldom out late in the evenings. The days I am have usually to do with my writing group meetings once every fortnight. My writing group is an Amsterdam-based group, and though it changed several avatars, all members remain Amsterdammers. The person who submits on a given day hosts the critique session. So we all get a chance to travel bit around Amsterdam, visiting each other’s homes in different parts of the city. If you are commuting by public transport, then buses are usually 15 minutes apart, and after 8 pm, twice an hour; but trams and the metro are more frequent. The sessions are from 7.30-9.30 pm; depending on the location of the host’s house, it takes me between 30 mins to an hour to reach home. If a critique session goes long, then it’s a little more.

I left Calcutta at 33, after having lived most of my life there. The city and its very unique culture has shaped me to a profound degree. When I’d just left, it was visceral pain, nothing short of trauma. And overwhelming nostalgia. The intensity of it has reduced over the years, though I still miss a hundred things about the city. But there’s one thing I don’t miss - being a woman. The caution with which any evening out had to be planned.


It was liberating - to walk the streets at night without fear, to board its trams and buses during the day without even the hint of eve-teasing or sleazy remarks about look, appearance dress, or mindless giggles and laughter that make you uneasy. Kolkata had been a relatively safe place to grow up in the 1980 and 90s. Streets were safe - in the sense of the absence of random acts of abuse and violence against women. But subtler forms of abuse were rampant - eve-teasing. Any neighbourhood in any part of the city. Once you reached puberty, nobody allowed you to forget the fact - warned you about your “developed body”, of things that can happen to it, and the perpetual anxiousness of parents with grown up girls.

It was liberating to go out any time you liked, any way you liked, and nobody bothering about it. Nobody giving to you undue/unwanted attention as a woman. Nobody allowing you to forget you are a woman.

[Being a ] Citizen

After coming here, for the first time, I felt equal to men at a very everyday mundane level. Equally free to go out in the street any time without much fuss. Not at the level of principles and abstractions and hard-earned rights - equal pay for equal work, equal right to education, etc. because I had all of that in India, but I never felt equal to a man in my lived experience. I am not a citizen of the Netherlands, I’ve retained my Indian passport. But after coming here, for the first time, when I walked the streets, I felt like a true citizen, in the original etymological sense of the term - a denizen of the city. A resident like any other.