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I recently went on a solo trip which I began with a lot of anxiety, but which brought me some revelations about myself, my relationships, and fellow male passengers.
The journey began with a message from Redbus mentioning their women helpline number. I laughed inside, thinking, ‘women’s helpline’, sure!
Earlier in the day before boarding the bus, I had seen a TEDx talk by Shilpa Phadke based on her book Why Loiter? In the talk, she spoke about how it is important for women to claim public space, yet at the same time not denying how women get penalized for ‘stepping out’ at odd times with odd people. As an extension of this thought, I didn’t really think that this women’s helpline would be of any help in case there was any emergency, and I needed help during my solo trip to Udaipur!
I was feeling very uneasy; things were not going well with my parents, nor in my relationship. I tried to call my then boyfriend, but he didn’t pick up my call. I texted him saying that I was not feeling well, to which he replied, “It’s okay, you are strong, you’ll manage”! Because, well, strong independent women apparently don’t need help, and can take care of themselves in all human and non-human circumstances.
I was sort of having a panic attack by now. The reason for the panic attack – there is always a first time right? I was overthinking, and brewing over scenarios that didn’t exist, and those that existed didn’t matter as much as I thought they did.
It suddenly struck me how we have distorted notions of ‘strong’. I realized that being strong doesn’t mean not feeling anything; in fact, on the contrary, it means feeling all of those demonic things inside of you and facing them head-on, every fucking day! We think that people who feel emotions, express feelings, or show vulnerability are weak, or not strong enough. I speak with experience, as I was one of them for sure. Although over the years, I have come to an understanding that to feel is one of the strongest attributes one can have, because how else do we know that it’s too much until we feel?
Anyhow, coming back to me having a panic attack, where there was no breathing in; only exasperated breathing out! I was travelling in an AC sleeper bus and was feeling extremely suffocated. As a coping mechanism, I started crying heavily, tears pouring down uncontrollably in helplessness. I needed fresh air, so I got off my seat and ran to the driver’s cabin, still crying. The driver and the conductor certainly noticed my presence and definitely my state, but didn’t utter a word. I asked them if I could sit in the cabin for some time, and they immediately made space for me.
They realized that I wasn’t feeling well. All I cared about at that moment was the fact that I could finally breathe, but tears would still not stop pouring. I sat there trying to control the tsunami of my emotions while the driver and the conductor continued doing their thing and giving me all the space that I needed to calm down.
I was surprised by their behaviour, once some consciousness knocked into my head as I began to calm down. When I started to gain my senses back, I realized that all this while both these men had not asked me a single question. I saw that there was a cigarette pack on the dashboard and I really wanted to smoke one; I wasn’t carrying any but didn’t know how to break the ice as we had not spoken to each other until this point.
So I sat there is silence with my eyes all swollen up and struggling to see the road ahead. It was 3:00 am already, and the only three people awake on the bus were the driver, the conductor and I. It seemed like an exceptionally long night and the idea of going back to my cabin seemed daunting. The strangest thing was that this wasn’t the first time I was travelling alone. But that’s the thing about travelling; every travel takes you on a very different journey, and if you focus on the journey instead of the destination, it will most likely be a journey within.
The driver suddenly stopped the bus at some random place on the highway and asked the conductor to get tea and cigarettes. I didn’t take even a split second, and immediately asked the driver if the conductor could get me some. To my surprise, the driver asked me which brand do you smoke?
I was so restless and anxious that I didn’t care about anything, and wanted to use cigarettes as an excuse to calm myself down. The conductor apologized for not getting the brand that I had asked for but got something closer. I thanked him. The bus started and the driver lit my cigarette; we all exhaled our first puffs and there was a collective smoke of despair and comfort in the cabin. I started sipping my tea and felt much better.
The driver finally asked me what had happened and why was I crying. I didn’t have a concrete answer. Honestly, I didn’t know myself what happened, but told him whatever I could formulate in my head, and he simply nodded his head. It was almost sunrise time; the driver very politely asked me to go back to my cabin and rest for a bit as Udaipur was still a few hours away. I still couldn’t gather enough courage to go back to my cabin, so I asked if I could sit here for a while, he said yes very reassuringly.
For the next few hours, we all sat there in silence, listening to old Hindi songs and watch the road light up as the sun came out. People had started coming out on the road for morning walks, shopkeepers opening up their shops, parents dropping off their children to school. It was quite the beginning of a new day. or the end of a really dark one; I couldn’t really figure. I was tired by now and needed some rest. I politely thanked the driver and conductor and told them I would like to go rest now, and left. I went to my cabin and was almost about to doze off when two minutes later I heard a knock on the window; it was the conductor offering me a blanket.
When I woke up a few hours later, we had reached Udaipur. I smiled at the conductor and the driver. There was a sense of familiarity; they had seen me in my most vulnerable moment, and there was nothing to hide anymore, no pretence. I took out a 100 rupee note to give the driver for the blanket; he got really offended and said I cannot take that from you. I asked him why? He replied saying, if I take money from you then I have not offered you help I have offered you a service. I had nothing to say, but simply put the 100 rupee note back in my pocket. As I was leaving, he gave me his card with his number, and asked me to call him if I needed any help in Udaipur.
What happened in Udaipur is a different story altogether, but I remember narrating this incident to a friend in Delhi. He laughed it off it saying that it sounded like an Imtiaz Ali film. Sure, it sounded like a film because, so to say, nothing went wrong; I wasn’t penalized or questioned, or made to stand on a pedestal for the choices I had made. On the contrary, it felt quite refreshing, it felt inclusive, and I didn’t have to use the ‘women’s helpline’ number.
I know that no matter how empowered or strong we may be, or however many solo journeys we take, there is this anxiety that builds up in us as women. That’s why before choosing our destination, we sometimes research whether a certain place is safe for women or not. Although a recent study came to show that India is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women, my experiences had been different, and I was equally surprised. The driver and the conductor didn’t intervene in my panic attack but gave me all the space that I needed, physically and emotionally, as the journey ended with very compassionate fellow travellers.
A version of this was first published here and here.
Image source: pixabay
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