A Tomb of One’s Own: Why It is Important for Indian Women to Own Public Spaces

POV

A Tomb of One’s Own: Why It is Important for Indian Women to Own Public Spaces

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

Where do you go when you have no place to go? Where does a woman go when she has no place to go?

If you walk down from the café’s and boutiques in Hauz Khas Village, you will reach the Hauz Khas monument complex. I call it my mother’s “maika” or mother’s house. I mean Feroz Shah Tughlaq could just have been my maternal grandfather… because I have visited his tomb a hundred times than I have been to my real grandfather’s home. Every time my mother found her marital house like an oppressive prison, she knew where to go to find a home.

My mother had an arranged marriage at the age of 18, in 1968. She saw my dad for the first time during the wedding ceremony.

Delhi was a whole new world for her. Into my father’s big South Delhi home, where my uncles and aunts naturally broke into English and often found it easier to eat with a fork than using their fingers, there came this green-eyed Bengali girl from a small town called Cooch Behar. A young girl who had only ever watched Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen movies, and didn’t know her Rajendra Kumar from Rajendranath. A girl so painfully shy and uncoached in the ways of the city that she had to be coerced into wearing a nightie to bed by my aunts. And while she could read English, her familiarity with the spoken language didn’t extend beyond “My name is Mamta”.

No friends. No family of her own. No telephone. My mother was more alone in 1968 than Diana Spencer was in 1986 and Meghan Markle in 2019.

Every time my mother found her marital house like an oppressive prison, she knew where to go to find a home.

She didn’t have a person to go to. But she had a place. The Hauz Khas complex built in 1354 AD is not as famous as the Qutub Minar nor as populated as Chandni Chowk. Just perfect for a young woman trying to find her way around marriage and motherhood.

It was her barista. Her backyard. Her place to write her diary and most importantly, her place to protest about something my father did or said. It could be anything: Baba calling Ma a spendthrift, extra salt in the food, or their daughter falling sick. Baba had strict hand-washing rituals and if I so much as sneezed, he would blame it on Cooch Behar’s hygiene standards. She was too proud to cry at home, so in a way, the ruins were her concrete box of Kleenex.

Deep in the recesses of my mind is buried the memory of Ma taking my hand and declaring to my dad, “Ami tomar bari chhere jachchi (I am leaving your house)”. Sometimes she would come to pick me up at the bus stop and we would head to the ruins like it were the most natural thing to do. I have done my school homework sitting with her on old bed sheets – the same sheets would be used for India Gate night picnics in happier times.

Once, I remember Ma bumping into a couple and in the course of the conversation, inviting them home for dinner. And suddenly the colours of the cloud changed. She called baba from a PCO and asked him to get mutton. Problem solved. Those days were few and far between. Sometimes an entire day would pass with her writing in her diary furiously while I hopped up and down on the tomb steps playing house-house with my imaginary children.

The Hauz Khas complex is unlike the busy gentrified thoroughfare you see now. Back then, there weren’t any shops around, not even a tea stall. So even when she stormed out of the house, Ma would remember to pack a little snack for me. I remember all this, but what I don’t remember is her being scared. I don’t remember any harassment, or any verbal taunting or any palpable fear of the dark. We would stay at the Hauz Khas tomb for as long as it took her to thaw. Sometimes it took pages of writing in her diary and sometimes it took baba to come looking for us.

The point is, she felt safe while she waited for life to happen.

We would stay at the Hauz Khas tomb for as long as it took her to thaw.

And that is the reason women need public spaces – not just to occupy thoroughfare but even as a private space. A space for quiet reflection, for solitude, for celebration, for contemplation, for weeping their hearts out, for cooling down from a fight. It’s while sitting in the ruins that my mother decided to study again, and applied for a mass communication course at IIMC. It’s while lounging with me in the gardens that she decided I should go to a “big school” like Delhi Public School.

What made a young woman display more ownership of the ruins of the once magnificent complex built by Alauddin Khilji, than she had of the house she shared with Mr Bhattacharya? Why is public space seen as a place for men, and private space a place for women, when everything should belong to everyone?

Why Loiter?, a seminal book, argues that in order to maximise their access to public space, women don’t need “greater surveillance or protectionism” but rather the “the right to engage in risk”. I like to think my mother exploited her right to take risk to the fullest. In some ways, she was freer then than I am in present-day Delhi.

Somewhere in the ’80s, Bina Ramani happened to Hauz Khas village. Suddenly the place buzzed with new eateries and galleries that change every few weeks. That’s when things started to change for my mother too. The frequency of her visits came down, and so did the diary writing.

Did Ma stop going because her public space got too public? Or did she stop going because her marriage got smoother? I will never know.

What I do know is that unlike my Ma, I’ve never had a public space in India I can call my own.

What I do know is that unlike my Ma, I’ve never had a public space in India I can call my own. A place where I can go whether it is day or night. I know of no place where I can sit and write my diary and know that my daughter will be safe playing around. While I have access to hotels, restaurants, and cafes and clubs, there is no place where I can sit and complain to the blue sky and tall trees about life.

I haven’t experienced that lucky feeling when somebody’s radio plays your song, or a chance collision results in a life-long connection. A couple of times, I have tried to relive those moments with my daughters, but our picnics have become more about food and less about soul food.

Women having access to public space to loiter is the most precious gift a  government can give to its female citizens. Because public spaces can help shape our most private selves. Just ask my mother.

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