The South, the North, and My Freedom
I grew up in a town in South India where time was plenty. We would come back from school after a sports session or a play rehearsal and still have time to do our homework, play, watch TV with Mum, and read books. The sea breeze would carry the pungent smell of drying fish towards the land, and the constant screeching of white-necked eagles and grey-necked crows would intertwine with the shouts of bus conductors asking the driver to speed up after all the passengers had got in.
It was a town slowly moving towards modernisation in terms of lifestyle, but the feeling that it was already modern in its thoughts was evident. Freedom had a different meaning in this coastal town in Karnataka. Although women were still not exactly ‘on top’ in terms of their place in society, I felt like I could breathe easy. I could walk to the store at night or maybe even ask a stranger for help.
Male dominance was felt only in a few places, and the women were not just educated to prepare them for the ‘marriage market’. I saw women working in banks, selling fish, or just doing a good job making a home. They roamed about freely on two-wheelers too – a rare sight in Delhi, even on Royal Enfield bullets.
Most people kept to themselves. Some still interfered in the lives of others, but judgments were mostly not made and prejudices remained undeveloped.
North Indians generally consider the South different. And they are right, it is different. I learnt this when I first made my way to Delhi, the country’s capital, on a summer vacation. Delhi is in the northern part of India and perhaps embodies most of the ideologies that have made North India infamous.
My brother and I remember every summer and winter vacation that we spent in Delhi with our grandparents as kids. Whenever the train made its way into the city, smells and sounds of a different kind would emerge. I would hear airplanes making their way to the runway in quick succession and see slums under the bridges, humungous amounts of traffic and two-wheelers, and cars of every variety.
When we would get out of the railway station, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers would wrap around us like a swarm of bees, demanding to know where we wanted to go. Making one’s way around them was a task. We would then rent a vehicle from the pre-paid taxi booth in which we would take in the heat and humidity in the absence of an air-conditioner. This would prepare us for what would ensue the rest of the month in the capital.
For me, each place has its own smell. I remember what Delhi smelled like. It was like a pot of burned sweat garnished with diesel and petrol fumes. I felt like the city never slept - although now I know that it does with the increasing crime rate. People seemed enraged about something or the other. Even the school-going children with their huge bags spewed abuses at each other and fought over little things. All this seemed unreal, hateful.
Every other day there was an accident on the road in front of Grandpa’s house. Men would slap each other; they had a hurried demeanor and were always ready for a good fight. Anger seemed to be the pulse of the city. It was nothing like the friendly South Indian town I lived in.
While I was a teenager, I also realised that women were treated differently in Delhi. For instance, I wasn’t allowed the joy of taking a walk there by myself. I still don’t know if it was just the city that had made this difficult or if it was because I was part of a conservative Muslim household. All I was told was, “you can’t leave home without your brother here, this is not Mangalore,” they told me.
My female cousins seemed very timid, while the male ones had the world at their feet. We were told different things in the north, and the rules for the boys and the girls were poles apart, not only amongst the Muslim community but probably more so among the dominant Hindus and Punjabis.
I am grateful to my parents that I did not grow up in Delhi. If I had, I would not have been half the person that I am today. I have been working here for about six years now and have also lived on my own for more than half that time. I find freedom in my work, in making my own decisions, but I still don’t smell the freedom. I want the freedom to laugh, to walk without a care in the world, to do what I can without a sneer. The pollution, traffic jams, rapes and “honor” killings are a metaphor for the smothering feeling I have woken up with almost every day.