It was 10:53 in the night. Footfall on Mathura Jn. railway station had reduced considerably in the last two hours. I walked across the length of the platform with a deliberate, confident stride, a 60-litre backpack on my back, a camera bag in front, left hand in pocket of my track pants, thumb on the nozzle of a pepper spray. I had stepped out twice, onto the dirt road outside the station absolved of all light, to smell liquor on the male-only crowd, and for them to smell fear on me, and come back. They were all too drunk to walk straight yet not drunk enough to miss the sight of a lone woman. Eve learnt fear before Adam.
Eighteen years back, life ambled in the lanes of Gajraula, a small city in Uttar Pradesh known solely for being in close proximity to the criminal hotbed of the state at the time. Yet childhood was buoyant like the mustard fields that coloured acres of earth outside my window yellow back then. I certainly did not exhibit any delinquent behaviour, I am happy to report.
I was twelve when I left Uttar Pradesh with my family. Newspaper headlines and television news channels remained my only bridge to the place where I once plucked memories by the dozen. Law and order in the state was crumbling, one depraved act at a time. I was surprised. When did everything change, and change with such magnitude? The answer was simple – the only thing that changed was my perspective. After all, walls look dirty only when you step outside of them. Another bridge burnt, another lesson learnt.
Many years later, long after the smoke thinned, an idea, fed partly by images on social media, barged into my conscious one day – watch holi celebrations in Brijbhoomi(a region in Uttar Pradesh with a clear cultural demarcation, believed to have been home to Lord Krishna). I was quick to dismiss it. Why would I go to a place deemed the most unsafe for women in India? The next year, it came back again about the same time, that stubborn brat of a thought, and I would have banished it yet again had it not been for a call from a male friend - “I am off to Mathura and Vrindavan for holi this year, booked my tickets already, do you want to join?”
Three weeks later, aboard the general compartment of New Delhi - Agra Cantt. Intercity Express, I headed to Mathura. My friend was to join me two days later, another female friend would arrive the next day, I sat, reassuring myself. Through glass windows rolled down to curb the wind, I could see nothing of the dark, vast wastelands outside, certainly no streetlights. I could however, with remarkable clarity, see behind the eyes trained on me. One of only two women there, the other being a blind, old woman who had dozed off, it came upon me to serve onboard entertainment to the men.
The train halted suddenly in the middle of a patch of vantablack. My senses heightened. The man on my left stuck his hand in the pocket of his dirty, green kurta. Could it be a knife? “…अंधेरे मे बड़ा मज़ा आता है…” The two boys in front of me, both well past their teens, spoke in hushed whispers. The fan above stirred khat-khat-khat as it came to a halt. Then, my phone rang. The train resumed its onward march. It was my male friend.
“I will not be coming,” he said, simply.
I lost the rest of my words to a growing haze of vulnerability. I was in the midst of assembling a second, renewed reassurance when my phone buzzed once more. It was a message from my female friend who was to join me the next day. It read – “I cannot make it, I am busy with some personal stuff.” Khat-khat-khat. Someone switched the fan back on. I forced a deep, long breath.
What were my choices? I could stay in Mathura that night, return to New Delhi the next day, and from there take a flight back to Pune. It is a perfectly safe place Trishna, trust me, I was raised there. In fact, I was there last year with my mother for holi celebrations. You will be perfectly safe even if you go there alone. Comforted by memories of a discussion with a school-friend, I considered my choices once again. Three days before, I had posted on a women’s travel group on Facebook. It is all safe here, come over, I was told by a woman who had reached Mathura two days before with a group of friends. Save my number. Give me a call once you reach.
An hour later, at 9:30 PM, I reached Mathura Jn. railway station, littered with heavily drunk men. Holi celebrations had started in Brijbhoomi. Faced now with a new predicament, I asked myself a question. What could be worse? Meeting a stranger whose impression I had gathered solely from Facebook, or plying in a rickshaw to the main city, ten kilometers away, with a drunk driver. I decided to wait.
It was at 11:30 PM that she called me for the third time.
“I am standing by the overbridge between the two platforms,” she said.
Fighting sleep in my eyes, I walked towards the unknown, my bare face an oddity in a sea of faces smeared with colours of holi.
Someone called me, a face as unrecognizable as all others, skin a violent orgy of red, purple, green and blue. I walked towards the voice, trying to study that face I knew I had seen before. It was her, the girl from Facebook. Next to her stood exactly half a dozen men, all of them masked by holi. “Sorry I kept you waiting…the train got delayed…where do you plan to stay tonight? Come with us, it’s really late,” she said, then introduced me to the rest of the group. I shook hands one by one, forming first impressions as best and as accurately as I could.
One obvious choice remained – spend the night at the station and go back to New Delhi the next morning.
Instead, I said, “Let’s go.”