I am at Budapest now, in a safe and comfortable hostel, as I narrate my story of a few days back. Strange is this age when we think we are capable of experiencing all kinds of adventures. Maybe we are, when we leave matters at the hands of destiny, situations and have a strong belief that in the end all would be well. Or maybe we aren’t, maybe we just experience one fluke after another until the day the bank of chances will run out of serendipity.
It was at Nice where I was supposed to spend the late hours of night; I had a train to catch at five in the morning and I reached Nice at around midnight. The time from midnight till dawn was supposed to be spent walking around the city – after all, why would a youngster give in to spending money and sleeping in a hostel just for some five hours?
Europe has been a place of freedom for a woman like me. I can never imagine roaming around the streets of Gurgaon, where my college MDI is located, in the evening. Traveling around Delhi at night sometimes does send chills through my spine. And in Guwahati, my hometown, I am supposed to reach home latest by 7:00pm, always. Safety for women is probably not India’s forte.
No wonder, women like me find it liberating in countries like Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. I have traveled alone to a few places here and found it extremely satisfying being away from the inhibitions we, women of India, usually face in the dark. Aarhus, my student exchange location, in Denmark has proved to be the safest place I have ever been to. As a result when I traveled to Nice, I didn’t second guess if I could travel there alone; it was nothing to be asked here.
One of my college mates, Sarin did notify me that Nice is a “shady place” and hence, it would be safer to go for a night-out in Monaco instead. Yet, I met a stranger in Marseilles, who is a musician by profession and around 45 by age, who said there is nothing much to see in Monaco and hence, Nice would be a better and safer bet. I left the discretion to my situation – the first train from Nice was at 5am and that from Monaco was at 6; so Nice, I decided.
As I walked out of the train station towards the sea-side, I saw a McD open, relieving me of my late night hunger pangs. Groups of people walked around the city, and although I was a bit worried in the beginning for my own safety, I felt extremely happy once I reached the Massena square. There were figures of meditating humans that change colours after a little while – from green to orange to red to pink. It was beautiful as I sat on one of the seats, a guitarist sat on another and played a softer version of ‘Smoke on the Water’ (A Deep Purple song), two kids practiced stunts on their skateboards, and a bunch of youngsters laughed and talked loudly. There were homeless people, for sure, but they just found their own places to sleep and did not bother anyone around. I immediately wiped off all my thoughts about Nice being a “shady place”.
The night proceeded into darkness as I traveled around looking at various museums, cathedrals and statues. Some pubs were open making the place not entirely devoid of people, and a patrolling car roamed near the port being vigilant about the happenings there. The cops in the car never stopped me for my passport but they did notice me whenever they passed by me, making me feel surprisingly safe. In India, I don’t remember the last time I saw a policeman at night and felt safe.
Thus four hours disappeared into the dark of the night, as I got tired of walking around and talking to strangers returning home from the pubs or camping near the beach. I decided it was time to slowly walk back to the train station and wait for it to open to let the passengers in. Most of the people had left by now – the tourists on their cycles, the city dwellers on rickshaws and trams, the boozers on others’ shoulders. As I walked towards the city I only saw two homeless men, one asking the other for a cigarette after being refused by me.
“I saw you in Monte Carlo,” said a man who just crossed the street to walk besides me. I smiled and explained that I was there earlier in the day time.
“You don’t have a place to stay?”
“umm.. No. I decided to spend the night traveling around the city,” I explained.
“But it’s not safe here at this time of the night, not in the city.” And thus, a chill ran through my spine.
He, who claimed to be a Nice-dweller, then started talking about how unsafe it is at night that “Mediterranean people can kill you for a cigarette.” His stories made me more and more tensed as he offered that I could spend the next hour at his place before I could catch the train. His offer seemed sans bad intentions and although I refused, I did mentally consider his proposal.
“Don’t worry. Just stay at my place till the dawn. I hope you have something to eat,” he reassured me and I obliged.
He then began speaking about how unsafe it is in Delhi when I said that my college is situated near the capital city of India.
“Rapes happen frequently in India, ain’t it so?” he asked as I gulped in fear.
It was when we reached the lane of his house, that I said I wish not to sleep at his apartment as there wasn’t much time to do so.
He exclaimed, “That’s okay. I can’t sleep too because I do drugs. So there is nothing to be worried about.” This scared me out of my wits. I tried hard not to show my surprise and asked what drugs he did.
“Crystals,” he said and smiled.
“I have no clue what that is.”
“You don’t do drugs?”
“Okay, we’ve reached my place,” he said and pulled out a key ring that carried a heart-shaped red pillow of the size of my palm.
“I am actually living at my friend’s place,” he explains as he opens the door.
I look up at the top of the door only to find out it wasn’t a house; it was the door of a hotel. The woman in me, having read so many crime stories before, now imagined ways to get out of the mess I dipped myself in. I still wondered if I misjudged him and he was a genuine person who was honest about his habits.
“Oh, you know what’s funny. My friend is a transvestite,” he added.
And no matter how much open-minded I have tried to be my entire life, no matter how many articles I have written or arguments I have gotten myself into to fight for the rights of those who aren’t straight and misunderstood or looked down upon, at that moment I couldn’t be anything else than scared. If there was one more person in the room, a transvestite or not, I knew I could be in trouble. Being on the streets was troublesome too, but at least there was a scope to shout for help or to be found by some cops or other civilians, the filmy me imagined. The benefit of doubt was out of question and so I excused myself, as polite as I could be, saying that I want to see the other side of the station.
“But it’s not safe,” he reasoned, ironically. At that moment, I could not tell what was safe anymore.
“If I feel unsafe I will knock on your door,” I lied.
“Sure. Your decision. Give me your phone number.”
I gave him my number, took his, left the place as fast as I could and did not look back.