Hello Mumbai girl, and welcome to being afraid. We're not happy to see you.
You were the fearless dweller of the promised land for many of us, the girls from the 'other' cities in India. You sat at the edge of your city on Marine Drive at 2 am, took the local train home in a press of bodies that touched you but never violated you, and 'gave it back' to the driver that cut you off in traffic without fearing a violent reprisal. Forget the Mumbai-Delhi rivalry; for Delhi women, you have always been the clear winner. And we, the residents of the elsewhere in India, have been both envious and glad of your existence. You were a beacon of hope.
You were living the dream, after all. Female visitors came back home with borderline-fantastical stories of late night cab rides back home, ones where you weren't clutching the pepper spray in your fist the entire time. Mumbai is safe for women, we extolled, and wondered secretly what made your city different.
Why did the safety of the Mumbai matter to us so much? We held on to it for years, as if one safe oasis in the country for women could negate the hell that exists for billions others. Maybe the idea of an Indian city teeming with humanity still being safe for women made us feel as though India wasn't a 'gone case'. That if India was a mad scientist's laboratory, Mumbai was the one random experiment that got it right - it was the right permutation of people, politics, women, law... something.
But anyway, Mumbai is not safe. It's perhaps always been true, but today you'll be more aware of it than ever when you leave your office, or get in an auto rickshaw at 9 pm, or step into the local bylane - the faster shortcut to the station which is always empty. So as a woman from 'another city' like Delhi, here's some advice. A guide to navigating today, or any other day when you remember what can happen to a girl at 6 pm in one of Mumbai's busiest neighbourhoods.
1. Stop putting it off and buy the pepper spray. I know you keep saying you'll get around to it. Or maybe you wonder, what help is it anyway? But, hey, it's better than nothing. Keep it in the outer pockets of your purse so that you can grab it quickly. If you have a backpack, keep it in your jeans pocket. Other useful parapharnelia to keep on your person includes safety pins, red chilli powder and a sharp letter opener.
2. Before you get in a cab or an autorickshaw make a big show of noting down the license plate number. Once you're inside, call somebody you know and loudly recite the license plate number while maintaining meaningful eye contact with the driver through the rear-view mirror. Feel free to drop in a line like: "I'll see you in ten minutes," so that it's clear that you're not going home alone to an empty house, whether or not its true.
3. Don't forget to charge your phone. I'm sure you know the emergency number for police:100. Also remember 102: that's the number for an ambulance. Just in case.
4. If you have a car, make sure it's not a noticeable colour, or else paint over it. A more noticable colour will make it easier for someone to track your movements. Silver works.
5. Refuse to do your job if it involves interacting with strangers, like say, being a journalist.
6. Don't walk in the same direction as traffic. It makes that much easier for a car that's been tailing you to pick you up without any warning. If you do see a car slowing down next to you, abruptly switch direction if you're on a narrow sidewalk. Another option is to just walk into busy traffic. With some clever stopping and dodging, you'll be fine.
7. Always remember: safety in female numbers. Don't go anywhere where there aren't a lot of women present. What is ok: full train stations, busy offices, family restaurants. What is not ok: any place, ever, where there are less than 15 women present. Forget the old wives tale about taking a man along for safety. A male buddy, boyfriend, husband, brother or colleague can't protect you.
8. Don't go out alone at night. That option is gone. You had a good run. Let it go.
If you must go out after dark, go in a group in a prepaid cab. While you're out, don't lose sight of anyone in the group. At the end of the night, call another prepaid cab. Everyone should stay together till the end, and spend the night at one person's home instead of being dropped one by one. Irrespective of the number, don't have too many drinks. Intoxication makes you less attentive, which can be fatal, sometimes literally so.
9. Don't forget to be suspicious of every man you encounter. Pizza delivery boys aren't allowed to dawdle in front of an open door while you rummage in your purse for cash. No plumbers or electricians allowed without at least three other women present. Don't sit in a cab with two men sitting in the front. Be alert around your male friends, your family members and neighbours, and never, ever, be alone with a stranger.
10. Don't forget to wear comfortable shoes and bulky clothes that make you look unattractive. It's not a guaranteed insurance against rape, but better to be safe than sorry, as your mother would say.
11. Don't forget be always afraid, because fear is the only weapon we possess.
12. But look brave, because they can tell when you're scared.
Above all, don't forget that despite following all the rules, you may be raped any way.