It was 11:15 in the night. A thick layer of smog had descended upon the city making the otherwise more or less busy road appear uninhabited. No roadside kiosks were open. No pedestrians were in sight. It was barely a 10-kilometre journey from Hindustan Times House on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, where I work, to East of Kailash in South Delhi. But the decision to step out and take an auto-rickshaw at this hour required some forethought. Before stepping out of the building, I made sure I had all the apparatus ready. Pepper spray, battery and enough balance on my mobile, dad’s number on the speed dial. I was set to go.
Standing alone on the dimly lit overcast stretch, I extended my hand to stop an auto-rickshaw. I saw one slowing down and prayed I did not have to negotiate. The auto stopped and before I could tell my destination, the driver said: “I am going to Yamuna Par.” I told him, “Bhaiya, East of Kailash,” he shook his head in disagreement and drove off. Three more autos with an ‘on duty’ board drove past.
After over 10 minutes, I started walking towards Maharashtra Sadan, clutching onto my sling bag with one hand and putting the phone to my ear with the other, pretending to be on call. Cars playing loud music, supposedly being driven by drunkards coming back from parties, zoomed past. Some slowed down just to take a glance at the single woman walking down the deserted road, but thankfully drove off without saying anything.
I paced to cross the relatively dark stretch without looking around, attempting to hide the nervousness, brushing aside the thoughts of being abducted or mugged or teased. I hoped to see a PCR van or a policeman who may help me get an auto-rickshaw, but faced disappointment. While I struggled to beat the horrific thoughts, an auto-rickshaw stopped. Without negotiating, I told him East of Kailash and got inside. “120 rupees. Night charges extra,” he said. I immediately agreed and signaled him to start.
The driver was not in uniform nor did he have a badge on. The moment I got inside, he hit the accelerator, hitting 60 km per hour in minutes. He neither stopped at any traffic signal nor did he slow down at any police barricade. He just sped through the stretch, including the sharp cuts. “Please drive carefully. You will get caught,” I said to scare him. He curtly replied, “Who will stop me at this hour? There is no one. I have to ferry as many passengers as possible in the limited time I got. Don’t worry. Just hold on to the seat, you will reach home,” he said, while lighting a bidi while driving.
I looked around. He was right. There was no traffic cop, no patrolling van and no police personnel to be seen in the area. I decided to keep quiet and hold on to the seat till I reached home. While crossing India Gate, the images of scores of protesters who had converged here after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old in 2012 flashed before my eyes. Has anything really changed after December 16, 2012? Today, I had to wait for over 20 minutes on an isolated stretch with dark patches and dim lights to get an auto-rickshaw with no police presence on the road. Even when I did, I had no choice but to agree to his demands. He overcharged, broke all traffic rules but I was helpless. He was not wearing in uniform nor did he have a badge and I was travelling with a stranger at 11:30 in the night hoping to get home safe. All I could do was sit back, covering myself in my woollen shawl to beat the cold till I reached home.