“People are often more helpful when I take off my helmet,” says Dahal, 27.
“People are often more helpful when I take off my helmet,” says Dahal, 27.

Meet Indrani Dahal, the woman on a mission to make it solo across India on a bike

Her journey began with a desire to explore the country, and has evolved into a mission to empower women to follow their dreams and reclaim public spaces, Dahal says.
By Stuti Johri
UPDATED ON MAY 15, 2021 12:08 PM IST

It’s day 27 of her ride around India. Indrani Dahal, 27, is on a motorcycle in Jharkhand. Google Maps directs her to take an exit off the highway, and 30 km later, she finds herself in a dense jungle with no cellphone network.

She is eventually stopped by men in army fatigues. “Beti, where are you going?” they ask. They advise her to turn back, say this is Naxal territory. She resists the urge to keep going and turns around.

Armed with just her phone, riding gear and one backpack of essentials — clothes, toiletries, first-aid and her hair-straightener — Dahal began travelling alone cross-country in November.

Ordinarily, she works as an F&B operator aboard a cruise ship. In the pandemic, she was done being cooped up at her home in Kharagpur, West Bengal, where she lives with her parents and younger brother. Her journey riding through every state in India began with a desire to explore the country, and has evolved into a mission to empower women to follow their dreams and reclaim public spaces.

In an isolating year, Dahal says her road trip has given her a much-needed sense of community. She decided to go where the road takes her, leaning from time to time on her network of fellow riders, and so far she hasn’t regretted it.

She talks of strangers who have offered her shelter along her route, and fellow bikers she met in Chennai who added her to various WhatsApp groups so she’d have riders to turn to wherever she went, for help figuring out her route and finding accommodation, or just to have someone to talk to.

In a village near the Rann of Kutch, she stayed with a family of six. “They pampered me like a queen,” she says. “One night, I said I’d like to hear some traditional Kutchi songs, and within an hour, villagers had gathered to sing for me.”

Dahal learned to ride at 15, from her younger brother. This is her first ride outside her hometown. She’s doing her India yatra to prove it is possible for a bike-borne woman to make it around the country alone and unharmed, but she has taken some precautions. She travels with safety equipment including a full-face helmet, sticks to the national highways as far as possible, and is usually off the roads by dusk. “But people are actually more helpful when I take off my helmet,” she says.

India’s breath-taking natural beauty has surprised her, she says. Her favourite spot so far has been Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, a beach situated on the narrow strip of land that juts out towards Sri Lanka. It’s a place of crystal-clear waters and spotless sand; paradise, she calls it.

Over the past four months, she has gained confidence in her ability to handle challenges. One evening, she arrived at her destination only to discover that local lodges were unwilling to accommodate a single woman, prompting her to enlist the help of local police to find a place to spend the night. Several other times, she found herself trying to navigate without cellphone network, in places where she didn’t speak the local language.

Her advice to others looking to hit the road solo? Just do it, Dahal says.

It’s the kind of message that makes activist Sameera Khan smile. Khan is co-author of Why Loiter?, a book that argues that the future of women’s safety lies in women being able to reclaim public spaces. “Public space is unfortunately always presented to women in terms of danger and violence. While those are legitimate fears, they should not hold back Indian women from accessing the public and claiming it for themselves in terms of pleasure,” Khan says. “People like Indrani show that, no matter what, women will continue pushing the envelope until their right to be in public spaces is normalised.”

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