Travelling with Vulnerability and the Baggage of Fear
By Sohini Chatterjee
The journey from Kolkata to Nottingham took longer than I had imagined. I landed at Heathrow, spent and several hours behind schedule, having encountered hold-ups on the way that had put a damper on my spirits. I braced myself for further disappointments as I pulled the weight of my bags behind me and trudged along on train stations – a hundred miles was left to be covered. The subsequent journey lasted a couple of hours; I reached Nottingham at 4 in the afternoon – inadvertently hours later than the time of arrival I had anticipated. The delay was not entirely unforeseen but it peeved me regardless. Had everything gone according to plan, I would have reached my destination by noon. The journey would have been less exhausting, and, more importantly, I would have had enough time to explore the city before it got ensconced in darkness. However, my late afternoon arrival ensured that the rest of my day would be uneventful. Shackled to fear as a solo womyn traveler, this was a dispirited prognosis that was, nonetheless, rooted in the compulsion I felt to conform to accepted wisdom about safety. Having been harassed several times in Kolkata, the city of my birth and where I grew up, the place I am most familiar with, I harbour particularly low expectations of unknown cities that are as strange to me as I am to them. Hence, while forging acquaintance with their intriguing novelty, I felt the need to I exercise caution – prudence became a reflex.
This need is felt almost ritualistically, before every departure, and seems immutable. I conform to it, sometimes even despite myself. While planning this trip, nagging safety concerns dictated all my choices and my preferred time of arrival in Nottingham was one of them. I booked a flight that promised early morning landing at Heathrow so that I arrived at my destination several hours before the last traces of daylight were to disappear from there. I derive strength from the sun; it is a companion I repose my faith and invest my trust in while travelling. Without the calming comfort of its rays on my skin, my vulnerability in strange places becomes debilitating. This is an offshoot of growing up with anxieties congruent with cautionary tales I have been fed since childhood about the vulnerability of the “female body” to violence and my own experiences of harassment since adolescence. Despite being harassed in broad daylight, nights I am told – and have become inclined to believe – carry more palpable threats of violence and that I should not be thick enough to rely on its inherent unreliability. Driven by instincts of self-preservation – and the lack of even an iota of bravado to see me through the trip – I decided to heed all advice pertaining to ‘safety’ that had come my way before I embarked on the journey. So, upon my arrival, when the early winter sun in Nottingham did not shine as bright as I had hoped, instead of reveling in its fading warmth, I felt dejected. I had enough time to reach the university accommodation before darkness descended upon the city but the safety clock in my mind would allow little else.
Getting down from the train, I took a tram that dropped me off at a location closer to the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus, which was where I needed to be. After getting off from the tram, as fate would have it, the battery of my phone died unceremoniously, and as such, without the inimitable Google Map to my rescue, I was reliant on the kindness of strangers to help me reach my destination. Students in and around the area gave me directions to the campus but my navigational skills failed to cooperate, landing me in a quandary. Venturing out, technology had seemed infallible: I overlooked its treacherous potential in my naivety. Now, left to my own devices (pun not intended) – which seemed quite antediluvian to my millennial nature of functioning – I had to figure out a way to reach the hotel before my limbs gave up on me. At this critical juncture when I was almost losing the fight against fatigue, I was fortunate to come across a particularly affable student, who offered to help me out. He took me to the nearby bus station and stayed until the bus to my destination arrived. When I look back on this day, it makes me reflect upon particular situations and circumstances, which cause gendered vulnerabilities to intensify. In hindsight, had my flight landed later in the evening, if I had to find my way to Jubilee campus the same way – by means of losing my way several times, navigating my way through lonely lanes and desolate streets – would I have reposed my faith in the kindness of this stranger? I cannot confidently answer in the affirmative. Darkness underscores the superficiality of freedom afforded to womyn – and those who are publicly (mis)recognized as such – and we mourn the loss of something that has been ever so illusive and ephemeral, despite being fundamental to our being and becoming.
The sun had almost set, when I arrived at the accommodation. Sleep-deprived and enervated from the journey, I realized I needed to go out to get a few things before I could call it a night. Despite Nottingham having the reputation of being a safe city, I struggled to discover ease in its quiet charm. A relative had remarked prior to my departure, by way of reassuring me, that Europe was not particularly unsafe; had I been travelling to Africa, I would have had ‘genuine’ reasons to worry. I cannot say for sure if this assertion was more reflective of his experiences of travelling in Europe as a cisgender man than of his unfamiliarity with Africa. Nonetheless, it spoke volumes about how we uncritically identify and categorize some places as inherently safe and others as quintessentially unsafe. However, such rigid categorizations belie lived realities of those experiencing the world in vulnerable embodiments, whose lives in large parts are consumed by efforts towards manipulating the odds, reducing their threat-perception and learning to function, despite carrying onerous burdens of limitations that cannot be dissociated from the gendered nature of their existence. Every place induces vulnerability, varying only in nature and intensity. In Nottingham, mundane activities of insignificance, like purchasing essentials in local shops, calmed my nerves yet I could not stop looking over my shoulder. And then I realized my vulnerability held no bias towards places; it clings on to me like second skin. It is as much a friend as it is an enemy. It helps me comprehend my eagerness to survive but is at odds with my will to live a life where freedom is not laced with fear and my mobility is neither hindered by it nor regulated.
I was in Nottingham to present a paper. The day after the conference, I decided to catch an early morning train to London. It was 6 am, when the cab arrived and it was, expectedly, dark and cold outside. The cabbie was a big built man who, at first sight, appeared visibly jaded and annoyed or so I thought – fear beclouding my judgment. I did not have the emotional stability in that moment to reflect upon whether my mind was playing tricks on me; the feeling of vulnerability had returned. At 4 feet 11 inches, I could not imagine fighting this man even in the direst of circumstances. However, ignoring all my misgivings as I was supposed to, I got in the cab. As he started driving through myriad grim, dark, and unfamiliar streets, I could not bear to be alone with him even though it was slated to be a brief journey. The voices in my head, agonizing and terrorizing me, were too loud to be ignored. I called up a friend and began speaking to him animatedly over the phone in the hope that it would make me feel less lonely and help me forget my vulnerability, even if only for a few minutes. The drivel, however, did not help the claustrophobia that had my stomach in knots. Sensing my anxiety that was palpable despite the failing network connection interrupting us obstinately, my friend assured me I would be fine. I wanted to believe him but I was also acutely aware of our differentiated, deeply gendered, lived realities. Despite his ability to empathize and offer reassurance, I knew he could not fully comprehend the extent of my vulnerability or the severity of the trepidation I was experiencing. His cis male privilege seldom acquaints him with such helplessness which I experience relentlessly, time and time again.
The gnawing paranoia did not leave me until the driver dropped me at the train station. When I thanked him, I know I did so more for leaving me unharmed than for his service. Every strange man is reminiscent of forgotten faces of men from the past whose dehumanizing acts of violence have endured in my memory, despite amnesia staking its claim over other events, incidents, and injustices. Trauma has birthed and bred scars that are now intransigent; they are carried across continents, from one country to the other, from one place to another, where they hurt anew to serve as reminders of the susceptibility of my body to violence. They make my steps heavier, my heart weaker, alerting me to the cost of a misstep, one impulsive choice, a careless decision, and yet, despite this chariness, I know I would still be vulnerable with or without having self-imposed vigilance on myself.
My vulnerability is not mine alone; it is a shared one. My mother, who otherwise treats me like an adult and has brought me up to experience the world independently and to the best of my abilities, explicitly tells me not to consume alcohol anywhere, anytime during the journey – an advice she usually desists from offering, trusting me to exercise good judgment. But this was different. “Remember, you are going to be on your own,” she cautioned. I think she was wary of me losing control over whatever little I had the power to control. Like me, my mother does not believe that any place in the world, no matter how developed, can guarantee womyn absolute safety. Neither does my friend who helped me find a safer place to stay in central London. She issued several specific warnings against what I should and should not do, some inadvertently gendered in nature, earmarking certain “safe” areas where I could hope to be relatively at ease with myself. While concerns about safety are on the minds of almost everyone travelling to a place for the first time, it is usually the first thing that visits the minds of womyn travelling solo. A senior of mine from university was travelling extensively one summer and told me she preferred not to stay at hotels alone at night. She would instead opt for overnight journeys and sleep in crowded buses. I could not help but wonder how physically and emotionally taxing it must have been for her but, perhaps, she was willing to put up with minor inconvenience and discomfort to steer clear of major ones – in the hope of avoiding worse.
The unreliability of public environments, and the threat of violence inherent in them, is one that womyn are taught to live and make their uncomfortable peace with. As I was walking down busy streets of London or going around its tourist hotspots, I realized how distrustful I was of strangers surrounding me, particularly and mostly men. I had no faith in their humanity. Fear is an additional baggage that must be carried around compulsorily, without exemption or exception. Every adventure for womyn has the potential of turning into misadventure, without us having to expend efforts towards it. And as such, fear of violence and harassment is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we seldom allow ourselves the liberty to be impulsive, frivolous, uninhibited, and unselfconscious in unknown places, especially when four thousand miles away from home. Fear ensures we are never fully ourselves and can never hope to be. We live hesitatingly, cautiously, diffidently, self-effacingly to ensure that we can keep doing it for a little while longer. So there is seldom any wandering away in the pursuit of spontaneous exploration – as ebullience loses the competition with fear – so my story would never become the stuff that good movies and great books are made of.
I returned home safe and sound; nothing unseemly had occurred during the trip and I was thankful for it. But I now remember the apprehension of Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending: “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.” He feared a life less than ‘novel-worthy’; he could not be content with assuming the role of a mere ‘bystander’ or ‘onlooker’ in someone else’s story. As I ruminate on this beautifully poignant piece of thought, I think about how being a womyn leads me to keep myself on the qui vive for danger wherever I go and in so doing my life often starts to resemble a handbook on survival at best. It is more calculation than adventure, more caution than devil-may-care. Consequently, it is less than ideal. This injustice is revolting. It is hardly ever acknowledged, seldom visibilized, rarely discussed. The barriers that keep us from choosing our own directions, or deny us the carte blanche to act on our impulses, whilst travelling through unknown places are redoubtable but insidious. So we often end up questioning ourselves for what we did or did not do as I did while recounting my experiences. As I tried to undisguise my feelings through words so that our struggles are not invisibilized, a piercing sense of embarrassment would boisterously intervene to block trains of thought that were helping me involve myself in the process. The questions were inexorable. Did I need to be afraid? After all nothing happened. Do I need to be a stronger person? And then I realized the shame that was accompanying these questions was not mine and I would not acquiesce to its unjustified demand of silence. I will acknowledge all my fears, foreboding, unease because they travel with me wherever I go and have been validated by violence in the past. They need to be recognized. To deny them, would be to deny my truth and the truth of womyn travelling solo, who might concur.
Sohini Chatterjee holds an MA in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi. Her work has previously appeared in Kindle Magazine, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, The Lookout Journal, Huffington Post India, etc. She writes and researches on gender, culture, and politics.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.