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Welcome to Bangalore

 Protesters rallied for a safer city in Bangalore, India on January 11, 2017.

Protesters rallied for a safer city in Bangalore, India on January 11, 2017.

After five years in New York City, I don’t think anyone would mind if I called myself a New Yorker. Yet I still can’t. Another city, 8,300 miles away, has my heart. I’m forever branded a Bangalorean.

But a couple of weeks after I moved back to Bangalore, a city in south India, news broke that crowds of women had been grabbed, groped and manhandled by a mob of men at this year’s New Year’s Eve celebration. “Bangalore’s Shame,” one local newspaper called it. My beautiful city was far from a safe haven.

In the days after the country awoke to a new year, Indians roared for change. Public service announcements played on the radio and peaceful protests popped up on Facebook feeds. 

I heard about a nighttime demonstration that was planned in Bangalore and decided to cover it — essentially my first freelance gig as a journalist in my city. It was the kind of reporting I had done dozens of times at my previous job. Sometimes they were small groups, often in Brooklyn parks, with candles, prayers and hushed tones. The larger ones were accompanied by chants, signs and a backdrop of Times Square.   

The organizers had named it “#IWillGoOut,” a call to smash the unsafe environment that darkness in public spaces posed for women in India. Because if you grew up in India and are a woman, you’ve likely been taught the rules that lead to questions such as: Am I dressed appropriately? Should I walk on this road? Who will be able to take me back home? Whether you like it or not, your security is within your control, we’re told. 

Though my social life typically ended by about 6 p.m. through my teens and early 20s, when I did venture out for dinners, movies and concerts, spontaneity was not welcomed. Reliable transportation back and forth had to be arranged, locations were established — “loitering” may as well have been a bad word — and curfews needed to be strictly followed. In Manhattan, I would balk at teenagers riding the subway at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. This would not fly in my city.  

“This is not New York,” my father cautiously reminded me when I told him I was heading to cover the protest.

“No, it’s safer,” I responded. Despite everything, how could I be afraid a city that laid out like a map of my childhood? Here’s where I graduated high school and over there, college. That’s the bookshop where I waited in line at 5 a.m. for the release of the final Harry Potter book. My favorite ice cream parlor still serves the same sundae that my brother and I would eat after school. Of course this wasn’t New York. It was home.  

More than 250 men and women at the demonstration sat in solidarity wearing sticky notes on the sleeves that read “I Will Go Out.” Women held signs like, “What I Wear is My Choice,” “We Demand a Safer City For Us” and “No Means No.” They chanted, “my body, my right.” These women knew the rules too and they were tired of them.

It’s about 9 p.m. and the protest is winding down. I decided to get back home to my own anxious parents. I called my mother and told her I was taking an Uber back soon. “Don’t wait too long,” she said.

I unlocked my phone, opened the app, and waited. Several minutes later, I was still waiting. Cell phone service was spotty and it wasn’t improving anytime soon. I started to walk away from the crowd, which had already started to disperse. Traffic was thick on the main road as buses and trucks barreled onward and kicked up dust in their wake. Bright lights from television crews gave way to dim streetlights and young women in jeans and kurtas were replaced by men waiting at bus stops, leaning on food carts or sitting on sidewalks in mid-conversation, mid-chew or mid-smoke. 

I tucked my phone into my pocket and walked ahead. I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact. I checked Google Maps sparingly so no one would think I was lost. Though it was warmthat evening, I wished I had brought a shawl to wrap around myself. 

Three phone calls later, I finally spotted the white Maruti Suzuki I was searching for in the near distance. Only headlights from passing cars illuminated my path now. 

This is not New York. This is my city. So why was I walking so fast?