Homelessness is described as a state where a certain proportion of a city’s residents is without a legal dwelling. Such people, often unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe and adequate housing, or lack fixed, regular, and adequate residence may inhabit either a government or non-government provision. Each country has its own definition and provision for homeless people and as such, solutions to accommodate them vary.
Mumbai is home to countless homeless people and the number stretches in staggering millions. And to see people living on the roadside, on railway tracks in squatters or a temporary makeshift arrangement are so common that it subverts the convoluted concept of a world-class city. The ratio to citizens living in a legal dwelling to illegal ones is massive and the City has lived with it for so long that there is a comfort that has set in. Something akin to living with shame: live with it for too long and it may turn perennial from temporary.
I see one such homeless woman almost every day on my walk to the gym. She appears to be a young woman, with an attractive demeanour. With deep black eyes and dark sunburnt glowing skin. She mostly wears shorts, short skirts and western attire; quite a departure from what one expects from a hopeless Indian woman living on the streets. I have often seen her solving crossword puzzles or reading newspapers sitting on that degraded sidewalk. But whatever the activity she is involved in, she is never distressed or looks visibly depressed. She looks comfortable and at peace.
After noticing her for few months, I have started to understand her presence and my initial reaction to it was ‘she is a woman, all by herself on the streets of Mumbai’. I had argued to myself that this must be fine in daytime because the streets are mostly crowded. My arrogant pity that usually comes with privileged understanding thought of deserted nighttime when she must be all by herself. She doesn’t look perturbed as I would have expected her to be; maybe she isn’t. Either way, the trouble I felt towards her was my own, generated in my head. I looked at her from my perspective and subconsciously judged her helplessness, because she is after all homeless. Maybe she is not helpless at all. Maybe I am the helpless one on the different side of the equation trying impatiently to judge her presence and find a solution earnestly.
And that brought me to a basic question: Where is a woman really safe? In her house, alone, with people, behind locks, in groups, during daytime, nighttime, public spaces, private dwellings? Or is there really a place and time where she cannot ever be violated or victimized?
Her calm defies all my mundane worries for her safety and survival. To me she looks like she either landed homeless and has made peace in her own way and appears in absolutely no need to be organized earnestly in a civil society of legal housing and help and be an actor in this modern world just like others, which is equally wretched if not more. The world that is roughly and brazenly defined by laws, systems, societies and its moral codes of conduct and yet never misses a chance to fail humanity. Who decides that the other side is misplaced with displaced ideas of organizing ourselves in a system?
And in that vein, please think about women’s safety more deeply beyond your pre-held notions regardless of her being at home or homeless, because I really wish you would.