They call it Rapist Lane, this short stretch of street in Bangalore near the Srishti School of Art and Design. It earned that nickname because after dark, men tend to hang out here in their cars or with their motorbikes, drinking and harassing or molesting women who dare to pass.
Like so many of India’s public spaces, it is a place where encounters between strangers can be tense and scary, where a figure in the shadows can quickly become an assailant, where women regard men with justifiable fear.
On one recent evening, though, some of that fear disappeared. Male and female students from Srishti, working with the grassroots group Blank Noise, which combats violence against women, set up five tables, with two chairs at each, and began an experiment they called “Talk to Me,” which they have staged in various locations.
Volunteers both male and female, designated by Blank Noise as "Action Heroes," sat at the tables and invited complete strangers to stop and talk with them. The subject of street sexual harassment was off limits. At the end of each encounter, the "action hero" offered a flower to his or her interlocutor.
"Our objective was to make the Rapist Lane, now the Safest Lane," writes Jasmeen Patheja, Blank Noise’s founder.
India is still struggling to understand the scale of the sexual violence that plagues the country, a public reckoning that began in earnest last December, after a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi was so brutally gang-raped in that she died of her injuries two weeks later. For Patheja and her colleagues at Blank Noise, the fight is not new. It’s been carrying on since the group was founded in 2005.
In the past, Blank Noise has mounted a variety of actions and protests against sexual violence, including the Safe City Pledge, in which participants vowed to change their behavior in order to affirm their right to a safer city. But the Talk to Me event in some ways was even bolder, in that it bridged divides of class, language, gender, and race with substantive conversation.
"[For the students] there was a unanimous sense of having overcome their own fears when they participated in this event," writes Patheja in an email.
The participants had some unexpected revelations, as when one Srishti student named Anamika talked with a young man who typifies some of the threatening behavior that has earned the alley its nickname:
[T]he guy I had my conversation with was one of those who stalk girls and drink on the safest lane, follow girls on their bikes. I was glad he was honest to me. What I learnt was not all ‘such’ guys are threatening, as in, yes he does all that, but he wouldn’t harm anyone physically, poor fellow is dying for a girlfriend. And the fact that I actually made him realize that his way of approaching won’t get him any girl and that he genuinely wants to change made me feel really good about myself.
For many participants, the simple action of talking with a stranger – any stranger – was in itself an accomplishment. One woman named Anjali wrote:
When I first thought about this task, I felt a bit apprehensive about doing it, as I am not very comfortable with talking and making conversation with absolute strangers. However, after watching my classmates interact with the people on the “safest lane” I was completely inspired, and after some time I was eagerly awaiting my turn! When it was my turn, I was actually able to engage completely in a fruitful conversation with my partner. I learnt that no one is ever an absolute stranger and there is always something to talk about. … I learnt that my partner Prajwal wasn’t very different from me.
The encounters on the lane reveal just how much understanding and compassion can be gained if people have a safe space in which to interact. But safe spaces are lacking in India and many other cities around the world, and so people spin apart into polarized groups.
"Biases work both ways," writes Patheja in an email. "There's unsafe and there's a perception of unsafe. Often the unknown is feared, and this makes it unsafe. In this case unknown strangers who were further distanced by socioeconomic class, language, gender were brought together over tea and samosas. It was an open conversation with no agenda or preset questions."
"Talk to Me" shows how simply the first steps toward understanding one another can be taken, with the help of a few tables and chairs, some flowers, some snacks, and a willingness to try. "We need to make ourselves safe by making [other people] familiar instead," says Patheja. "It requires a purposeful unclenching of the fist. Fear creates fear. Defense creates defense. We need to build safe cities with empathy."