My parents’ first concern when I told them I wanted to live in Chennai for a while, by myself, was for my safety. They weren’t really worried about my decision to leave a full time job to join my friend’s production company and begin an international business in India.
They trusted I would find success in my endeavors, and if not, that I could pick myself up again career-wise. But it took them a while to be comfortable with the idea of me living on my own in India.
We may be across the world but Canadians, especially those of South Asian heritage, are not unaware of the heinous amount of violence towards women in India. We are tuned into Indian televisions stations and the internet that keep us up to date on the disturbing cases that actually make the news. And if not the news, we have films (although sometimes grossly exaggerated) to portray how common it is for ‘damsels to be in distress’. Occasionally those films are realistic enough to show that there is rarely a true hero, good samaritans or authorities flexing close by and ready to come help out.
I am grateful to come from a very-open minded family, which encourages their sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews to pursue their careers and dreams, wherever they may take them. Regardless, there were still a few who felt compelled to question my parents. ‘How could they allow [me] to go there by myself? Unmarried and alone? To work in entertainment?’ they would ask. And to this my amazing parents would coolly respond with variations of “She is an adult, she knows what is best”.
When it came down to it, no matter what anyone had to say, I really wanted to go. It felt like the right time to leave my former organization, and finally do what I had been thinking about for a while – to go see how Indian films are actually brought from script to screen. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t also nervous about going there on my own.
So in order to embark on my adventure while providing my parents and myself with some peace of mind, I agreed to certain compromises. For instance, I lived in an upscale and costly (by Chennai’s cost of living) women’s hostel, complete with a 24/7 warden and security, rather than renting an apartment by myself or with friends. I also promised to commute via cabs or autos, rather than buses or trains.
It’s been a few weeks since I returned home, and as I meet up with friends and family I haven’t seen or spoken to in a while, I am repeatedly asked the question “so, did you feel safe living there?”
In short – yes, I did. Chennai was ranked the safest city in India earlier this year, and is very different from other parts of the country. Although some may say it is too old-fashioned in its societal ideals compared to other metropolitan cities in India, I found it to be a fair balance between tradition and progression. Perhaps it’s because I had visited several times before, or because I already had a close knit group of friends, that I got used to Chennai living quite easily.
Was I ever cat-called, or hit on by Indian men? Sure, but not any more so than my friends and I are accustomed to here in Canada as well. That being said, the safety and respect of women working in the global film industry warrants an entirely separate series of articles itself. I was fortunate in that I had a sense of security in an industry that is known for its misogyny because I was working with a trustworthy team. They cared for me as their own family, and outside of that I was able to intelligently choose other filmmakers to work with because of the guidance of trusted industry friends.
I had the freedom and flexibility to fully enjoy my time living in Chennai because I was cautious and aware of my surroundings, not in spite of it. For instance, my female friends and I would not attend late night movie or parties unless some of our male friends were joining us; we would carpool or sleepover when necessary to make sure no one was traveling too late at night by themselves; we did not loiter on streets late at night; and I made a point to always keep my phone charged and cash on hand, for quick access to autos, or cabs, etc. And whenever I traveled past sunset alone at least one of my friends or teammates was aware of my whereabouts and were able to GPS track my cab if needed, thanks to the helpful features of cab services’ mobile apps.
When I speak to my family and friends back home during my stay in Chennai, most understood that my small changes in behavior were understandable given the new environment. There were the select few, though, who took offense even saying my behaviour was anti-feminist. They questioned how I could be happy staying in a place if I had to “change who I was”.
The thing is, I wasn’t. My beliefs, values, political and religious opinions remained as always. I was simply acclimatizing to the society that I was living in to ensure my well-being. I personally think it is naïve to believe that you can behave exactly the same way, anywhere in the world. And no matter where you go there are certain risk factors that will remain.
A few weeks before I left Chennai the city was stunned over the murder of young IT professional Swathi, who was killed at the Nungambakkam railway station in broad daylight by a young male she was having an argument with. The motives behind the murder and person(s) responsible still remains unclear, with the first suspect recently committing suicide, according to authorities, while in custody. The case captured Chennai’s attention for weeks.
The hostel I lived at was in Nungambakkam. Sure, I did not take the train, and reports claimed this was an isolated, personal dispute where Swathi was specifically targeted. We were all still shook up. A few of my female friends who were in living in Chennai away from their hometown received panicked orders from their parents to come home. Those who still lived at home with their families in Chennai had stricter curfews for a while. I was headed home in a few weeks anyways and I intentionally never mentioned the news to my parents.
Throughout all of this, it never really occurred to me that I was doing something that might be seen as brave by moving to India. I just felt lucky to have the opportunity to pursue my passion, and blessed to have a family that supported me. So it was a bit surprising when a couple of months after being there I received an email from my aunt who said “So proud of you going after your dreams. So many girls of your age would be terrified to go and live in India. You have guts and courage and determination.”
Knowing that there are many young, single females like me who may be interested in working in India, or a country or community that they are not accustomed to and that perhaps may scare them, I say: be aware, be practical and be prepared. When you decide to move anywhere, do your due diligence to research everything about that city. Knowledge is power and it’s important to understand that there is no “totally safe place for women” anywhere in the world, or for anybody for that matter. To accept this and to prepare yourself is to empower yourself. To avoid any kind of travel that scares you is to miss out on what might be some of the greatest adventures of your life.
Chennai is a second home to me because of the friends and team I have there, whom I consider family. I am so grateful for my time spent in this city, and the many times I will go back in the future. And I’m especially grateful I did not let my fear or others’ hold me back from becoming a part of such a wonderful city.