Vishaka Jindal/Jasmeen Patheja
The best way to conquer fear is to look it in the eye and you might discover that there’s no reason to be afraid to begin with. ‘Talk to Me,’ a project initiated by Blank Noise, a community that works towards reclaiming public spaces, focuses on the idea of confronting fear rather than on the perpetrator of fear. The public space chosen was a dark alley in Yelahanka, one among many dreaded lanes in Bangalore that women would avoid, especially after dark.
(It was unofficially called the Rapist Lane, but Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, insists we do not call it that). This lane next to Srishti School of Art and Design was bereft of commercial establishments, shops and even working street lights. Men urinated on the footpath; men sat in parked cars and drank alcohol; men filled the air with random threats of rape and molestation.
It was one of ‘those’ spaces that women tend to avoid or if they can’t, tread with fear. Rather than fuel the latent fear that already existed in the minds of young girls in the area, Blank Noise , which is working for gender equality for nearly a decade, decided to confront the idea of fear itself — resulting in project Talk to me. The dark alley was converted into a conversations space with a few tables.
Each table had two chairs, on one side sat an Action Hero (19 students, both boys and girls, from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology volunteered to be Yelahanka Action Heroes) and on the other, a passerby who was invited to talk to the volunteer over samosa and chai.
The conversation could be about anything but discussions about sexual harassment was off limits; at the end of the 10 or sometimes even 30-minute-long chat the volunteer would present the ‘other person’ with a rose.The project has since won acclaim for its innovative approach. Talking about the genesis of the project, Patheja says: “It was part of a series of conversations that started nearly 10 years ago when Blank Noise was created.
We liked the idea of confronting fear; once you’ve done that everything becomes easy.” Result: the lane has become one of the safest lanes in the city. There are paintings of the Yelahanka Action Heroes in neon colours on the wall along the stretch. The neon glow adds a comforting presence to the process of asserting your presence in a public space as well as the process of confronting fear.
While painting the walls on this stretch for instance, the volunteers befriended several locals and bus drivers who not only gave them feedback, but also joined them in painting the murals. “Sometimes it’s just the idea of the unknown that we are scared of, and this is what we wanted to address; we need to have conversations that cut across barriers of language and socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Patheja.
Another initiative by Blank Noise that is connected to the ‘Talk to Me’ project is the ‘Hahahaha’ project, where women from various walks of life gather at a local park and just laugh-for no reason. “Most women have to negotiate their time with their families just to be there. There are Bengalis, Kannadigas, Tamilians and others, but no one needs to talk or to understand what the other wants to say, there is a bond that is formed by people who laugh together,” explains Patheja.
Needless to say the ‘Hahahaha’ project is a hit in the Yelahanka neighbourhood with several locals taking on designations like the ‘Hahahah Mantri’, or the ‘Hahahaha Chief. ’ There are groups across the country that want to replicate the ‘Talk to me’ project in their own cities. “It’s very important for it to happen in various places and I know people who are trying to replicate the project in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai,” adds Patheja.
As for the action heroes, they are ecstatic about their shared experience. “What I learnt about myself is that I can talk to a stranger; that’s something I had never done,” says Action Hero Anamika of the experience. “This exercise actually made me feel a little more confident. And the guy I had my conversation with was one of those who stalked girls and drank on the lane.
I was glad he was honest with 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 just wanted a girlfriend. And the fact that I actually made him realise that his approach won’t get him any girl, made him genuinely want to change.
That made me feel really good about myself.” What could be better than replicating the ‘Talk to Me’ project across Bangalore, creating conversations with people over samosas and chai, confronting your fear of dark, dingy places and unknown strangers as well as making friends with new people.? Next stop, Rest House Crescent Road, anyone?
► The project was part of a series of conversations that started nearly ten years ago…we liked the idea of confronting fear; we need conversations that cut across barriers of language and socio-economic backgrounds
- Jasmeen Patheja, founder, Blank Noise