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If you’re a woman who’s lived in Chandigarh for any amount of time, chances are you can relate to Varnika Kundu’s account of being chased down the city’s roads by two men in an SUV, said Keerat Garcha, a student at MCM college.
Just last year, Garcha and her friend went through a similar ordeal where they found themselves being followed by a car full of men. Panicking, they called the cops and headed to the police station to file a complaint. While they were there, they spotted the car on the road, “So we jumped into a police car and chased them.” Garcha’s friend, who wished to remain anonymous, recalls feeling scared and overwhelmed, but still reassured because the police told the girls their complaint was a common one.
“It’s a lifestyle here,” said Garcha, referring to groups of men aimlessly driving around the city, ogling girls and drinking. It’s so institutionalised, in fact, that there’s a word for it – geri. Men across Indian cities congregate outside women’s colleges like the one Garcha attends, but only in Chandigarh does the practice come with its own name. The sectors that comprise the most popular destination for geris are collectively known as ‘geri route’.
If you find yourself in Chandigarh on a weekend or just have a free evening, the thing to do is gather your friends and pile into a car – the fancier the better – maybe open a bottle of liquor, blast music and cruise through the city’s wide, tree-lined streets. Over the years, Sectors 8, 9, 10 and 11 have become known as the geri route for several reasons. The area is home to not only the city’s home science college (guaranteeing a large concentration of women) but also DAV college, from which men pour out and congregate at the college’s gates, like magnets on a fridge door.
Dinesh Parmar, who attended college in Chandigarh in the 1970s, said ‘geri culture’ is a decades-old phenomena that’s become intrinsic to the city. “It started around 1978 or so. There were two groups of men who were doing it, ministers’ sons and sons from big business families. Those who could afford cars.” According to Parmar, the men who would while away their time in the college canteen now had a more entertaining option available to them, “Woh chakkar kaat te rehte the, ogling girls and driving around.” After a few years, drinking while driving became commonplace too, a development that Parmar feels has contributed to geris sometimes turning violent.
Ajitraj Singh, whose family home is situated on the geri route, and who happens to be a close friend of Kundu’s, doesn’t disagree with Parmar’s assessment. In fact, Kundu’s nightmare chase started in Sector 8, a part of geri route. At its worst, geri subculture looks like what Kundu is going through right now. But Singh, who went to school and college in the city, remembers a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when geris were the way that young men and women interacted with each other.
In a town rife with societal restrictions on romantic mingling, geris were a flirtatious activity. “Before there were so many cafes and social media wasn’t a thing, women would drive by on Kinetics, later they became Activas, and guys would follow them in cars. If you went to a cafe for a date, there was a high chance you’d be seen by someone you knew and then you’d be cornered. Chandigarh is still a small town and everyone knows everyone. So geris were safer.” How did men know if a woman on the geri route was interested too? “She’d smile” or do something similarly encouraging and maybe later the interested couple would get to chat and hang out. In the absence of clear verbal or textual communication, “It’s a fine line between harassment and consent,” Singh admitted.
Kashish Madan and Manreet Khara, who both attended Carmel Convent, an elite girls’ school in Chandigarh, echo Singh’s sentiments. Madan simply noted that girls go on geris too. Khara admitted to engaging in voyeurism of another kind while out on drives, “I enjoy looking at all the fancy cars and the beautiful houses on geri route. That’s what geris are about for me.”
At its most innocuous, a geri is a fun time with friends, gliding through Le Corbusier’s streets while listening to Punjabi singers rap about cars and women; Chandigarh is probably the only Indian city where driving is still enjoyable. But at its worst, it’s a traumatic experience, akin to being hunted.
What lies behind geri culture taking a wrong turn?
Most of the people I spoke to identified a particular type of man as the one responsible for turning geris into a sinister activity. While car owners have proliferated, the privilege with which the city’s elite occupy its streets has had to find new forms of expression. It’s no longer enough to just be seen driving around aimlessly, one has to do more to assert one’s power and status.
Madan explained, “I don’t think it’s limited to the driving culture. I think it’s an extension of the elitist, privileged nature of society here, a bit of the ‘raja baba‘ syndrome. While it isn’t a good idea to draw class-based distinctions, there is a problem with the entitled way that men here behave, particularly those from well-off families. It isn’t uncommon to find cars with baseball bats/hockey sticks lying around. They leave their homes prepared to pick ‘up’ women, or bare their egos around and bother just about anyone who doesn’t treat them as if they’re the most important thing that happened to humanity.”
Some residents feel that most of these men aren’t just drunk, they’re high and that too on hard drugs. As one person, who wanted to remain unnamed said, “And I don’t mean hash, weed, opium – those barely count as drugs in Chandigarh. I mean heroin, coke… like really high. And most of them are packing. It’s commonplace to carry guns. Most of these cars probably have them.”
As a union territory and capital of two states, Chandigarh houses a lot of political power for one small city, which means it has a remarkably high density of police personnel as well. Why is it that harassment is commonplace but action rare? Chandigarh’s tight knit social culture offers a clue.
As Garcha explained, “Complaining about these guys is pointless because you’ll complain to a cop and then the next moment you’ll see the guy you complained about shaking hands with the cop. What do you do in that situation?” Singh elaborated on the same phenomenon – a cop’s beat lasts about six months and if the same men turn up at the same place everyday and they barely have two degrees of separation from each other, it’s easy to make friends with them. He wryly noted, “Chandigarh is the only city I know where people just drive around for no reason, not because they’re going somewhere, just because they can.” That gives people a lot of time to socialise and build connections.
It isn’t just the friendliness between citizens and police that’s a problem but ties between residents as well. As the BJP’s conduct in the Kundu case is demonstrating, the Chandigarh police is susceptible to alarming amounts of political pressure, which should come as no surprise in a town bursting with the political who’s who of both Punjab and Haryana. How are they supposed to prosecute perpetrators if women are reluctant to step forward against men they are likely socially connected to and if cops themselves are under such overt political pressure to ignore such harassment?
However, it’s important to remember that Chandigarh is India’s only planned city, the close-knit culture enjoyed by its residents has existed since the city itself came into being. So why is Kundu’s story the first one to stir up the city’s residents? What about Chandigarh has changed that has affected the city’s geri culture so negatively?
An obvious explanation could be that Kundu is simply the first woman to speak up about something that’s been happening for decades. Another, connected theory, is that the increasing freedom of the city’s women is destabilising the patriarchal culture that is rearing its head all over India and so eliciting the misogynistic responses. The BJP’s collective response to Kundu’s allegations is a shamefully obvious example of this – they’ve indulged in everything from victim shaming to trivialising her claims to exerting political pressure on the city’s police.
Chandigarh’s changing demographic
But several of the people I spoke to think that there’s a deeper explanation.
Although most of the people I spoke to voiced the same idea, none wanted to be quoted directly for fear of coming across as elite or judgmental about class. One Chandigarh resident plainly said, “This sounds politically incorrect but Chandigarh’s real estate boom and urbanisation has resulted in a lot of people leaving their villages and settling in Chandigarh.” He, and others, were referring to the demographic that is derogatively referred to as ‘pindu’ (pind means village in Punjabi, pindu is essentially an uncultured/provincial villager). The most obvious sign of this demographic change is evident in the number plates of the cars that line up on geri route in the evenings. As the same resident noted, “You hardly see any Chandigarh license plates anymore, almost all of them are Punjab.”
Another resident, who also wished to remain unnamed, said that young men from rich families with a lot of clout are leaving their villages and moving to Chandigarh to revel in their newfound freedom, unfettered by financial considerations or nine to five jobs. What goes unsaid is that Chandigarh’s new residents are the ones to blame for the city’s regression when it comes to gender roles. Women shouldn’t be out alone or late at night, public spaces are meant solely for men and their leisure. A woman’s place is in the home or as an ornate object to be found in a women’s college.
While it’s difficult to test the veracity of these theories, it is undeniable that Chandigarh’s planned mass has added on unplanned appendages like Panchkula and Mohali, with suburbs like Zirakpur emerging on the outskirts as well. Perhaps the city’s expanding population has altered, or erased, the unspoken social pacts that bound Chandigarh’s residents together.
One evident sign of the city, even region’s, changing cultural priorities can be observed in the songs the Punjabi music industry is producing. The fancy cars, expensive liquor and voyeurism evident on the streets are also glorified in songs, which predictably feature on the playlists that accompany geris.
Not everyone agrees that the city’s culture is changing though. Khara, who grew up in Chandigarh and hates the panopticon-like gaze that everyone in the city is subjected to (“You can’t go anywhere without running into people you know. And you know how IDGAF is a thing? In Chandigarh, it’s GAF.”) doesn’t think geri culture is solely masculine or toxic. In fact, her initial reaction to Kundu’s news was, “Oh god, my family’s going to stop me going out at night now.” To her, Kundu’s experience was a one-off and not indicative of the city’s safety in general. Kundu herself did not respond to The Wire’s request for a comment.
For Madan, singling out geri culture as the sole culprit doesn’t cut it either. “In the end, banning something never works, you can’t really ‘ban’ people for going on a geri, or ban the geri route, because there are other roads. We keep missing the point, that there’s something deeper which needs to be fixed, something which makes it okay for a person to think that it’s perfectly acceptable for them to be chasing women around, as if the entire country is one, big mela and you can just point, pick and pursue with impunity.”
Kundu and her family have braved a barrage of poor behaviour from BJP leaders at every level, and found themselves buffeted with support from the media and citizens everywhere, especially the women of Chandigarh, who all know and have similar stories to share. As Kundu is demonstrating, there’s a strange, strained catharsis to standing up for yourself and opening up a difficult conversation.
Remembering the night she was chased, Garcha said the car which was following her drove by the police station when she was registering her complaint. Pointing to the car, she jumped into a police jeep and chased down her stalkers. “It was a bad experience altogether, but in that moment, as we chased them, I felt liberated,” recalled Garcha. She was high on the power that comes with retaliation.