I was walking down a busy road and made a turn towards a less crowded lane for a shortcut. The street lights in the lane were defunct and the lane was nearly empty. It was barely eight in the evening, but as I continued to walk, my feet felt heavy, a strange fear crept up and I was disturbed. A motorcycle passing me slowed down and I panicked, trying hard to suppress the urge to run. The biker was asking something, but my fear overpowered my listening and I could hardly hear him. Not getting an answer, he moved on and I went back to the main road, thankful for the crowd milling by.It was only after I reached the safety of my home that I could reflect on my strange behaviour that evening. All my life I have been moving freely around at all times of the day, I have never had this fear. I have been to many dangerous places, have covered all kinds of stories as a journalist, travelling to odd place at odd times, and there has always been an element of a thrill. I remember back in 2000, when I was stationed in Meerut and would travel extensively to remote villages of Western UP and Haryana, I would get odd stares. Sitting on a charpai in a roadside dhaba alone, in those areas, was something of a little provocation to the chauvinistic social order. Walking alone for miles and talking to strangers used to be a favourite timepass. I was aware of the stares I got and sometimes very stern responses from the old-fashioned men. “Hamare yahan auratein aise gai bhaison ki tarah awara nahi firti” (“In our society women don’t roam around like stray cattle”), I remember a very crude sarpanch in a small village of Haryana telling me when I dropped in at his house around 9pm one evening. I was more amused than angry, and without bothering about what he felt or said, I went about my story. This in my mind was an answer to his outdated notions on women. To be honest I hated the whole concept of “feminism” as in I never felt any disadvantage in being a women out there.And of course, I never felt any fear. So many times while on an assignment, or otherwise, I would turn around and see that I was the only woman in a room full of men, be it a conference, or a street protest, or a secret meeting of banned Maoists. Being a single woman surrounded by men was uplifting, never scary. But today, I look behind my shoulders as I walk on the street, if the bus I board is not crowded enough, I get butterflies in my stomach. Recently, on an overnight bus I was appalled to see myself count how many women passengers were there. Every time I am in an auto or taxi I make a call home and keep a mental note of the vehicle number and driver details, going through the passenger safety leaflet over and over again. This is very uncharacteristic behaviour and I am certainly not proud of being paranoid. But the question that emerges is why this fear? Why when nothing or nobody is putting a curb on my freedom, I am imposing a self-ban of sorts on going out alone or avoiding a particular time to travel or venture out? Isn’t this the antithesis to the freedom that I have always enjoyed?But then this fear is natural when you hear so many cases of rape and brutality around you. It is not that such cases did not happen earlier. What has changed is the brazenness in such crimes. When a 72-year-old nun is gang raped and the CM sees political conspiracy in it, when a child is violated with an iron rod and the authorities merely look on, when a girl is beaten black and blue by her policeman father in broad daylight on a busy road and people stand spectators, when the designated “parliamentarian of the year” rains obscenities and makes disparaging remarks on women and our elected representatives thump their desk, feeling titillated. A strange feeling of alienation and helplessness creeps in. No amount of candle marches and shouting matches on prime-time TV is going to provide any reassurance. Despite all tall claims and lofty promises, every girl who walks out of home, carries a lurking fear, of being violated. There is an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. There cannot be a bigger antidote to freedom than this. It sounds depressing and many of my friends will call this a surrender, but this is a fact. I am not giving n or suggesting that anyone does, but the fact that you are on guard 24/7, that you are suspicious of everyone around you, is a sure sign of a society in regress. The question is how do we get over this environment of gloom and suspicion? There seem to be no easy answers in sight. Some will say, like everything else, it is a phase and it will pass. But by then some irreparable damage would be done. Only thing that I can think of, that can lift this uneasy cloak of anxiety is demonstrated action against perpetrators of crime: the fear that a girl faces today should be implanted in any possible violator of human dignity. It is only when they live in fear that we will be able to live in peace and enjoy our freedom.