If you had told me a few years ago that I would be driving up the road to Sabarimala, I wouldn't have believed it. It has been a place accessible only to men for centuries. We would see them, the pilgrims, in black lungis, barefoot. People from our neighbourhood would start wearing black and we knew they would soon be on the men only pilgrimage to Sabarimala in verdant Kerala.
But the Supreme Court changed all that on September 28th. The doors of the shrine would be open to all women, whatever their age. Not only those under 10 or over 50.
(Or so it was thought.)
This was big news. A change in a centuries old tradition, an attempt to say that women should be allowed everywhere.
(But we still aren't.)
We set off to cover this development, my cameraperson Kumar and I. We all know that emotions run high when it comes to these deeply held beliefs. That change is resisted by the best of us. We anticipated resistance to this move. On Tuesday - we saw that cars and buses carrying women in the direction of Sabarimala were stopped.
On the drive up from Thiruvananthapuram I was already feeling cautious enough to advise Kumar - a genial soul who would like the whole world to understand him - to not get into a debate if we were stopped. Then news came in of attacks on women reporters who had reached the base camp of Nilakkal ahead of us.
The uneasy feeling began to have a firm root in a very real threat.
At Nilakkal, we saw a crowd shouting slogans, police standing by. A reporter from a Kerala channel called me aside. "Take off the press stickers from your car," he advised. "And the logo from your mike. And best not to go that side," he added - indicating the crowd.
We saw a line of women constables marching down and Kumar and I dashed ahead of them to do a 'prerec' - a recording that would be played on air later.
We found ourselves close to the place where the women reporters had been attacked. More people advised us to turn around for our safety.
As we walked up to a place where we could feed our footage, we met the reporter who had been attacked, coming down in a car. A hug for her, making sure she was alright.
We found a place up the hill where we got a little signal to feed our footage. A policeman advised us to move. "They are throwing stones," he said. A little later, we heard the roar of a mob. Ambulances with sirens screaming passed us.
We stood alone - on top of a hill - not knowing what would happen next. Not knowing if we were safer there. Or if it would be better with people around. Some devotees came running over the hill. We stayed where we were. Then we saw police with riot shields and helmets come up, searching through the bushes for the protestors. Did another prerec to show all that.
With no signal good enough for a live report - and a request for a live report for our 8 pm bulletin, we decided to leave Nilakkal and drive down until we got a good enough signal.
It was dark, we were driving through mist. The blackness of the forest when I looked back through the rear window of our taxi was immense. I rolled down the window - enjoying the primeval beauty, the cool air, the dark mist. There were barely any other vehicles on the road.
Then we saw a few lights - and a bus that had its windscreen shattered. A good backdrop to talk about the tense day. So we made a u-turn, back towards Sabarimala, and stopped on the side of the road.
In a second we were surrounded by 10 to 15 men. Somewhere, sometime I had instinctively rolled up my window. They questioned us aggressively. Peered into the car and saw me. Began hitting the window, the side of the car. Shouting in Malayalam. And two words in English. "No ladies."
True to form, Kumar tried to explain to them. I was saying, in English I think, - "We will turn round, we won't stop, let's just go."
I asked Kumar to stop explaining. But the men were shouting and demanding explanations. They shouted at our driver. 'You are Malayali. You are from here. You know you are not supposed to bring women to this place."
More shouting. A violent hit on the window where I was sitting. A feeling of unreality.
They were not letting the car move forward. Not letting us turn it around.
Our young driver stayed calm and cool under considerable pressure and abuse. He slowly, (oh so slowly) turned the car around, and we drove away. Alone again, the three of us in the car, driving on into the darkness.
With darkness behind.
As a woman reporter, I don't think it is safe to go up the hill to report tomorrow. And I hate feeling that way.
Maya Sharma is Executive Editor - South
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