Running Into (and Away) From Oblivion

I’d never been fond of running. An athlete? Yes, but an avid runner? No. I’d returned from Spain a while back and the two-week quarantine in a single room was exhausting. Some might call running a mile exhausting, but for me, seeing the same four walls was.

Upon testing negative, a sense of relief set in. I could step out if I needed to. While bodyweight workouts on the balcony have been a favourite, stepping outside my home felt like a necessity. I wanted to breathe freer.

I decided to run; to start with a kilometre and gradually increase both distance and pace.

A friend advised me to use the Nike Running App and the ‘map your run’ feature appealed to me instantly. I loved looking at different shapes of my routes and that fascination actually prodded me to take different paths everyday. I had a fixed radius I would run around but switched up the lanes and mixed and matched the streets. It was fun posting these quirky route outlines on Instagram.

Along with noticing the patterns of houses and the timings of people coming to water their plants or take their pets for a walk; I noticed them noticing. A woman stepping out on Indian streets is like being on display at a museum – there’s just no stopping the looks one gets.

I initially started running wearing my jogging shorts, but that seemed to invite more stares. I switched to wearing tights or gym pants, though they were inconvenient to run in. But people would still stare, at their convenience.

You ought to hand it over to the male gaze – it doesn’t discriminate. Whether you’re wearing a sleeveless top, a half-sleeved one or your father’s oversized jerseys, you’ll still receive the same ruffling gaze.

Running in a sports bra, as I did in Spain was unfathomable. Funny how something so normal feels absurd with a change in one’s location.

Also read: (S)Pacing Space: On Moral Policing and a Potential Solution

Then came the issue of timing. Early morning runs would elicit the stares of uncles that were out for their morning walks; or aunties that’d gape at you with a look of dismay that seems to say “kaisa zamana aa gaya hai, dekho aisi ladkiyon ko (how the world has changed, look at these girls)”. Evening runs would draw gawking shopkeepers, car washers, and random passersby. I’d even have motorcyclists slow down right behind me and follow me for a little while, until I chose a more bustling course.

Once, during a kilometre-long stretch on a busy road, I was followed by two boys in a car. They would periodically speed up and slow down to match my pace. I sprinted and halted next to a mall-like structure where I knew many eyes would be around us. They went away.

Once, two boys on a motorcycle sped past me, yelling “nice butt”. Alas! I was wearing tights. One might only wonder what they would have said if I were in shorts, because showing more skin is like jumping into the lion’s den.

Then there’s the issue of personal physical space or proximity (or the lack thereof). I’m running at the edge of the road, where there’s rubble and sand just so I don’t come in the way of anyone or any traffic. But fellow pedestrians make it a point to brush past you, so you could actually smell the stink of their armpit sweat and vice versa. So, I ensured I ran “against” the traffic. I’d run such that I could face the cars coming towards me so that I won’t be startled by vehicles or people from behind. It’s an alternative, but not an ideal solution.

To top it all, a friend studying location privacy and cybersecurity told me that posting my run paths was enough information for someone to find my home or locality. He shared a tale about his friend being followed by a stalker on her run route. That scared the living hell out of me. If I noticed other people’s patterns, maybe they noticed my run time patterns too.

Also read: To Loiter or Not? – The Question of Women’s Access to Public Spaces

Find My iPhone is my guardian angel, so I keep it on perpetually so I can be tracked by my father or close friends.

Being stared at isn’t fun. It isn’t flattering. Sometimes I feel I’m running into oblivion. A state of being forgotten by the lecherous eyes. I pretend I’m running in vacuum.

Sometimes I feel I’m running away from oblivion. The oblivion of how the world is as naïve and innocent as I am.

So do I embrace this ignorance of reality and create my own; or shed my ignorance and accept the awfulness of the situation? If I do accept it, how do I change it?

I wanted to step out, to run outside, to breathe freer – but I only end up feeling more suffocated.

Vedika Gupta is a graduate in English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. A former national level tennis player, and a current Indian Air Force aspirant, she constantly finds herself oscillating between optimism and pessimism.

Featured image credit: Efes Kitap/Pixabay