The tollbooth attendant wore a dark green shawl. Half his face was covered in a gray woolen scarf and his puffy eyes hovered past me, looking for the man he expected to see in the car I was driving.
I was on the Yamuna Expressway, a six-lane highway that connects New Delhi to Agra, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. I was driving to Fatehpur Sikri, once the Mughal Emperor Akbar's capital, and then on to the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, the epitome of love and longing, which Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan built for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal.
But the trip wasn't designed to mourn a romantic loss. Instead, I wanted to celebrate my 40th birthday by overcoming my biggest fear: Driving a long distance on an Indian highway by myself.
As a reporter, I have traveled to the jungles of Maoist-dominated Bastar in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, to the insurgency-wracked India-Myanmar border in the north-eastern state of Manipur, and to the strife-torn region of Kashmir in the north. Always, I was alone.
But I had barely explored solo for leisure, partly because safety is a serious concern for female travelers on the desolate highways of India -- a country where a woman is raped every 16 minutes, according to the government's National Crime Records Bureau. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have issued travel advisories to women, warning them to beware of sexual assaults in India.
Last year, in separate incidents, two solo women on motorcycles were harassed by unknown men on a highway in Uttar Pradesh. And in 2019, a young veterinarian was raped, murdered and dumped by a highway in the southern state of Hyderabad. There have also been incidents of gang rape on the Yamuna Expressway since 2017.
Shaken by protests, the Indian government insists that the safety of women is a top priority. But its claims look hollow compared to the grim reality: Crimes against women increased by 7% in 2019 to just over 400,000 cases compared with the previous year. No serious attempts have been made to make women feel safe on the highways -- or anywhere else.
Concerned about my safety, my mother urged me to take a friend on my trip. My adventurous sister encouraged me to go ahead, but offered cautionary guidance: "Make sure your car is not giving you trouble," "start as early as possible" and "don't stop midway."
I listened to her advice, replacing all the tires of my car and downloading a road assistance app. I started early and stopped only once, at a crowded restaurant where I used the washroom, braving the stares of male strangers ogling my body while sipping tea or gobbling paratha flatbread.
Back on the highway, my in-car navigation device diverted me to a single-lane highway, where every unruly vehicle (all driven by men) overtook me. Eventually, I reached Fatehpur Sikri, where the keepers at the 16th-century tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chisti asked me to tie a thread, locking in a wish. I had none in mind. Instead, I expressed my gratitude to the saint for my newfound strength to shed my inhibitions and fight bias. After listening to qawwali Sufi music at the tomb for a while, I headed to Agra, 40 km away.
That night, I felt I had achieved my objective. But I was still worried about the return trip. What if the car broke down? What if the promised help from my roadside assistance app failed to arrive on time? What if I was forced to accept help from strangers? What if the police were not there to assist?
The next morning, though, I was stunned by the sight of the white marble Taj Mahal, a magnificent structure that I had earlier thought overrated. Perhaps my inner sense of accomplishment helped me to appreciate the external beauty of the famous mausoleum.
Shortly before noon, I started driving back to New Delhi on the Yamuna Expressway. This time, I switched off the map, feeling more confident than on the way up.
Many women friends have called me "brave" for undertaking this solo drive. But for how long must India's women lock ourselves in our houses, or wait for men to accompany us as protection against other men?
My big takeaway from this small road trip is to urge Indian women to listen to their instincts, take the wheel on the highway alone, overcome their fears and return empowered. Every woman who does so makes the roads safer for other women. We should not need to travel in packs to be safe, and we cannot ourselves end the national scandal of violence against us. But we can insist on our rights. It is time for the women of India to reclaim the highways.
Sonia Sarkar is a New Delhi-based journalist.