I had my doubts about blogging this - writing about street harrassment.
After all, it's as common-place as paan stains, as ubiquitous as spit.... Will my saying 'NO' to harrassment prevent it? How does telling my stories serve any purpose?
But while discussing the Blank Noise Project with a male friend (who has never maaro-ed seeti, never chhedo-fied, never sung lewd songs, never felt up, pinched, grabbed any part of any woman), he told me - "How do you know? Some teenaged boy somewhere reads this and decides not to molest women... you never know."
For men like him, I write this post.
(I have no patience for blogging dates, nor this women's day brouhaha, nor a fixed schedule that will guarantee internet access on March 7. So, I'm just going to put it up now and let it be a sticky post.)
Some things, you learn to expect, growing up a girl.
You expect to confront harrassment as surely as the sun in May and the fog in a Delhi December.
When you leave the house, an invisible snake of alert suspicion will wind down from your shoulders down your back and become a clenched fist in all public spaces, through all journeys.
How optimistic you're feeling about man-kind, on any given day, determines whether you take a bus home, or just hop into an auto, or a cab, knowing you cannot really afford it. If you really cannot afford an auto some day, you will not take the bus at rush-hour.
You'll let bus after bus after bus go past. Waiting is tiresome. But waiting is easier than bristling.
You didn't always expect to do this, of course. One learns these things, by and by.
I began learning in Bombay. Yes, that delightfully sprawling city that is so kind to its women.
My first lesson was delivered atop the railway bridge at Andheri station when I was 13 years old. My first visit to this city by the sea. The first brush with the overspilling local trains. The first time someone grabbed my 13-year old breast.
After all these years, I cannot forget - his face pudgy, more fair than dark, moustache, white shirt, briefcase in hand, big belly, must have been about 40. Old enough to be my father. I remember he had walked into me - or pretended to - and while I struggled with the shock of what he'd been doing under the guise of walking into me, he calmly walked past... just a regular uncle-ji hurrying home after a hard day at work.
What did I do?
Nothing. I kept walking on, beside my brother.... My 17-year old brother who might have picked a fight if I'd told him.... What could I have told him?... It was too late anyway. The crowds had swallowed all of us up so completely.
Some things, you learn to expect (relief is always unexpected).
Therefore, you will be very pleasantly surprised when a man takes the seat next to you, and actually leaves two inches breathing space between you, instead of pushing so close that the windowpane leaves marks on your forearm.... All the same, old habits die hard, and you will spend the journey with a clenched fist balled up somewhere in your shoulderblades, because, you never know when he'll start acting up, do you?
You will also feel miserable when the well-behaved one gets down two stops before yours - it's too much to expect two well-behaved men sitting next to you on a single trip.
But no matter how much you steel yourself to it, sometimes, you will still get reduced to tears.
Seven years later, again in Bombay, after swearing to travel only in the ladies compartment of the local train, I learnt yet another lesson : some 'ladies' compartments turn into a free-for-all feel-up-jam-session after nine o'clock at night.
Suddenly, there were men's crotches pressing into my face, my knees and my shoulders. I stood up and fought my way to the door. Only to be surrounded by half a dozen men offering to 'get me out safely'. As the train stopped, half a dozen men got on, half a dozen got off. Trapped between them for a few seconds, I lost count of how many hands felt me up.
I cried tears of rage - if only that train hadn't moved away... I wanted badly to drag at least one of them off that train and smash his skull on the nearest railway track.
Some things, you get used to. Like rage.
Your ears will be whispered into, your behind will be touched. Songs will be sung...
You will learn to laugh. Humour is a great self-defence tool.
For instance, when a boy calls out 'good morning, madam' on a busy street crossing, I laugh it off.
When a boy follows me from my office everyday, offering to marry me, I laugh it off.
When silly men accost me on the streets and demand to 'make friendship', refusing to take 'no' for an answer, offer me lifts, I laugh it off.
When somebody calls me 'taazaa malaai', 'mirchi', 'badhiya maal', 'chhammak-chhallo', 'lassun-pyaaz' (yes, even that!), I shake my head and laugh it off.
Over the years, I even learnt to focus on the merits of the songs being sung/whistled, thinking about the musical tastes of the modern roadside romeo, instead of the intent behind the singing or whistling.
But when I am walking home at night and a car full of drunk men slows down, I cannot laugh. I can only seek relief in the other car coming down the road; when that car also turns out to be full of drunk men who also slow down near me…
it is hard to keep up a sense of humour all the time.
Five years ago, once again in Bombay, I lost my humour, and learnt not to NOT do anything. At Andheri station, again, for the first time, I used violence.
A man asked me 'how much?'.
I tried to walk past quickly.
He asked me a second time. 'How much?'
I took a step forward, then stepped backward, swung around, and threw a punch.
He looked very surprised and asked 'what did I do?'
I didn't stay to explain. That night, my fist was swollen. I'd never seriously hit anyone before.
The next time two times I punched men, it was at railway stations in Bombay. In both instances, I didn't hit out immediately. It was only when they persisted a second or third time, despite my obvious disinterest.
The third time was in Kathmandu, outside a movie hall. The man touched me three times before I finally lost it.
He began by protesting - 'I didn't do anything' - and ended by saying 'sorry, sister'.
(Bless his poor sister, if he has one; I wouldn't want to be in her shoes.)
Some things, you learn. Some things are shaken and scolded into you.
For example –
When walking, don't think. If you get lost in your own internal world, somebody or the other might misinterpret this as an invitation to grab some piece of you.
You stay alert. Not glaring at every passerby suspiciously can be interpreated as an invitation.
When walking, don't take quieter, narrower lanes which are more picturesque and less polluted. Those are pretty much reserved for the goonda-types and 'eve-teasers' of the city.
When walking past a parked car with the engine idling and man/men sitting inside it, step aside and put at least four feet between you and the car's doors ... don't you read the newspapers?
When lost, don't roll down the car windows all the way while asking for directions. Ask women and chowkidaars for directions, preferably.
Try not to park in basement parkings zone, if alone.
When in public - don't sing, don't smile, don't swing your arms, or your hips. It is better to wear a frown on the streets, along with mouth that looks like it can chew your head off, spewing some rather choice invective, if bothered.
Learn filthy abuse; use it.
When something is lost/stolen, don't go to the police station alone.
If propositioned in a dark, lonely spot, do not slap or insult. In a low, pleasant voice, say you're already engaged. If cornered in a really dark, really lonely spot, give him a fake name, fake phone number.
When accosted by a cop, tell him your dad/grandad/uncle is a senior cop.
If there are less than six people in a bus, don't get on. From Churchgate, at night, don't travel in Ladies first class. From Andheri, early in the morning, don't take the Ladies first class.
Don't sit alone by the sea for more than ten minutes.
Stop thinking about watching the sun rise over a field, all by yourself.
Stop thinking about long, leafy walks that lead nowhere.
Stop wondering how the streets looks at midnight, after a drizzle.
I don't know where, if, and how, this will stop. But I hope it does.
There is another aspect to this that I can't help thinking about: it creates a never-ending trap of dependence that many men resent equally.
We women depend - are taught to depend, are left with no option but to depend - on men for our safety and survival.
We can go out, but with 'ghar ke ladke' to take care of us. The brother, husband, father, cousin or boys known to the family will escort us - to a movie, to a mall, to a party. At best, you might be able to manage if you're a big group of girls. But how many times can you walk around as girl-gangs?
We learn, consciously and sub-consciously, that we cannot do anything alone. And if we do, we're going to have wage war every inch of the way.
That lesson is etched in so deep that conceiving of 'life' alone is...
No wonder you need men. No wonder you need marriage. No wonder you cling to the man, because how will you manage alone?
- Action Hero Annie