On the bottom shelf of my cupboard lie a multitude of stoles. There are black ones, white ones, a lot of beige and a few brightly-coloured ones. They haven't been used in two years but before that, these were the staples of my wardrobe.
I carried a stole everywhere. When I was trying to get from one appointment to another, taking crowded buses where men pushed their crotches into me from behind, and I couldn't even shake them off in time, because everyone was milling around me so thickly, that sometimes I wasn't able to tell who that persistent grind was being perpetrated by. When I took autos and I saw that mirror being adjusted, and I knew that my giant bag held tight against my chest was not enough.
When I was walking down the street and I didn't want men to stop their scooters ahead of me and watch me walk up and then leer.
No matter what I was wearing, or where I was going, or who I was with, I carried a stole.
And then one day I forgot to carry mine. It was some months after I learnt of the Blank Noise Project; I had interviewed Jasmeen about it. I tried, in the auto on my way to the government office, to convince myself that it was okay. I wasn't dressed in anything sleeveless. I reminded myself of what she had said to me, about how it happens to all women but how it's not something we ask for. My shapeless cotton kurta wasn't provocative. It would be okay.
An hour later, I stood in front of the man who was supposed to give me some papers. He interrogated me about my story. Caught up in enthusiasm, as I prattled on, I noticed that his gaze was lowered to my chest. I stopped talking. But he still didn't look up.
"What are you looking at," I asked him.
I can still remember how his face crumpled into embarassment.
He tried to smile weakly.
"I was talking to you. My mouth was moving. What were you looking at?"
He quickly handed me the envelope - "Nothing, madam. Sorry." And then he walked off from his desk.
When I walked out, I was shaken. For the first time in my life, I had not walked away, I had not stayed silent. I was used to blocking the stares out, blocking the gestures out, blocking out every lewd remark. Sometimes, I didn't even notice, because I had become accustomed to them, because I thought it was always my fault. I never went back to that office. And it was a month before I completely stopped using those stoles. Before I convinced myself that I didn't need them.
Posted 21st March 2007