When I was twelve, somebody leaned over and said - don't attract attention to yourself. That's what I have been doing all my life. When I leave my home, I clutch my belongings, adjust my clothes and will myself to be invisible. I occupy the tiniest strip of space. I am constantly moving sidewards to let men walk by, because I know they will most definitely "accidentally brush".
From some unknown age, a verbal survival guide becomes your holy book. Don't take an auto when it's dark. Don't take a bus in the rush hour. Get into the crowded "Ladies" compartment even if the "General" compartment is half empty. When you sit in an auto, never sit close to the sides even if you want to feel the wind in your hair. Sit in the centre, so no passing hand can reach inside and grope. Don't smile at the autodriver. Don't smile at the shopkeeper.
By the time you're 18 you have permanent frown lines on your forehead. All your life, you have been biting your teeth and not smiling. In all public spaces.
I have never been able to sleep when on a train journey. Never been able to close my eyes for second when on a bus. Even on the most tiring of days. When I was in college - I used to carry a big bag and a folder. The folder would be clamped onto the chest, and the bag would be balanced on my back. My armour. I took to wearing salwar kameez in college for a while, wondering if it was about the clothes. It wasn't. It doesn't stop. I carried safety pins. A pocket knife. (Confiscated by the airport in Indore.) Another pocket knife.
At least for my generation, it didn't end on the street. Street harassment followed you like a slithering reptile inside your home. They found out your phone numbers and made obscene calls. P used to get a lot of those calls. She used to come home (invisible on the street) and cry. Her parents thought it was her doing. You don't tell anyone about all this. Because telling family members is admitting to your vulnerability. It could mean restrictions. Especially when you are 15.
One of my friends had acid thrown on her face. Because she refused to respond to the catcalls of a few boys. When they went to the Police, they asked her about her clothes, her friends, her behaviour, her habits. Then, they blamed her.
Coming back from college, if the bus was too crowded, I used to try and walk the seven kilometer stretch. Even in the bloody summers. Even when I kept away from the crowded bus, and walked - some asshole would drive by, roll down his window, and ask persistently if I wanted a lift. No. I'll give you a lift. No. Please come. No. Come you bitch. No. Walk. Five minutes later - another car. No. No. No.
In Bombay - the bus is safe as long as there is a critical number of people inside. If the bus felt a bit too empty, I would take an auto. I would have a pretend-conversation on the phone. So the autodriver knew that somebody knew where I was. Sometimes when bus conductors, autodrivers and shopkeepers try to hand back change - they squeeze your hand.
We are surrounded by movies that encourage street harassment. Follow a girl enough times and she will fall in love with you. On the road, it's okay to sing vulgar songs about someone's waist, walk, eyes, bosom. Shame her into burning helplessness.
I don't want to be protected by a man. No man needs to feel responsible for me. I don't want a man to spew venom on my behalf. I don't want to be left alone because I am someone's wife, sister, daughter. I don't want to hide in "Ladies-Only" compartments. I want to look at a city's buildings and take photographs, without dodging a biker's hands. I don't want to be afraid to go into a Police Station. I want to be able to go for a walk without swallowing my fear by the minute.
I refuse to believe that all male bloggers are not involved in street harassment. I don't think most men realize that they have the male privilege. Street harassment takes on different forms - digital, cellular and otherwise. But it is the same in essence. They don't respect personal space in a public domain. The line between admiration and street harassment is not thin. I've been reading a lot of "I never knew this happened" testimonies penned by men, but I am curious about the other lot? Do they read this stuff? Are they going to dismiss this as feminist crap? I get an avalanche of vulgar anonymous comments sometimes - are they the same kind who harass on the streets?
Of course, street harassment is not unique to India. I am sure London has its share. But I would be lying if I didn't say that London welcomes me on her streets. I take photographs, smile at shopkeepers and on some occassions even sing to myself.
What is unique to India is the apathy. The heartbreaking indifference. The SILENCE. Victims should not speak of being the victim. We should suffer in our silence. The "world" meanwhile, feigns ignorance. You process the blank noise in your head, and don't tell anyone. And hope that it will all go away. It doesn't.
Oh! What really gets my goat - is when somebody suggests that you learn Martial Arts to defend yourself. Right. So tomorrow if someone harasses me, and I get harassed, it's again my fault that I couldn't defend myself. Really?
Action Hero Neha Viswanathan