When I went back to Delhi in the summer of 2005 a fleeting thought passed my mind while packing my clothes – maybe I shouldn’t pack my tank tops and skirts. I had been living alone for 6 years in San Francisco, wearing whatever I felt like, going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And it was going to really hot in Delhi. I was confident that I could tackle anything that came my way.
In Delhi, I was warned against wearing shorts to the gym so I wore my track pants the first day. I almost passed out from the heat while working out and resolved to wear my shorts the next day onwards. I wasn’t about to let fear of being harassed interfere with something as mundane as a good workout. I came up with a theory that if I appeared confident and unafraid, no one would harass me. I glared at any men who came too close and sure enough nobody harassed me.
This gave me the confidence to venture out alone to Connaught Place. I wore a knee length skirt, hailed an auto rickshaw and made my way to meet my friends in CP. On my way there I noticed a man on a motorcycle driving beside me and staring. I didn’t give it much thought and just looked away. When I got off the man also got off his bike and accosted me. He asked me for my number. I was taken aback but thought he was on of those “I would like to be friends with you” guys. I walked in another direction but he wouldn’t go away. I was zigzagging through cars trying to get away. He shouted at me “What do you think you are? I know exactly what you do!” I was too confused to react. What did that guy mean? What give him any indication of “What I am?” I looked around at people thinking if they would protect me if he tried anything funny. Fortunately I spotted my friend and walked towards her. As I was telling her about the incident the man disappeared. She told me that while she was waiting for me in front of the Wimpy’s an uncle-ji tried to feel her up. She even pointed him out while we walked away.
On my way back I kept watching out for any motorcycle that stayed with us for more than a couple of miles. Nothing had changed since I was a fourteen year old girl afraid to walk home from my bus stop after school. Everyday in the bus, as we neared my bus stop, I would start dreading the walk home. A nearby school ended at the same time and a group of school boys would harass the girls passing by. They would shout obscenities and throw stones at my feet. I used to look forward to examination days when I got home earlier and didn’t have to pass by that group of boys. I was jealous of my cousins who had an elder brother who walked the same route with them. He once chased a boy who teased his sister and beat him up. I was jealous of my twin brother and sister who also walked together. I tried to get my mother to pick me up from my bus stop but didn’t know how to explain the mental turmoil I went through everyday. One day on my way back, after I had passed the group of school boys, I turned a corner, and a man turned towards me and flashed me. That day onwards I started taking a longer route home just so I wouldn’t have to pass that corner again.
When I turned eighteen I was ecstatic to start learning to drive. I could now drive and never have to walk or take auto rickshaws or the most feared – DTC Buses. The joy didn’t last long when my driving instructor surreptitiously started touching my breasts while changing gears or turning the wheel. I wasn’t sure how to tell my parents that I didn’t want to learn driving from that instructor. I asked my dad to teach me driving but got into a small accident. I had to continue my lessons with the driving instructor.
Now when I think of these incidents I can’t imagine why I didn’t take action against this kind of harassment. But as a girl in my early teens I lacked the confidence and maturity to deal with these incidents. I was too embarrassed to discuss any of this with my parents. I just learnt to go to any length to avoid a group of boys loitering on the streets or to make up excuses about why I need my grandmother or cousin to be in the car with me while I learnt to drive.
When male friends from Delhi narrate stories of eating paranthas at 1 am on the roadside or playing holi with friends on the streets, I am amazed. These are luxuries that I could never afford. They are amazed when I tell them that I only traveled in a bus once. They automatically attribute it to me being a rich spoiled brat and I prefer not to tell them the real reason. I would rather repress the thoughts of one of the worst experiences of my lives.
I can only begin to imagine how traumatized my sister could have been during her teen years in Delhi. After having lived in the US for two years when she had an opportunity to visit Delhi, she refused. She desperately wanted to meet our family but was too scared to go back. I convinced her to go but she fretted for days leading up to the trip.
I thought I would be able to deal with such harassment as a mature woman now. I was not a scared teenager anymore. However, in Bangalore on a trip with my parents, when a man started running his hand up and down my leg, I could do nothing. If I told my parents I knew my dad would get in a fight with him. I didn’t want him to get hurt. I just kept scooting closer and closer to my sister till she asked me what the matter was. She switched seats with me since she was wearing jeans and stomped on his hand. After all he couldn’t complain either.
I once started researching Sexual Harassment in India to write a paper for a class called “Women, Minorities and Law.” During that research I found out that “Eve teasing” is a termed coined and used only in India. I never wrote that paper, it was too painful. I sometimes day dream that incidents of street harassment would air on television and men would be forced to face the guilt. They would be made aware of the trauma they cause. I’m not sure when that day would come but Blank Noise is definitely a step in the right direction.
Action Hero Anshu