The Blank Noise Project asked for a blog-a-thon on March 8th; a way of celebrating the strengths of those who resist, in some way, street level harassment. A great idea. Yet the words ‘Action Hero’ somehow constrain me: what is Action, and who is a Hero? This March 8th, I was in the middle of a workshop with a group of police officers from States across South India and reiterating - many times over, in different ways - that women are *not* women’s worst enemies (yes, a treatise on that soon). Was that being an Action Hero? I work with men, with law enforcers, with some of the most patriarchal structures in the world, and I do not abuse, I do not indignify, I do not violate. Perhaps more honestly, I do my best not to (there are times when I bite my tongue, hard. It hurts). But certainly I describe, I analyse, I provoke, I persuade. I challenge. Is that being an Action Hero?
Whatever the ways in which Jasmeen, Mangs, Chinmayee and Annie conceived of it, philosophical flimsies are not going to cut it. So let me remind myself - and tell others - of a couple of lessons I learnt early. One was when I was in college in Delhi. Being in the hostel, any kind of travel involved painful hours in a sweaty bus or painfully expensive moments in an auto. The choice was simple, and I learnt more about harassment on DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses than any hi-falutin’ economics. Perhaps (says the philosopher), I did get somewhere after all.
I learnt that anger is not always strategic. It’s a peculiar Delhi phenomenon - and I find it slowly spreading to other cities, including Bangalore - that if you raise your voice in anger against someone who’s harassing you, very few people are likely to support you. However obvious the harassment, however gruesome the details. Someone who’s not just touching you, but who’s conveniently using the lack of interstitial space to slam against every bit of you and rub himself up in perverse joy. What works? Shame. And humour. Humour, you ask in horror? Was it funny, what he was doing? No, it wasn’t. Far from. But what worked was this: I would say loudly, so that as many people around could hear me, in as bored a clarion call as possible, ‘Kya bhaiya, yeh sab aap ghar me nahi kar sakthe, kya? [Why, brother, can’t you do all this at home?]’. There would be titters, some loud guffaws and the slammer-against-body (whose face I couldn’t even see, considering the position I was in) would suddenly ease himself up, and leave the bus at the next convenient moment. Or at least move himself from the parking spot that was my body.
Another moment of self-preservation epiphany. I was travelling from Karwar to Raichur via Hubli (all in north Karnataka). I ended up being in a bus that landed up in Raichur at 2 in the morning [Note to self: try not to travel alone to unknown destinations at odd hours of the night. As far as possible]. On the bus, I had made ample and effective use of a loaded water bottle to preserve my bums from groping fingers and toes belonging to the person sitting in the seat behind me. When I got down at the bus stop, I found the place strewn with sleeping bodies and bags. Luckily for single women, very few public places in India are ‘deserted’. The trouble is, those who are temporarily inhabiting that space may not (as mentioned before) support you in a moment of crisis. Anyhow, no one was awake at the Raichur bus stop; it was deathly quiet and with only one tube light that cast a pool of light over a limited area. Some instinctual common sense made me clamber over the bodies and bags, shift a few of those around gently, and settle into a position right in the middle of the light. Not a moment too soon. A burly man, probably in his mid thirties, came up out of the shadows, and watched me for a while. He circled around the bus stop, over and over again, waiting, I feel with hindsight, for me to move out of the light. I didn’t. I was terrified, but I wasn’t going to run. So lesson number 2: running isn’t always the solution. Stay in the light, and be prepared to scream.
After about what felt like a few hours (but was probably closer to 45 minutes), he realised I wasn’t going to budge. And he left. I stayed awake, clutching my bag, clutching myself, thanking my surprisingly sharp instincts that I hadn’t done something unbearably foolish. Lesson number 3: trust that gut of yours. It is seldom wrong. ‘Rationality’ is judged by outcome.
Posted 21st March 2007