Monday, December 24, 2012

The half hour before dusk is safe. Or is it?

I told myself  I would not do this. I would not write about the atrocities happening in Delhi. I told myself that I needed to separate myself from the pain. Yet, as I read and reread what was happening, I have not been able to sleep peacefully for the last three days. What this has released inside me are all those memories, that have come back to haunt and taunt. Of those hundreds of minor insults that add up to growing up female in India. Yes, it is not a single incident that has fueled this rage- mine, or any other Indian woman's. It is a lifetime made up of a million incidents that happen everyday. I have been reliving them for 3 days now. And then I realize, the only reason I am reliving them is because I am in the US. Otherwise, I would still be living them. Everyday.

One of the most horrific ones I remember was when I was very young. Young enough not to have grown breasts. A friend and I were playing in the park in front of our house, and then were walking home since it was getting dark (maybe around 7'ish). Not a long walk, we only had to cross the road. This in a small town, small campus residential neighborhood. In those few moments, the electricity went off, like it does all the time in India. We were plunged into utter darkness. Out of nowhere, a cyclist came by, and a hand grasped my breast tightly. Then it and the person was gone. Before I could even realize what had happened. Only the memory of that 10 year old me remains. 

Another one was when I was even younger, around six years old or so. We were traveling, and as trains in India are always overflowing, there was no place to sit. An 'uncle' kindly offered to squeeze a bit and my parents plonked me next to him. This uncle then placed his hand under my thighs for the remainder of the journey. 

Of course, things only got worse and I grew older. Some of my worst memories and experiences come from the place I studied in, for undergraduate school. Flashers on the roadside next to the lake, grinning at us and masturbating in open view of all of us group of girls. Flashers in the small park that we had to cross to reach the hostel safely. If it was even remotely dark, the peril of staying out was your own. Thank goodness, our hostel was locked at 7:00 PM so that we were never "out late".

I don't think anything can equate to the terror of walking on Indian roads, streets or parks as of being a girl alone. The fast beating heart, surreptitiously looking around, walking really really fast to get to one's destination as soon as possible. Because you never knew what could happen. Because a hand could come out of nowhere, touch you, pull a dupatta, caress a bum, fondle a breast and leave you stunned. Shocked. And promising yourself that you would never stay out after dark again.

I was one of those who always carried a safety pin when traveling in public transport. I always traveled home from school in state transport buses. How many of you remember (in the case of men, even noticed) that there was a small gap where the seatback ended and the seat began. That small gap from where toes and feet and hands could enter and grope and touch your backside? Yes, I carried a safety pin to prick those hands and toes. Another slightly worse one was when we were, by some unfortunate chance, sitting on the aisle seat. The guy(s) would come and rub their "private parts" against our shoulders. Perfect height for it, you know? All you could do was sit silent and hope the "thing" atleast wouldn't get hard.

For those of you who blame western clothes, I was one of those who NEVER EVER wore "western" in India. I think after I reached 12-13 years of age, to the time I came to the US at 26, I must have worn jeans probably 3-4 times. If even that. Yes, I only wore Indian suits and was always covered head to toe, with my dupatta firmly in place. And no, that did not stop anybody.

Once, a friend and I went to visit the yearly Flower Festival, celebrating the coming of spring. And as we boarded a rickshaw to take us back to the hostel, a group of 'celebrating' men pounced on us. Yes, I do mean pounced. They started touching us everywhere, and both of us were screaming. The stupid rickshaw-walla wouldn't move. We screamed at him, "Bhaiyya, chalo" (move!!), he was just sitting there staring at the tamasha. Finally, he started and these men backed off, catcalling and jeering at us. We both were shaken but so happy to get away safely. I think we mostly forgot about this incident later, it was so run-of-the-mill. And after all, we got away, didn't we?

A friend was once groped at by a passing motorcyclist, but in his haste he got his location wrong. He smashed his hand into her face, and shattered her glasses in the process. The shattered glass injured her face a bit, but atleast did not enter her eyes. She very narrowly escaped blindness that day.

These are but a few (or maybe the more horrifying ones) incidents that I have written down here. Because you know what, we can't remember each one of them otherwise day to day living will be an effort. This happens in every single train journey, every single bus journey, every single rickshaw ride, every single walk, every excursion outside, to EVERY WOMAN in India. I know so many of them, and I don't know anybody who has not faced this, to a higher or lesser degree. Yes, I even know of some really bad cases- where a classmate never came back to school again- but lets not even go there.

What is worse is, most Indian men- even the liberal, educated, 'open-minded' ones, don't get it. They don't know the extent or the all-pervasiveness of the problem. They grow up in a different India, an India that does not tell them to be home before dark, to make sure that no body part is showing, to never walk, breathe, talk  freely. In my early days after landing in the US (when the horrors were still fresh), I was talking to a guy about this. And he said "Does this still happen? I don't think the problem exists at all. You are making it all up." I stared at him, aghast and open-mouthed and angry! Much much later, when I got over my anger, I realized the truth of his statement. He really did not know! He had no idea, because he did not grow up in the same India as I did. He grew up as a male in India.

Yes, most people don't get the sheer helplessness of growing up female in India. Nobody who has not faced the relentless multi-headed thousand hands of the monster that is Indian misogyny will ever get it. Be it a male growing up in India or a female growing up in most other countries of the world. You know what it means? I have been in the US for eight years, and I go for a walk most days. Every time a guy crosses me on the sidewalk, I automatically raise my hands and cross my chest. The habit is so deeply ingrained that I can't stop myself. Eight years, a few thousand walks and I still do it. Because I need to protect my breasts. That is what it means. 

Yesterday, I was speaking to a friend and she had studied and lived in Delhi. She said it was really bad there, since she took public transport everyday. I said no, the city I studied in was worse. Or maybe the cities we both grew up in. Or maybe, just maybe, it was everyplace. When terror climbs up your throat and stays there every evening after dark. When panic seizes you if you overstay at the party/park/library by half an hour. When helplessness is an accepted way of life. Yes, that is what it means. When every single decision is made based on where you will be at dusk. When a half inch tighter or shorter dress, a half kilometer detour, a half hour bus delay, a half hour of working extra can mean the difference between safety and assault. And you never know which half hour. Yes, that is what it means. 

5 comments:

Road-Tripper said...

I am realizing this issue more and more with each trip to India. I agree that I was completely blind about it till only few years back. its absolutely disgusting.
Interestingly I found the absolute opposite in Beijing - I have seen girls walk alone well past midnight there, and I asked some of my female friends/colleagues - and looks like they dont feel nearly as threatened as even in the US...

vaishagar said...

Very well written, as you have already mentioned every girl in India has suffered this, including me. What startles me is in India you can still find a lot of women who indeed blame girls for this, their independence, their education and their liberation. When I hear all this I feel sick to the core. I just wish and hope things change.

Rachna said...

@Rama- yes, all women can empathize with this, all women have faced this. And you are right, a lot of educated, nice, decent men do n to know about this. I am glad that this issue is now coming out more in the open. Dialogue is the best way to initiate change! Also, congrats on the China move.

@Vaishagar- I agree that it is kind of sad that a lot of Indian women blame girls for this. Actually, it does not surprise me anymore, because most women I see do think like that. It is so true, and so sad. Instead of encouraging the new generation, they do their best to stifle its independence and spirit. I see this all the time, and yes, it sickens me. But I find no way to change this mindset, and I am the only one who gets upset by such interactions.

Manoj Singh said...

This is one of the better articles I have read about this.

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Sudhanshi Vasudev said...

I was lucky to leave India at the age of 20 n go to China for next 5 years...the best years for me, where only once felt uncomfortable, and it was because I was alone in a 'subcontinent' boys room..... would go for midnight walks n never ever felt unsafe..... now at 42, n disabled.....still have to face flashing n groping ..... disgusting. .... sorry can not say 'mera bharat mahaan'..... it is full of perverts