I am 11 years old traveling by myself from Wadala to Matunga, barely a 15-minute bus ride in a BEST bus. My grandparents think I am independent and capable enough to undertake this short journey by myself, which I am. I get up from my seat and wait in the corner of the gangway of this double decker bus, a couple of stops in advance, so I don’t miss my stop. Just as my stop is about to come, I move towards the edge, and I get this intensely uncomfortable feeling that something is just not right. The bus conductor is holding me back while displaying mock good intentions of not allowing a ‘kid’ to alight from a running bus (which I wasn’t) and holding me back by squeezing my nearly non-existent breast from behind me. The grope lasted for all of a few seconds, but the effect of it has clearly not been forgotten even though nearly 25 years have passed by.
I remember getting down from the bus with my heart beating right outside my chest, feeling horribly disgusted, wishing I had stomped the conductor’s foot badly before getting down from the bus. I remember walking from the stop to my great-grandmom’s house with the quickest possible steps I could manage, staying along the extreme sidelines of the footpath. It took me a long while to gather courage to get out in a bus on my own.
At home, it was the unsaid rule (and sometimes said aloud) that girls had to dress extremely conservatively. I think I wore my first pair of pants, after childhood, straight in my early twenties. All through adolescence, it was only loose tent-like salwar kurtas, which could easily accommodate two of me, and a dupatta of course. This dress code was only slightly short of an abaaya. I do remember having some knee length skirts, which I wore once in a while. It would always confuse me why knee length skirts were okay while full-length jeans were not. I still don’t understand the rationale behind this.
Regarding dress code, this one incident sticks in my head more than any other. It was the class picnic from the class ten coaching classes, to a beach in the outskirts of Bombay, boys and girls combined. My group of girl friends had decided to wear denim. I meekly nodded my head, too embarrassed to admit that my family didn’t let me wear jeans so I didn’t have a pair. That one denim skirt I had, would be my saviour, I thought. The evening before the picnic, I wouldn’t let the non-availability of an agreed-upon dress code dampen my enthusiasm. I was ironing my denim skirt when my grandfather walked in on me and asked why I was ironing it. I told him it was for the picnic the following day. I was bluntly told that either I was wearing a salwar kurta or I wasn’t going to the picnic. Although I had my share of rebellious streaks, I was too afraid to ask him ‘Why?’ and lose out on the chance of enjoying the one day I had been looking forward to, since weeks. I was so angry with them then. Now, I realise they did what they thought was best. They wanted me to be safe. Just that they didn’t realise, whether I wore a mini skirt, or an all-covering salwar kurta, daughters will be groped, just for the simple reason that she is a girl. So I finally went to the beach picnic wearing a salwar kurta, and I remember having a lot of fun and also the heartbreak that my best friend spent more time with another girl than me.
I am 16 and in college. My best friend is my bus-friend. She lives close to my house and we study in the same class. We meet daily, midway to the bus-stop, walk to the stop together and get into the bus from the starting point and sit next to each other. This routine is sacred to me. It is a short ride, not more than 20 minutes followed a 15-minute walk to the college. But all it takes is a few seconds to be groped and be scarred for life.
I would dread the days when she was unwell or was taking the day off, which meant that there was a 50% chance that a guy would sit next to me in the bus and a 25% chance that he would try to keep pushing himself closer to me even if I squeezed myself into the window to keep maximum distance between us. But having a bus-buddy was not the entire solution, there was always the chance that if you sat on the aisle seat, some standing passenger will try and rest his ugly posterior on your shoulder and it will stick to you even after the entire bus gets empty and there are empty seats for the taking. This standing passenger could also be the conductor, who in his donkey’s years of traveling by the bus, standing, needs to take the support of a young girl’s shoulder to stand in a slow-moving bus.
Soon, I realised that public transport is something I cannot avoid in the city and I cannot live in this perpetual fear of being groped or pinched or nudged. I formulated the flowchart in my head.
a. Always try and take the ladies’ seat
b. Make sure a lady occupies the ladies’ seat next to me, because there are guys who would insist on sitting in the ladies’ seat and give you the excuse that there are women sitting on the general non-reserved seats.
c. If a guy sits next to me, I’d give him a stern look as soon as he took the seat, to give him the signal that he’s dealing with a no-nonsense person.
d. At the slightest indication of the guy trying to get close to me, I’d tell him in a stern yet polite voice to keep his distance from me.
e. If he was the more shameless types, I’d tell in a loud and clear voice “Theek se nahi baith sakte kya?” so fellow passengers can hear this. This last resort tactic made quite a few people get off the bus in embarrassment, especially if they were the suited-booted ‘executive’ type people to start with.
May be because it was Bombay, I’ve never had to do anything beyond this. Just voicing out my anger loudly was good enough to shake these cowards off my back.
The point I’m trying to make is that all this was in Bombay, good localities, broad daylight, fully covered me, non-crowded public transport. Not a shady lane with pubs post 10 pm or skimpily clad me. Because, no matter what you wear, how good the locality, how bright the morning is, there will be dirty minds waiting around any corner to pounce on you. The only reason being -you have two X chromosomes and the XY chromosome reads this as an open invitation to abuse.
Much later in Bombay in my late 20s, I used to be chauffeured around in a car thanks to a much caring and indulgent husband. When we used to drive past certain areas, I’d feel the piercing stares of the men right through the raised windows. They can be trusted to make you feel naked and insecure even in a locked car. And then I would watch the girls walking on that street, scuttling away as fast as they could, dupattas completely wrapped around them knowing fully well that the lecherous stares of the loafers in the street can pierce through many layers of clothing. I’d feel slightly better at having this protected life and sad for the girls who had no option but to walk down those streets everyday, to be molested by the bystanders with their eyes and words on a daily basis and something with their hands.
Today, I feel thankful I didn’t grow up in a family with a chauffer driven car, or even a car for that matter. It was always buses and trains and only in the most indulgent of times, cabs or autos. It exposed me to the big bad world. It taught me that I must shout out loud at the first possible doubt that something is not right. Now, I feel brave enough to take the public transport in any city. This exposure early on in life made me strong enough to protect my younger sister in a long-distance train, like a brother would. When walking / running on the street by myself, I plug in my noise-cancelling headphones with music on full volume so I don’t hear the blood-boiling remarks these guys sometimes mouth when they pass us by, for the sole reason that we are women walking on the street. I prefer to shut out these voices only to avoid myself from getting into street fights every time I walk alone on a street.
A few days ago, when I saw news pouring from all sides about the 17 year old girl molested in Guwahati, all the buried scars started to feel fresh and I wanted to write about them. There’s no comparison of course, hers is an awfully terrifying story. No, I didn’t see the video. I don’t have that kind of courage or crazy curiosity. You can shut down pubs entirely, prohibit liquor, block porn websites, make it compulsory for women to wear burkhas, but all it takes to be molested, raped, abused is to be a woman. No other conditions apply.
If you ask me, the one sensible move our government should make is make 2 years of self defense training compulsory for every girl when she turns 10. And girls should make sure they use these skills liberally on anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable. Because men should realise that they cannot just grope anyone they please.
Other related posts:
Wolf hall by @supriyan
On molestation and what you can do about it by @lavsmohan
Guwahati and beyond by @natashabadhwar