There are memories and then there are memories. Some you want to push away so deep that nothing can drag them out. No matter what. But then something happens and every one of them come spilling out.....and once it does nothing can stop them. Like the girl in Guwahati, the 17 year old that was molested while people watched. All day yesterday I followed the outrage on twitter. I decided it could not affect me but the thoughts stayed. Even this morning I fought what I have come here to write today. I played on the ipad, I cooked, surfed facebook till I got bored and still the thought will not leave me. So here I am, bear with me.
I was a young girl growing up in Calcutta in the eighties. Calcutta was considered a relatively safe place. The people were supposed to be friendly and helpful, women were safe. I don't know about the women then but it was certainly not that way for young girls. In broad daylight young girls were pawed. And it wasn't like we were alone...our families were there. Coming out of a cinema hall, shopping on a busy street, walking down the Grand Hotel Arcade...nothing can erase that feeling of shock, horror, humiliation and revulsion we felt. And you turned, amid a sea of people the hand was lost. Just a grab...yes yes, maybe that innocuous looking man, that older one shuffling away.....by the time you turned, or raised an alarm, all there was were people walking away!And raise the alarm sounds very simple, no? But not for a young teenager who suddenly feels awkward and alone. I used to huddle close to my dad, making him wonder why I suddenly clung onto him. (not that that was a guarantee, these hand have a snaking characteristics, but yes, it made me feel braver!). It took me a while to tell my dad because I thought he would not believe me and I thought there was something wrong with me!!!!!!
But then I learned early enough that this was something that happened to all girls my age, anyone who dared emerge from the safety of their homes and cars, that is. Anyone who was remotely trying to be woman enough in a man’s world.
And the horror of travelling on public transport! Sure enough on a crowded bus there are always some men who lean towards the seats reserved for ladies. (my friends and I used to call them 'leftists' because the ladies seats used to be towards the left of the bus!!!!). Oh yeah, we learned to laugh. And we learnt to cope. I took to carrying safety-pins in my pockets. Any unwelcome hand that came even close got a sharp little prick. I learned to keep my eyes on myself and not gaze out of the window. I learnt to be alert. Maybe I pricked a few innocent hands too but no one ever complained and I was past caring! While walking on the road I developed an unique "duck walk" which meant anyone who got close got a shove of the elbow. Years later, as a young graduate when I first went to Court I occasionally took the bus, the rules had not changed. Even now the elbows help me on the road. And in a crowded elevator those elbows come in handy again. No I do not take the bus anymore, but when I walk on the road, I do the elbow trick without thinking. Its part of who I am. I've learnt to protect myself. But I have noticed something else too. These people, they do not prey on older women. They pick young girls. Girls on the threshold of puberty, young unsuspecting teenagers, these are their targets. Two years ago my daughter came home crying. She had gone out to the stationery shop with the maid and someone had touched her. She was 10. I raged. I explained that she had to be careful. She had to protect herself and be alert. I told the maid that she too has to be more alert. Since hen my daughter is wary. She was telling her younger sister the other day that when she walks on the road she has to keep her elbows out! It fills me with sorrow that this is something we learn so early.
But why? Why is it like this?
In India we call the country our mother. We worship the female form for strength and virtue and bow down at her feet. Why, then, this utter disregard and disrespect for the female? Why do Indian men turn predators on the street? What perverted pleasure do they get? These questions have no answers. And no place is safe. Even in a crowded temple. Yes, that very place where people come to worship, for peace, for sanctity, even there. Is it any wonder that each time the word "temple" comes up, I have a bitter argument with my husband? I firmly believe that God or whoever It may be does not reside there! No way.
Does it have to be this way?
I can't see things changing not until the man on the road undergoes a sudden and miraculous sea change. In attitude, in thought, in action. Not unless the male is taught to respect women. But how do you expect that in a country where female foeticide is practiced even in so called well-to-do 'educated' families, where the birth of a male child is hailed and daughters-in-law turned out of their homes because they gave birth to a girl? And that is just the tip of the iceberg. The discrimination is everywhere. Each time a girl is singled out and commented at, each time a man follows a young girl or brushes past her, each time a little girl is asked to fetch and carry for her brother "kiyun ki woh beta hai"!
I hate bringing up my two girls in this environment. I look around me, I read the papers and I am frightened. Very frightened. Thankfully their home and school environment is healthy and complete. But what when they leave, their homes, their schools? I am fearful for them, I teach them the best I can and hope they too shall learn to cope.
The rest is darkness.