Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Coward Who Changed My Life (The Blank Noise Project against Street Harrasment)

I used to feel that they’d always intimidate me.

That no matter how old I grew, however wise or however brave, I wouldn’t be able to get over that feeling. It’s hard to describe it- I wouldn’t call it fear, for I was never scared of them. Rather, it was a mixture of indignation, intimidation and sadly, even shame. So I’d always be on my guard in busy places, markets, parks, cinema halls – eyes alert, arms firmly by my side, hoping that I wouldn’t feel that purposeful grip or brush against my body – that unsanctioned touch that infuriated me but which I knew I’d do nothing about. They intimidated me, you see.

In time, I made a strange discovery, one that I hadn’t ever thought possible to be true – They were cowards. Inside, they were nothing more than small minded , mouse-like, sleazy, cowards. It happened one day when I was walking along a busy footpath. Coming towards me from the opposite direction was a man who seemed intent to walk right into me, despite there being ample space on the either side of me. Attempting to stem the discomfort that was beginning to rise in me, I decided to try a new strategy – I continued walking, raised my head high, shoulders straight back and looked at him. Right into his two eyes. Square. He met my gaze for a while but didn’t hold it for too long. He slowed his pace, the leer on his face began to fade away, he looked away, and stepped out of my way. Not for one moment till we’d passed each other did I break eye contact with him.

I realised that day, that they were not worth the dignity my meekness had been granting to them. In a way, that day changed my life. After that, when I detected intimidation rising in my chest, I’d dispell it immediately with the memory of the coward.

They say you win half the battle when you’ve conquered fear of it. I was determined not to shut up and swallow humiliation anymore – in buses, on streets, in trains, busy market places because I hated what my silence, OUR silence, had done for these small, mouse-like, sleazy cowards. It had elevated them to heights of bravado and arrogance that they did not have in them to achieve in any other way. I decided I wasn’t going to be part of it anymore and I was always going to make a scene.
So I did.
“Thik se khade nahi reh sakte bus mein?” (can’t you stand properly in a bus?) I’d yell loudly for all to hear. And I’d watch as he shuffled his feet, mumbled something incoherently, and looked away, keeping a great deal of a distance from me now.

“Move your hand, I have to sit here” I once said loudly to an elderly man sitting next to me in a train, who most coincidently always placed his hand on the seat I was going to sit in before I sat in it. He moved his hand before i had even finished my sentence. 
Old men, young men, middle aged men, married men, high school boys, fathers, grandfathers. I felt I was going to run out of puke.

“If you touch me again, I’ll break your bloody hands and then take you to the principal” – this was a college canteen waiter who picked the wrong person to get funny with. I never saw him after that– the man who'd lie in wait for me to walk down the corridoor so he could walk past me every day. This was one of the most satisfying days of my life. There were so many people that I knew, sitting there– students, laboratory assistants, teachers – I felt like shutting up and just forgetting about it, shoving it to the back of my head. But I couldn’t. My mind wouldn’t let me; it kept reminding me of what this kind of attitude had done for women in my country. Are you going to be part of the problem or the solution, Nayan?, it seemed to scream at me. I had to make a scene.

It angers me so much now when I see women on streets, in buses, movie halls, shopping malls, trains, being harrassed either verbally or physically and keeping their mouths shut. It happens everywhere– they just shut up, forget about it, push it away from their minds. They begin to accept it as a part of their ‘lot’, by virtue of being a woman. It makes my blood boil.
And yet, there are times I feel that perhaps I’m wrong in thinking this way– after all, it isn’t easy to face one’s fears. And who am I to apply a certain rubric to all women? There are so many dimensions to this problem, the biggest one being the socio-cultural set up in India that moulds the two sexes in different ways – something that's responsible no doubt, for most of this country’s problems today.

'India has finally arrived', Boink said to me. And that set me thinking. Bush is here with flowers, the arm of friendship, and the offer of collaboration. Our GDP rises steadily, Economy’s going great guns, Sensex breaks new barriers every fortnight, Indian techies seem to be the need of the hour, women are beginning to revolutionise themselves with jobs, security, money – Independence.
The tragedy is– the mindset seems to be unchanged. Inspite of all the so-called emancipation, we’re still intimidated. Intimidated by small-minded, mouselike, sleazy, cowardly men.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.