This story is part of the 16 Days Of Activism campaign against sexual harassment. People are invited to share their experiences and shift the onus from the survivor to the perpetrator. To know more and take part in the campaign click here.
I grew up in Delhi. Yes, that’s right! The rape-capital, the city where women are most “unsafe” in the country. We don’t need to re-visit the horrendous cases witnessed in India’s capital. Because today, I wish to reflect upon my own experiences with street harassment and the reason I may never live in Bengaluru again.
I have a weak memory but traumatic experiences (even the meekest one) aren’t easily forgettable. One can forget a broken knee, deep scar from fighting with siblings and even a shattered heart. But, those minutes (and seconds) of unsolicited touches, brushes and groping are hard to let go. And each such episode is a sad reminder that we are the cultural refuse of a mean business of power-play. Thankfully (and finally), this culturally accepted humiliation (and invasion) of women’s physical (and psychological) boundaries are changing.
I was first groped (from the back) around the age of 8 or 9 in a Delhi bus while traveling with my mother. This came as a shock and confusion and a failure to react. It was my first lesson on harassment in public spaces. Not easy to say, it wasn’t the last. Over the course of few years then, the reminder of each such lesson remained and reinforced the fact that I’m not safe because I’m female. In the form of catcalls, groping, leering, following and ogling – I was living a life of constant reminders. No one spoke about it but everyone knew it was happening and that it happens.
As a shy girl, I was an easy prey to predators (even in school). I lived in fear. I couldn’t move around during recess. I couldn’t enjoy sports and I surely, couldn’t tell anyone. It eventually passed and I changed schools.
As a teen in new school, transformation wasn’t easy. Within the walls of school – once again – I wasn’t safe. I was leered, joked, humiliated, followed after school, catcalled and groped for two years. Until one day, I came home and broke down into wailing tears. Then, I was no more a girl, I became a woman. The boys were rusticated and I was threatened. Almost a year, after that I was scared of being attacked by them.
Fear is the worse and the most difficult manifestation when an individual’s personal space and safety is deliberately attacked. Basically, living in Delhi made me adapt to a daily intake of catcalls, leering and an occasional groping (in crowded spaces which also became the reason for my avoidance of such places or circumstances). In conclusion, I accepted that Delhi is possibly the worst city for women and became desperate to get out.
This is also why I fell in love with Bombay at the age of 11. It was love at first sight. Bombay lets you breathe. It gives you wings and an inexplicable sense of determination to be something. Even the worse of leers and ogles seem harmless (to me) since it was a good sabbatical from the everyday intrusion (of Delhi).
Then, Bengaluru happened. I ended up pursuing my MSc thesis studies from an institution there. The cultural shock was clear from day 1. Nonetheless, my hopes were high with it being South India. I was stationed in the suburbs of the metropolis that housed most non-English native language (Kannada, Telugu, Tamil) speaking folks. Being the introvert kinds, my only option was to mingle with some friends living far way.
There began my regular commute from Byatarayanapura to somewhere in Whitefield, travel time of about 1.5 hours one side. I changed two buses (sometimes three) to reach my destination. Communication was a challenge and signing was often the only resort. There was a subtle acrimony in every glance and verbal exchange. I resigned to the signs. I was a lone traveler and ended up lost twice or thrice on the route. It became an exhaustive affair. I was mostly tired and overworked.
One particular day of commute brought me to the brink of pure hatred towards Bengaluru. An incident I have never mentioned (to anyone). It was a morning commute towards Byatarayanapura. I remember wearing a long kurta and salwar (I cautiously dressed Indian to fit in the crowd during commutes). With my backpack resting on my legs and sitting on the window side, I feel asleep without realizing when.
Almost drowsy in sleep, I felt an eerie warmth around my left thigh. It didn’t move and gradually, it started getting sweaty. I tried to wiggle it off sheepishly twice but it remained unmoved. I woke up just about 10-15 minutes before my destination. That’s when I saw what this warmth was.
The man sitting beside me had very comfortably slipped his (ugly) hand under my kurta (knee-length Indian top), over the salwar (bottoms). I suddenly felt every drop of blood in my body concentrate on that part of thigh. I felt my voice eating inside down and rut in my spine. I was shrieking in horror, disgust and anger inside but outside I was calm like the sinner who is too ashamed to accept their part in the crime.
As I reached my destination, I simply got up and rushed out. All the eyes in the bus, seemed to pierce and question my sanctity at that instance. I could never gather the courage to see the man. It was as if seeing him would sanction his act and knowing his face would make it more haunting to live with.
I reached the office and immediately rushed in the washroom. I wanted to drown in the commode. I wept silently for a few minutes and fought the entire day in the trauma of this incident.
This episode influenced my perception of Bengaluru in a big way. Besides the other not-so-happy days, this one acted as the last stamp on my decision of staying off Bengaluru.
I could have gone on to study or work in the institution in Bengaluru which would have been a smart decision career-wise. I didn’t.
I haven’t returned to the city ever since. I deny every opportunity of work or leisure in the metropolis.
Writing about it un-anonymously here is to accept that it happened and it was not my fault. I’m a stronger woman today, running a regional chapter for the Hollaback! movement. It has empowered me in ways that I will never be able to put down in words. Videos, stories, social statuses, harassment maps etc are all part of the tools we use to bring the issue to light and are NOT representations of the entirety of gender based violence or sexual harassment.
The fact-of-the matter is that no city is a safe haven for women. So while my apprehensions of being in Bengaluru may be a state of mind but the experience was real and unjustified. Something that shattered my high hopes from the city completely.
PS: We are currently running the biggest international survey on Street Harassment of its kind.