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.
The samosas in our school canteen were legendary. With just the perfect amount of spiced potatoes stuffed within a triangular delight, their aroma wafted even up to our classrooms and made us go weak-kneed with desire. That mysterious condiment added to the shining golden samosas were enough to make me brave the ever present crowd clamoring in front of the stall.
Like any other day, I slid into the group of students holding out their money and asking for the savories – one, two, a dozen. Unconcerned about the throng around me, I made my way forward, and that was when I felt the hand on my rear. Heart hammering, I reasoned to myself that it was only an effect of the rush. But the hand stayed there too long to be unintentional. By the time I steadied myself enough to turn back, the hand was gone, and all I could see were faces, bored and everyday faces, impatiently awaiting their turn.
Trying to squash the tiny bit of horror that threatened to erupt in me, I surged ahead, almost to the counter. And there it was, again, the hand, squirming sickeningly over my breast. Even my usually naïve mind took offense at this violation, and I turned sharply to the right. But again, I did not find out who it was. A painful squeeze, a quick getaway that left my glasses askew, and the hand had vanished. Leaving me with my ears buzzing, a dizziness building up in my head, a strand of disbelief preventing me from keeling over.
I must have reached our classroom, with the tiffin, though I cannot remember. The only thing I can recall is Shakun Didi, the kind older classmate we addressed as ‘sister’, coming up and hugging me. I wonder what betrayed my helplessness to her, how her experienced eyes sought out my pain. She was exceedingly loving to me, pointing out that my glasses had gone awry, and offering to get them fixed. She must have known, must have realized, what was going on in my terrified mind. But she had no words to ask me, and I had no words to tell her. Until now. Until I look back, years and years later, and remember the incident as one that snatched away innocence. I hate it mightily.
The second time it happened, I was barely a teen, still trying way too hard to hold on to the last rungs of childhood. As the unbridled laughter flowed away from me, I desperately clung to it, hoping to imprison it. One such trick was to shroud myself in loose, ill-fitting clothes, so no one would notice my torso which each day grew more like a woman’s. I hoped to somehow conceal myself in androgynous clothes and pretend I had not grown at all.
That was what made me slip into a huge t-shirt dotted with tiny horses. Confident that no one would notice my awkward gait and growing discomfort with my own body, I waddled down the street with ungainly steps. And then, in broad daylight, with perhaps twenty people making their way around us, a person from the opposite direction reached out and groped my breast. He also said something, most likely obscene, but I didn’t stop to work it out. Ears ringing, cheeks burning, heart thudding, I ran all the way home, and never talked to anyone, ever, about another attack on my innocence.
The years after that, I should say, I learnt to take care of myself better. To pay complete attention to the happenings around me, to avoid crowds, to never make eye contact, to steer clear of people coming towards me. But of course it was not enough. Nothing is ever enough, in this society that respects weeping, cowering, frightened women more than happy and outspoken ones. There were always distant uncles who sidled in too close for comfort, strangers who considered it their birthright to use your thighs, vendors and bus helpers brushing past quite unnecessarily. A too-long hug, a hand on the shoulder, a finger on the waist, an elbow sliding down the back – the things that made me cringe are practically endless. Until it became a routine to mechanically avoid these confrontations as much as possible, and be thankful for any day when people did not press in from all directions.
And then, suddenly, a repetition of the past. Me returning home jubilantly after a day out with my sister and her friend. A teen shadowed us to the lane that leads to our home, taunted us when we retaliated, flung out his hand to grope me, and disappeared. His mocking laugh reverberated long after he was gone. My knees refused to hold up my weight, and I slid to the ground. It was drizzling slightly. I can still feel the fragile drops pattering around. My hot tears mingled with the cool water, while I whispered, “Why me? Why did he do that to me?” The two girls embraced me, comforted me, told me it was not my fault. But the hollowness, the blankness inside me refused to go away. Again and again I asked myself whether my figure-hugging top had been too provocative (even though it was too dark to make out), whether I should not have worn my favorite trousers that ended just below the knee.
Because this is what we have been taught, what has been drilled into us ever since we were toddlers – that any violence, any misconduct against us means that we must have done something to start it, flame it, even deserve it. My cousin confided in me how defiled she felt when some person groped her as she neared her office. She wept the whole day, her thoughts reverting back to the fearsome person and not allowing her to work. My friend, lost in her thoughts on her way to college, was rudely disrupted when a man appeared in front and hugged her tight, rubbing against her for a moment before scampering away. “I should have been more vigilant,” she told us later, “I shouldn’t have even walked up that path.” Again this tendency to blame ourselves, to put ourselves at fault, to think of ourselves not as the victim but the victim’s aide.
This guilt, anxiety, dejection, is what is eating away at me and all my sisters. The fear that we will have to see or hear or bear something we absolutely don’t want, but which the world will think we welcomed. Is it a wonder, then, that all of us are so strung up about the time of the day, our curfew, the slit in our dress, the flower in our hair? For if anything were to happen to us, the first one the world will point a finger at is us. “Why did she stay out so late? Who told her to parade around in that halter? She has so many male friends, characterless girls deserve this. She better be careful from now on. It’s not a big deal, everyone has to bear it, there’s no need to overreact.” And in the end, “It was her fault.”
All of the above are sentences we have heard many times over. Sometimes the barbs are pointed at us, sometimes at others. But the basic premise of all the utterances is this: girls should be covered from head to toe, preferably in sack-like, unflattering wear; should not be out after dark (or should not be out at all), should be pious and go quietly about work, and no harm will come to them. Everything wrong happens to the bold, the demanding, the characterless. Lies, and bullshit. The biggest propaganda that we have been forced to swallow.
Because, as I said earlier, no amount of decorum and reserve is going to protect us from this vicious world that pretends to love us upfront and strips us naked as soon as we leave the scene. Barely a year ago, I was walking to my office from the parking lot, a distance of two minutes at the most. My office was smack in the middle of a busy road, two security personnel guarded it all times. So, a person stopping his bike in front of the office was no cause for concern. I strode ahead confidently, and my eyes briefly met the bike rider’s. Goosebumps erupted along my neck. For right before I entered the office, I saw that the man had scrunched his trousers to his thighs, and was calmly, unhurriedly, touching himself as he stared at me.
I ran inside and raced upstairs, not bothering to answer the guards, mouthing an incoherent answer to everyone. Until my younger colleague took me aside, linking my hands in hers, and fished the story out of me. And revealed that she had faced something similar on her way to tuition one foggy morning. But of course, there will be people who will think I must have done something wrong. “You shouldn’t have looked at him,” they will say sagely. And I will want to smack them, hard, and shake them until their teeth rattle, even though I am not at all a violent person. It is just the frustration of having tried hard to lead a safe, secure life for so many years, and never succeeding.
What then, you might ask, is the solution? None. There is no solution at all. Not pepper sprays, not black belts, not tiny knives buried deep within purses. No amount of grit and confidence and willpower is enough to live a happy life, one where I will not constantly have to look behind my shoulders, when my heartbeat does not quicken at the sound of footsteps behind me, when I will not flinch and shy away from a friendly, caring touch.
All the fear instilled in me, in us, that has seeped to my very bones, will perhaps never go away. What I wish would go away is the discomfort in the faces around me when I begin talking of these woes. “But it’s lessening,” they say, “It can’t be so bad.” It is, and it haunts me every single day, this insecurity that has been coaxed and encouraged to sprout and breed in me, in us.