Posted by Amala Poli
I recently returned from Europe, and like many first-time Indians abroad, I had painted a rustic, vintage, and sepia-coloured idea of faraway home in my head during those months, marvelling at how much I missed the chaos and the noise, eating chaat on the roads, the mad hubbub of too many people, and old Hindi music playing in my head as I thought of returning to India with much anticipation.
What I had forgotten, however, was the existence of inherent fear while walking on the streets or taking public transport. The degree to which violence and harassment is normalised in our society is such that you get glowering looks for yelling at an abuser in a public bus or even reprimanded by people who tell you that you should try to speak in the local dialect. It makes one wonder where and how solidarity lies in the public consciousness and why people who get touched by strangers inappropriately, or yelled at, followed, and so on do not receive the immediate outrage and support that they require.
What I had forgotten was the existence of inherent fear while walking on the streets or taking public transport.
Isn’t it fair to assume that most women travelling to work or colleges aren’t trying to start a fight for no reason in a public space? Isn’t it also harder to react immediately to someone’s touch or groping hands, to not be numbed by the shock, and deeply damaging if the reaction is met with indifference or irritation? Each instance of complicity as bystanders must be questioned. It is time we ask ourselves if we are so numbed by violence around us that we would rather people shut up and bear abuse, just so we can continue to listen to music with our earphones on, or read our books, or gaze out of the window.
We must have a way of determining whether accusations are true, certainly. But it is also slightly bizarre to imagine that people set out for their day with a plan to humiliate strangers by accusing them of harassment publicly. In fact, it is in public spaces that one is most vulnerable and dependent on the bystanders, because without some sort of collective action, it is impossible to report a case or stop an abuser from getting away. The least we can do is listen, take a minute to see if the accusation holds up, rather than merely stealing glances at the person who is seeking help.
I was walking through a southern university town which is one of the safest places in this city, and a man started hurling abuses at me and my friend as we walked down a road, unsuspecting of the wrath we were inducing in this stranger by virtue of being women. I laughed it away at first, telling my friend to chill because she seemed taken aback at the viciousness of the language. After about an hour, when we had been to a couple of places and were back in the vicinity, the man jumped out of nowhere and started screaming curse words and coming towards me with a feral gaze.
The gist of it was a demand that I should return to Kerala, which he had rightly assumed to be the place where ‘I was from.’ Shocked and quite afraid, I picked up a rock, just to slow down his progress towards me and said I would throw it at him, in Hindi. My friend said, “don’t, lets call the cops”. The man tried to kick me, and missed, and I looked in horror at all the men standing around, just watching this happen and not stepping forward to help us or hold him back.
Wasting the next quarter of an hour searching for my enraged offender with the policeman at the traffic junction to whom we had been redirected by the local police station, we talked to several people who said they had seen him pass (also seen the whole thing and did nothing to stop him, obviously). Finally I said to two men who I was certain were witnesses to the whole incident, “We need to leave, but if you see him again, will you please just inform this policeman?”. The men responded, “That man is just crazy, seeing women gets him really crazy. He walks around here every twenty minutes, and he has over 150 police cases on his head.”
people who get touched by strangers inappropriately, or yelled at, followed, and so on do not receive the immediate outrage and support that they require.
Maybe its time we stop telling the women around us that they should tolerate being hit, lunged at, abused, or any other form of male violence because someone’s ‘crazy’. Not only is it a shameful way of belittling mental illness and collectively refusing to take any responsibility, it is also a frivolously casual response. Most urgently, let’s not propagate the rhetoric of ‘there are far worse things happening than this’. Its a way of telling someone to chin up when their personal space has been violated, and is an extremely offensive and inconsiderate response. How many such responses are coming from fatigue at being involved directly in policy changes to tackle the bigger problem of sexual violence in India? Or is it just casual laziness masked under some higher consciousness of the true nature of evil?
Of course it would be ideal if everybody was trained in the martial arts and always prepared for such confrontations, but more immediately and pragmatically, the onus of response does lie on the bystander: on you and me.
In the meantime, those of us who walk on these streets and take public transport regularly, we can count on one constant presence to keep us armed: fear.
Also read: How Is Sexual Violence Normalised In India?
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons