This was written as a participation post for Blank Noise Project http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/. It was extremely hard to write these words which has tormented me for many many years. Finally they are out and the process has been extremely cathartic. Thank you BNP for giving me the courage!
Growing up a girl in Kolkata who studied in a co-educational school and went without chaperon everywhere had its consequences. Eve teasing is a term I learnt pretty early in my life…I had a very attractive elder sister…that helped!
Both I and my sister always dressed conservatively. We were Bengali middle class girls who neither had the guts nor the means to dress otherwise. Yet every now and then some young man would leer, lick his lips obscenely or wink in a suggestive manner…which blissfully didn’t affect me much, thanks to my innocence or naiveté, whatever you wish to call it!
My earliest memories of sexual harassment are honestly quite fuzzy. There’s a cousin (I don’t speak to him anymore) who was, lets say, a bit touchy feely. In an unfortunate event, I was introduced to French kissing by him…thankfully it didn’t go any further! So you see, it all begins at home!!
I’m eleven years old. On the verge of puberty. In a school full of boys with raging hormones! The slightly “developed” girl students are called “Dolly Parton” and the not so developed ones “Manchester”. I was one of the fortunate ones to be somewhere in the middle who didn’t attract much attention. Also being a tomboy and hanging out with the guys helped! Yet one evening on my back home I meet a stranger on the road, who very casually and with extreme nonchalance came up to me and squeezed my budding breasts. Before I could react, he was gone, smiling like a Cheshire cat! I remember coming home and telling my mother, whose first reaction was “Tumi ki korchhiley?” (What were you doing?) As if I was flaunting my assets to a total stranger inviting him to fondle me on the street in full view of at least 100 other people who didn’t even bat an eyelid, didn’t chase him down, didn’t beat him to pulp for molesting a minor!!!! That incident taught me three things: a) never to talk to my mother about something like this, b) walk with your bag clutched in front of you and c) nobody gives a damn!!
I’m about fourteen. I’m going back home from school in the rush hour. The bus is very crowded! A math teacher from school, I’ll call him PM, is also in the bus. We are all jostling for standing place, when PM comes up behind me. The bus is packed like sardines and PM is standing very close to me, so close that I can feel his foul breath on my neck. He slowly inches forward till he’s completely pressed against my back. I feel his hard-on pressing against me. And then he starts rotating his hips, grinding himself against my back, in front of a bus full of people, who were either completely oblivious or utterly disinterested! I’m standing there, rooted to the spot, tears steaming down my cheeks, being used by my math teacher, who could ruin my year if he wanted to be malicious …not even a single person asked me why I was crying!
I’m twenty-two. By this time I’ve got myself a job and spend most of my salary on cab-fares! It was before Durga Puja and my office was very close to a major shopping area. This particular evening I’ve been standing around for almost 45 minutes fruitlessly waiting for a taxi. Finally I give up and take a bus to home. It was as usual very crowded. I barely managed to get past the door, and find myself a spot not wanting to venture inside among throngs of sweaty bodies. The bus hadn’t gone past two stops when I suddenly felt a hot breath on my neck followed by a sharp pain on my shoulder. Someone bit me! Yes, someone bit me!! I know it sounds funny now, but at that point, I felt extremely violated. I yelped in pain, causing a commotion and a man jumped off a running bus and vanished into the crowd. This time around I found a lot of sympathizers who wanted to know the incident in gory details. I was shaking uncontrollably, shocked, in pain and in disbelief! I got off the bus at the next stop and took a cab back home. I bathed at least 5 times that night unable to feel clean, unable to erase the teeth marks of a man who couldn’t resist the “provocation” of my kurta covered shoulder!
1997. I’m in Bangalore. On a Sunday evening I go out with a girlfriend for a movie. It was Ishq starring Aamir Khan and Kajol. I keep cribbing why the Hindi movies play in theaters in the Majestic area. It was crowded and down-market. This particular theater had three screens simultaneously showing different movies. We bump into a male acquaintance; I’ll call him Raj who was there with his girlfriend. We make plans to go out for dinner post movie.
While stepping out of the theater we realize that the other two theaters also have ended the show, so there were at least 1500 people trying to get out of the complex. In retrospect I should have waited till the crowd dispersed. But I didn’t. I was young and reckless and always in a hurry. I stepped into the sea of human bodies and immediately assaulted by groping hands all over my body. I could have gritted my teeth and walked through it, but I didn’t! I reached behind me and caught a particularly persistent hand on my derriere! And then all hell broke loose! The owner of the hand pulled himself away, as a result pulling me down. All of a sudden I was splayed on the ground…feet trampling over me, hands slithering all over like a million snakes…I was kicking and screaming but nobody heard me. Pain was shooting up from everywhere in my body and I could taste the metallic taste of blood in my mouth. With one last surge of strength I started kicking and flailing my arms. I didn’t care who I kicked or where I kicked…survival was more important at that point!
All of sudden a pair of hands gripped my shoulders and pulled me up. Through the haze in my eyes I recognized Raj. He held me close and dragged my injured body out of the throng…arms were still reaching out towards me for one last grope, one last assault to my dignity! My clothes were torn, glasses shattered, arms and face bruised, I was missing a shoe. But the greatest loss and the ugliest bruise was one that couldn’t be measured or seen!
I survived that episode. It took me a while though! For a long time I oscillated between anger, shame, self pity and self deprecation! Lot of people who came to know about the incident offered me support and then there were some who said I was asking for it by going to the movie hall in the Majestic area! The marks on my body healed, but the scars inside remain. Almost 10 years later I still cannot go to a crowded place in India or abroad. I still have vivid nightmares about the incident, as if it happened yesterday.
Raj and I never talked about it again. It was an unspoken pact that we both honored. We have moved on with our lives leaving that nightmarish evening behind. I can’t remember if I ever thanked him, but Raj if you are reading this, please know you are my true knight in shining armor and no word of thanks can ever express my gratitude!
What happened to me happens to women everyday somewhere in the world. I remember sometime back the US media sensationalizing an incident where a girl was molested in public view by revelers in the Central Park. Last yearTamil film actress Jyothika was molested by her fans in Chennai which was caught on camera and was shown over and over again by different news channels. Was anyone caught or punished? None I suppose.
I have heard so many times that women who are targets of sexual crimes are responsible for their fates, because they are either dressed provocatively or behave in a manner to arouse the animal instinct in men. But tell me how provocative can a 11 year old girl in school uniform be to warrant a sexual crime against her?!