Friday 29 August 2014

Dead End Street

Two minor girls in Rohtak (Haryana), Madhu and Nikita, who ended their lives on August 25 after being stalked wrote in their suicide notes 'of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging'. 'Everyday a new man would come and chase us. They would pass lewd remarks and offer us phone numbers. The people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong. You know how bad our colony is . . . how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us . . . even though we are innocent.'

As a school student in Ranchi, Jharkhand, a boy in my tuition class would at times ask me to lend a pen and on days would trail behind my bicycle on the way back home. Once I bumped into him at a wedding party in the locality and he asked me to tell the time by my watch. I later thought of how instead of just sullenly giving him the answer I should have said something that would have thrown him off balance, like interrogating him about his own watch that I saw gleaming on his wrist. But then he could have said it wasn't working; I won't have gone close to him and peered. Or he could have used the pretext of tallying the time. No, no, this won't do, I thought, I must come up with something better in case the incident repeated itself. I didn't really get many of these chances because the boy, a student of another school, stopped coming for the classes at some point and that was the end of it.

Today when sharp repartee rolls off my tongue in the vicinity of any unwanted presence, my friends laugh saying that it seems I have spent a good deal of time creating them. In a way it's true. I have had years and years to think. When people say girls mature faster I can't see it as a compliment because they shouldn't mature faster; they are forced to do so by other people and circumstances. When I was first harassed on the road, I couldn't give it back with the rage I feel today because I wasn't ready. More than anger I remember feeling the shock. I and others around saw me as a schoolgoing child and I couldn't see why a middle aged man would choose to fling upon a schoolgirl his slimy air kisses. A persistence of such occurrences forced me to think and act like a grown woman when still a child. I would have preferred not to but the choice that should have been mine to make had already been made by others, random strangers who had no claims upon my life. The self-training imparted thereafter was in the line of making myself more formidable and better prepared to answer back anyone who targeted me assuming I won't, a characteristic that stayed with me in the years to come and still often gets misconstrued as arrogance by many.

But never did it strike me to think of the police; I never knew that these acts of harassment, vile as they seemed to me, would be seen by the law as criminal offences. And while at that time I hadn't been given a list of things I must do to preserve my family's 'honour', there had also been no open talk of such things at home. We didn't learn about it in school or peer groups either. I sometimes heard my mother talk of how she handled her college students who cheated in exams or threatened to use their 'connections' if they were complained against. So there was a general sense that it was good not to take any kind of bullying lying down. But nothing was said around sexual harassment, stalking, or any other form of abuse. I lived with my grandparents and would have felt mortified at the thought of making them confront something against which they might have felt duty-bound to act but wouldn't have known how to. They would have probably asked me to stop cycling to tuition, as they later did when I once fell off and hurt myself.

When I joined college in Delhi University, the STD booth at the entrance to my hostel had numbers of the police and women's helpline. Teachers and seniors talked to us about it; leaflets were given out. I lodged my first complaint in the coming months itself and have registered around nine others since, along with having 'handled' other cases on my own. Except a couple of times, it was not like the police were encouraging. Some even tried to dissuade. But I knew the law and the course of action they were supposed to take and they knew I knew. So they were compelled to oblige despite themselves. Sexual harassment and police inaction were openly talked about in the city; protest marches were taken out, and the authorities may have felt that not all of us would be prevented by a skewed notion of shame from talking about it if they did not even perform the basic act of registering a complaint. Once an officer nudged another and asked him not to delay writing my complaint any longer because I may just get together with my fellow students and sit on a dharna.

My own experiences have motivated me to hand out a lot of unsolicited advice to my younger cousins about harassment and how to tackle it. I held on to a small patch of satisfaction and relief when my teenage cousin in Ranchi called me up to tell me how she shut up a guy trying to harass her and her friends in a park. She had called not to boast but to get reassured that she had done the right thing, because all her friends were scared and had warned her against it. As I told her about the varying ways of dealing with such situations in crowded and abandoned places, I couldn't help worrying about her, wondering if my tips would be enough for her to deal with the specifics of each situation, whether she would find herself finding a lonely battle at many other times. I am proud of the girl she is growing into and her doubts have been replaced with immense confidence. But I wish the familial and legal set up were more open minded, one that instilled more confidence in each girl about herself and the unconditional support she would receive if she were harassed.

I don't want to change the person I have become according to places, people and situations. So when I go back home today I tackle my harassers the same way I do in Delhi. But if some situation requires further intervention, I do not know how the police would be there or how successful my relatives would be in overcoming their own conditioning and awkwardness around the issue and at least not impeding me in my efforts.

Madhu and Nikita were intelligent girls. They did well in school and had been relying on their academic performance to take them abroad. They had been able to find out the name of one of the stalkers and had seen the number on the registration plate on his bike. They had also told their family about it, who tried to nab the culprits but could not. The family did not go to the police to report the stalking. We do not know why, and we do not know what conversation Madhu and Nikita had about it with their families. We do not know about their relationship dynamics with the family, the trust they shared, or where and how they learnt that the doers of wrong could roam about uninhibited but the done-upons must pay, else the honour of their family was in question. They had been planning to go to the United States. Probably they expected no better of this country.

First published in Quartz, 28 August 2014.


probe said...

I've read this post many, many times and ended up in deep emotional turmoil. Maybe someday, we'll talk this through.

ankita said...

Will wait.

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