It was karthikai day, the other festival of lights, celebrated in the certain parts of south-India. The house could have been deep-fried in a blob of ghee; that is how sweet it smelled. I was seven or eight and remember heading to the kitchen to stuff myself with the goodies. There were many mamis in the kitchen that day, chattering and being women. No sooner had I bitten into one of the appams that were not yet offered to the Gods, I was scolded, with the latter reason. Someone in the crowd however, had been sweet and foolish to comment thus “never deny children when they ask for food, “she added after a pause “especially boys!” … Outrage may be an understatement for what I felt, hearing that, like I was less of a child because I wasn’t a boy. The rest of the evening is a haze to me, when I demanded an explanation for why being a boy would give me “especial” privilege to eat a jaggery sweet. And like you may have guessed, it didn’t end well, and the mami left in a haste letting my mother know that I was too short-tempered to be a docile woman when I grow up.
Those few words, uttered in all sheer honesty, of how boys and men are treated to feel all-powerful and privileged in many parts of India, left a deep cleft in me. It would surface many times in later years, when I rebelled the same way, every time, to be thwarted down for being short-tempered; when I would be asked to pick up the eaten plates of the men and boys, (well because they were boys and they have no use of their hands, you see!), or asked to clean the tables and help with chores, while the boys could head to play cricket in the sun, or being duly refused to go watch a movie with friends without being accompanied by atleast three adults, or in ripe teens, simply denied to go out by myself, even in broad daylight.
Much of the outright refusal for permission was with “prevention” in mind, I understood eventually. But, ofcourse, it offered little solution, for I remember every incident of being pinched, groped, rubbed and abused in public spaces since I was thirteen; and one right inside the crowded ganapathi temple near the secundarabad railway station while I was with my mother. I was beyond shock and couldn’t garner the courage to tell my mother about it, until a sleepless night later. She refused to believe that anyone could pinch a thirteen year old woman’s bum in god’s shrine and shunned it as something I had imagined. I knew later that she wasn’t telling me what she believed, for after that, I wasn’t to step out the house without being accompanied by a trusted adult for a really long time. And yet incidents had sneaked up, not because I dressed up like I asked for it or decided to wander the streets in the middle of the night out of sheer rebellion. I did none of that and could have even passed off for an ugly teenager wearing a tent for salwar kameez, with thick glasses and thicker metal strapped to my teeth. And so there you have it, against the infamous “blame the victim” attestation; nothing stopped them from scarring me like many victims before and after me. And like most of the victims, I never discussed it with anyone but close girl friends on pajama party nights, when the mood would turn solemn and we would share the ignominy, outrage, helplessness and outcry towards the skewed society.
And then I didn’t clearly understand the impudence of these sick men, I thought it was some price I was paying for being a girl and wanting to have the equal privileges as the other gender. Thank god! That feeling didn’t last. I had grown foolhardy stronger, may be in sheer outrage, after a few years and once managed to throw stones and hurt the whistling –groping-rubbing-romeo on the bicycle. I was with another girl friend on an evening walk and I think I had hurt him enough to bleed. We were two grown women and he was just one sick man. Yet, we had panicked after the momentary act of valor and ran and sped on her two-wheeler to safety of the honking road, lest he returned. I never attempted walking on boat club road, in Chennai again until few years after with my dad. What I should have probably done is to have started to carry a pepper spray, or taken up self-defense classes and asked others to do the same.
And like an unexpected memory, any time I faced or heard of these incidents, the words “especially boys” would reverberate in my mind. So, when the society has the undeniable tendency to make the men of your house feel like kings simply because the women folk are expected to service to their every beck and call, how difficult is it for some of those twisted minds to conclude that women are submissive creatures and whatever I hurl at them, I, the man will never get hurt?
I understand where the “teach the boys” solution is coming from and spreading on all the forums like these. Like Barkha Dutt tweeted –
“ Don’t let the mob win. Don’t tell your daughter she cant go out alone at night. Don’t restrict the clothes she wears. Teach your sons better. (sic) “
But, as much as I believe in the need for attitude change to bringing up your sons and daughters as humans and equals, I agree with what Lavanya Mohan writes here, that it may easily be 20 years before that solution works, if implemented correctly.
And in the meantime, don’t stay in the belief that, parents will wake up and start chastising their sons to become better human beings overnight. Or even if they do, how many grown men and boys would pay heed to that advice? Although stressed over and over, I say it again, start with courage to use the pepper spray, to drill a safety pin into the grappling fingers, throw things at them, hit, kick and call for help; take self-defense classes and encourage your daughters to do the same; there is no shame in being a strong fit woman.
Don’t let some goon decide whether you should take your evening walk or run. Don’t let them bully you into not riding the public transport by yourself. Don’t let some mob scare you into needing a trusted male by your side to feel safe. Don’t at any cost ever let them make you believe that it happened to you because you deserved it.