Dated – September, 2013
I grew up in Patna, while the city was going through its Dark Ages. I belong to an extremely devout hard-working family. Ever since I was old enough to comprehend things, I have seen Ma and Baba spend their days and nights getting us the right kind of education. They taught us independence in small ways. A fixed pocket money. Chores at home. Take the bus to school. Cycle our way to tuition. Watch our back. Be strong. Be capable.
I remember walking alone in my colony. I’d glance back every other minute just to be sure no one was following. Being followed was common place; the trick was to know if it was some colony ruffian who can be ignored or someone to really steer clear of. I remember entering an unknown house in my neighborhood, just to be sure that the man who was following would move on and disappear. I remember going for Maths tuition with my friends. We used to sit on the first bench and hear such lewd comments that concentrating on anything used to be tough. We complained. Sir threw them out. We were threatened blatantly right outside the tuition. They warned us that they will get us kidnapped (‘uthwa lenge’ was the parlance). I remember my best friend crying one day as she showed up at my doorstep. Two guys kept following her while she was on a rickshaw; saying things which could unsettle anyone. Some of us carried pocket knives and paper cutters. All this is what I am okay writing about. I am deliberately skipping on the more forgettable moments.
I moved to Pune for engineering in 2001. It was liberating. I could go for walks in the evening. I could sit alone at a place and read. People didn’t understand my need to be alone. Probably, I was trying to reassure myself that this is how it is supposed to be. It is not always unsafe everywhere.
From then till now, it has been more than 10 years and I have stayed in quite a few cities. Traveled like a nomad. Became more confident and at ease as time passed by. But the irony of it all; I still watch over my shoulder every other minute. So strong is my need to be safe, that I take care of friends around me. No one should get too close to them. No one should unnecessarily brush against them. The Patna experience changed me. Changed all of us. We emerged stronger; yet weaker in an odd way. Not that other cities didn’t have their share of such experiences, but with age came an ability to deal with these things better. Being extremely cautious became second nature.
It is not easy being a woman in this country. Imagine spending every moment alone outside with a nagging insecurity. For years. So much so that it becomes a habit. Is that lane too dark? Is that cab guy taking me through the right route? Is it okay to walk past that big group of guys? The questions are many; like a laundry list of checks that we do in our heads while we lead a day to day life.
Read yesterday that the main culprit behind the Delhi rape got off with a 3 year sentence just because he turned 18 a little late. Three years! For wiping out everything for an entire family, that man got three years. I remember the horror of being eve teased. It is not something that newspapers can explain or victims can convey. That one comment. That one brush against you. That fraction of a second. It gets etched in your memory. For a lifetime. You never really get over it. Time heals, but the next time it happens, everything just comes flooding back.
This post is not a generalization for all men out there. I have known and am friends with some of the most wonderful guys one can ever hope to meet. The kind who open doors for you and love you inspite of all things mad about you. I love my country, but this is not a country for women. This is a place where you get stared at. Where in a crowded bus stop, men are capable of undressing you with their eyes. Where the punishment for rape is akin to that of petty theft. Where women are afraid of speaking out because of what society would think.
You might think mine is an extreme story. But it isn’t. It is almost every woman’s story in this country. We try to not let it unsettle us. We choose to retain the good memories. Memories of classes bunked in school. Of holidays with the family. The class picnic where laughter bordered on the insane. Of fights with dada and the immediate patch-ups. Memories of random unexpected acts of kindness. The friends who made me stand taller. We choose to think of the good memories, probably because they are a constant reminder of all that is right with the world. Yet, India is not a country for bringing up daughters without losing sleep over it. It is definitely not a country for women.