If you wish to be groped and fondled, get on a bus. It does not matter whether it is a DTC or a Blueline or a BEST - a bus on Indian roads is the surest and easiest way to be leched at, pawed on, felt up or even flashed. Think it can or will never happen to you? Think again. It can and does happen to any and every woman, transcending all boundaries of age or ethnicity or lifestyle or even the much-talked-of 'dress sense'. So you may as well be in jeans-and-tee or a denim micro-mini or black spandex with fishnet stockings as in a sari or a salwar kameez or a hijab and burqa - there's no escaping prying eyes or wandering hands.
I will never till my dying day forget two trips in Delhi's acclaimed Blueline buses. Two different days, two different occasions. A similar experience each time but two strikingly dissimilar reactions.
The first incident happened at nearly 5 pm one sweltering summer evening. I got on to a bus, crowded but the first to come. It was unbelievably hot and I wanted to get home quickly. It was a long journey home. Now I was clad in what is unanimously considered to be 'decent' clothing - a simple churidar-kurta with that 'modest' dupatta draped around my shoulders. What's more, the dress had sleeves. Think I would have been safe from prying eyes, a dowdy demure girl? Like hell I was.
I stood right in the front of the bus at the start of the aisle, with some other girls my age. A few minutes before the second stop since I got on, a guy come up and stood behind me. The bus was packed fit to burst, and I suddenly felt him pressing into me from behind. I felt uncomfortable, and not just because of how stuffy it was inside the bus. However, I told myself the poor fellow probably had no choice, considering we were all stuffed like sardines in a tin. You'll have to believe me when I say that I actually felt he must be fidgeting like I was, and that given a choice he would have maintained a respectable distance. I was about to discover how ridiculously naive I was.
Two stops later, there was more space in the bus. But this guy was either blind to this obvious fact, or his legs had been nailed to the bus floor. He stood exactly as he did three stops and fifteen minutes earlier. What did I do? Nothing. What did I say? Nothing. I simply stood there, without a single expression of discomfort but screaming and howling inside. Each jerk and turn of the bus would literally throw the man on to me. I still stood as if carved out of stone. An eternity of agony later, I got down at my stop.
I wish to this day I’d done or at least said something, to someone if not to him. I did not. Instead, I endured in silence. I wish to this day I'd felt enraged. I did not. Instead, I felt dirty, even ashamed. I went home and threw up. When Mom asked, I said it was the samosa I'd eaten earlier in the day.
If there was one thing I learnt that day, it was this. The next time I encountered anyone who doubted his being a man and tried to reassure himself thus, I had to stand up for myself, because no one else would or even should. And stand up I did.
Three weeks later, I again stood in the bus, at the front of the aisle. Same place, same bus. And suddenly, same situation. This time the creep tried to run his hand up my back. That day I did what I had learnt. I gave it right back to him. I asked him to get away just once, and he leched in a totally sick manner with the oft-heard and dependable, "Arre madam ji, itni bheed hai, kahan khade honge hum?" Then, that touch again - even as he spoke. I turned to face him fully and slapped the living daylights out of him.
Before he could even recover, the three conductors who'd been listening to songs on a mobile phone came and surrounded him. Using the best cuss words I knew (and I know quite a few, mind you), I demanded the creep be deboarded that very instant. Not only did the conductors instantly do exactly as I said, they even got down to give him company and thrashed him nicely. Then they brought him back up into the bus from the back gate this time, and took him to the police station at Pragati Maidan, the next stop.
That day I learnt another lesson. It never is our fault. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We did not ask for it. We do not invite it. Never ever. Yet we take it. Silently.
As far as I believe, people you'd go to expecting support or even empathy would unanimously think (or be kind enough to say it on your face), "Well, you know you are dressed in such a way. What's more, you have breasts and other typically female apparatus. So believe it or not, you asked for it!" So today, such creeps have obviously decided that any woman is an easy picking, so they can easily cop a feel or worse any time of day or night. They see no rhyme or reason to stop, seeing as the makers and implementors of law have seemingly better things to do. The creeps have been doing it for years and nothing earth-shattering has happened to any of them yet. What is there for them to fear?
If we have reached a time when we need to think before stepping out of our homes, or indulging in the simplest of pleasures and innocent pursuits, then we seriously need to stop and take stock. Hell, we need to actually give everyone (including ourselves) a vigorous shake from this deep slumber. The government needs to actually do the job they were meant to in the first place - 'govern' the goddamn place. The law and order machinery needs to do what they are supposed to - make sure there prevails at least some bloody sort of law and order. What kind of a country are they running where women cannot even welcome the New Year without getting groped and stripped by a deranged mob in the process? Remember Gateway of India?
What is it with creeps and this behaviour? Is it their long-repressed sexuality? Is it their suppressed curiosity about the other kind of human? Is it their utter depravity? Is it their unfulfilled experience of sex? Do they not get any or enough? Is that why they decide to let themselves loose on any and every woman out there? Is that really it? What do they wish for? Touch her? Fondle her? Is that it? And now that they’ve done that and got a nice buzz going, what? Pounce on her? Rape her? What?
I seriously doubt such creeps themselves know what they actually set out to achieve. More often than not, these men are cowards. They feel that the crowd gives them a perfect opportunity, and anyway the woman won't protest, her honour and all. They feel their being a man will help them get away with it. They expect no or at the most feeble reaction from the woman they creep up on. And that is exactly why most of the time a shrill yell or a tight slap sets them right.
To my fellow women, I say this. Stand up and fight right back. Scream your lungs out. Make a scene. Slap as hard as you can. Stomp down on to his foot. Push him away hard. Most importantly, look him straight in the eye. Help yourself. No one else will.
Who was it that once said, "Until the day a woman can go for a walk at midnight and return safe, we haven’t got true freedom"? Looks like after 62 years of freedom, we aren’t free yet.