That girl on the bus

I looked up from my books only when the librarian began to make shooing noises. About time anyway, I thought. My head was aching, my eyes burning and my body exhausted by all the last minute cramming. Quickly putting my papers together I picked up my denim backpack. At 17, heading off to college, I’d wanted a new backpack, just like I had at the beginning of every school year. It was covered in graffiti; lyrics from songs by Metallica, Sepultura, Anthrax, Iron Maiden and decorated with graveyards, skulls, all drawn by my brother and my friends. So that I didn’t miss them too much, they said.

I’d stayed on in the library after classes and most of my regular companions had left much earlier. For once I would have to take the bus alone and as I walked out I realised with a shock that it was dark. It was early spring and the weather unpredictable. I looked at my navy churidar, thin white kameez and chiffon dupatta; woefully inadequate once the sun set and the chill came in. I loved this particular hand embroidered kameez, more so because Ma had embroidered if for me.

Wrapping the dupatta tightly around me I hurried to the bus stop and caught my regular bus pretty soon. I soon got a seat and settled into a corner, my bag arranged over my chest protectively, to avoid roving hands. I’d been awake all night studying and then up early in the morning for college, very short on sleep. The bus rattled on and I gave in to my fatigue, fading in and out of sleep.

I woke up to find myself in a strange part of town. Obviously I’d slept through my stop, I realised in horror. Getting off at the next bus stop I began to to make inquiries about getting home. This was in the good old days when blue lines and chartered buses ran in equal numbers. The only way to ensure you were getting on to the right bus was by listening carefully to the conductor rattle off the route, none of which sounded like anything on earth unless you paid close attention.

India Gate, I asked him? He nodded. I hopped on. I had very little money on me and I couldn’t afford the indulgence of an auto every time it got late.

By now it was really late and dark and I had no fucking clue as to where I was. My head began to ache more. The bus trundled down unfamiliar roads and I felt the panic rise. This was not the age of cell phones. My parents, far away in a small town, saved every rupee to send me to the best college in the country. My brother would start college next year and money was scarce. We couldn’t afford daily long distance calls and if I got lost, no one would know I was missing for a long, long time. I used to be the praying kind in those days, and so I prayed.

Soon the bus did turn on to a road I was familiar with. Vaguely.

And then I realised my mistake. In my nervousness I had only asked the conductor if it passed India Gate. I hadn’t clarified which end of the huge circle I needed to be. And anyone who has lived in Delhi and is familiar with the area will know what a walk that would mean.

The crowd had thinned out and then before I could even decide what to do, the bus turned off into one of the radials. Collecting my belongings and my wits, I walked up to the conductor and asked him where it was off to. Why, its regular route of course, he said. This is where the depot lay and where it would terminate.

Oh, my face fell. I needed to be on the other side of India Gate. By now it was 9 pm and the streets were deserted. I could get off and walk, I thought. Except that it was cold and dark and my lack of sense of direction was legendary.

Why not wait, said the conductor. ‘We have to sign in at the bus depot and show that we completed our route in time. After that we will drop you home.’

It’s a testament to how young, innocent, tired, desperate and foolish I was, that I agreed nervously. It seemed like a better option to walking back down the lonely road in the dark, not knowing which was the correct radial to take to go back home, encountering all sorts of people on the road.

They stopped at the bus depot and got off to do their official business. I sat on the first seat, a stone statue. I began to count every mistake I’d made since the day began. From getting little sleep, to studying too late in the library, to dropping off because of exhaustion. Yes, victim blaming usually begins at home.

Around me was darkness. A few other buses were parked in the dark. Rough voices shouted out to each other. I held back my terrified tears. The conductor’s head popped in the door and asked, Would I like some tea; it was a cold night.

‘No thank you, I don’t drink tea.’ I really didn’t want to offend him but I wasn’t allowed to drink tea while growing up and hadn’t grown into the habit after leaving home.

Ah, you must be a Christian, he said sagely.

H-h-how did you guess, I managed.

Because Christians don’t let their children get into tea-coffee habits, he pronounced.

And then he walked off and got himself and the driver a cup of tea. While they drank it they chatted with me about what I was studying and where I was from. He told me about his daughter, also doing her BA so that she could better herself. She too often had to travel back alone from college. Considering I was at their mercy to get home, I couldn’t think of any other polite option so I kept up my end of the conversation.

They finished their tea, paid up and then true to their word, drove me not just to the street I lived on but as close to my residence as the bus was allowed.

I got off the bus, my knees weak with relief and waved them goodbye.

Years later a much older girl got on to a bus on a busy Delhi street, at around the same time of night. She was with a companion, yet she got brutally raped and died.

She shouldn’t have been out so late they said. They shouldn’t have got on to a chartered bus they said. They shouldn’t have stayed on the bus when they realised there were no other passengers, they say.

I’ve spent a lot of the last month fighting these battles online. Trying to do everything I can to spread awareness. To stop the victim blaming. Because as a wise woman once said, when you blame the victim, you are defending the rapist.

Have you ever looked at it that way? Every time you think she should have avoided going out late, she should have taken an auto, she should have, she should have, she should have, you’re missing the point. It’s not what she should have. It’s what he SHOULDN’T have.

SHE and WE are just regular women trying to make our way in the world. We’ve all been educated by our parents in the hope that we’ll make something of ourselves. We work the same hours and then carry the same weary bodies back home on the same crowded buses that men do. The only difference is the way in which we hold our bodies. Arms folded against our chests, heads down, bag held defensively.

We all have the same series of events leading up to bad days. Late nights, working too hard, long days, missed buses and exhaustion that leads to us making that one mistake. Getting off at the wrong place, getting on the wrong bus, trusting the wrong people. Sometimes the only difference lies in that one mistake, taking that day from simply bad, to fatal.

The truth is, we can’t just sit home now. We’ve tasted freedom and independence, and we’re hooked. We’ve come too far to turn back now. We can’t live our lives cowering in fear. We cannot be stifled or restricted. We cannot be sheltered any longer. If I must live my life in fear and depend on my husband or brother to take me out, I shouldn’t have wasted my time getting an education. I should have just stayed home and stuck to cooking and cleaning. Why this false sense of equality where education is concerned when we can’t take that education and equality and make something of it? When we’re constantly being chaperoned or else at risk?

I urge you all, don’t stay home in fear. Step out. Fill the streets. Let them know they can’t push us back in. Let them grow used to seeing us out and about. Make it safer for yourself as well as the other girls simply trying to get home. From office, from a club, from hospital, from the airport. We’re living the same lives that men are. We have a right to the same safety they have. They just don’t want to see it yet. Someday they will.

So. How *you* doin’?

2012 flashed by, ending in a lot of soul searching, outrage, and above it all, determination. Determination that we will no longer be cowed down, that this incident will not push us off the streets, that we will work to give our daughters a safer country.

So for 2013, my resolution is not to be a pushover. I try varieties of this resolution every year but it doesn’t work too well. One of the things I’ll grant the OA and I, is that we’re easy going parents where schedules are concerned. I’m strict on manners/behaviour and screen time, but those are the only two battles I fight. The rest I choose to let go.

Which is why when we’d make plans with friends and someone said they couldn’t go out at X time because their kids were busy doing something, I’d shrug and agree to change the time, even if it meant altering a plan I’d made for myself or my kids. So it was my lunch being skipped to suit someone else’s shopping plan. My kids’ naptime missed because another’s kids napped earlier or later and this suited them. Always, always, always us changing, shifting, altering, making way, being fluid.

I didn’t mind really. That’s what friends do. And being flexible and easy going is who we are. People flowing in and out of our house, laughter, chatter, an exchange of ideas, we love it. The kids have no stranger anxiety (unfortunately that is not always a good thing!), they’re curious and they have learnt to count in Spanish, take a map of Australia and put names to faces to places and say a few phrases in a number of languages. Of course they pick it up today and forget it tomorrow but it’s there and for this simple reason I’d not change the way we live. The only other person I know whose life is equally mad, is Aneela. Sometimes I think I am too trusting, but then as a friend said recently, this is a package deal. I am like this only.

Anyhow, the last year or two have given me plenty of time to introspect and I feel I’ve just been too easy going. It makes me an easy person to take advantage of. If a plan is to be made and it inconveniences anyone, that someone is usually me. I began to realise that my life was in a constant state of chaos mainly because I was always changing a plan laid well in advance, simply to suit someone else. Chaos is something I’m used to – but not something I’m willing to take on for those who don’t earn it. Not anymore.

For the last 4 years everyone I am even vaguely acquainted with, knows I have a knee problem. Most people know I moved out of my last home because of the stairs. I ask absolute strangers for advice because I am so desperate to heal faster. Yet, I have people who will not think twice before asking me to do something that requires stair climbing. No, I am not vain enough to imagine that everyone remembers my knee, which is why I’m quick to point out that it still hurts. Even then I have people telling me, eh, suck it up and climb for once. The point is, it’s never once. Today it’s your house, tomorrow it is the next person and day-after it is someone else’s party at a pub on the 4th floor. I have only one right knee and another 30 years to get through on it, even if my estimate is conservative. I don’t understand this sort of lack of consideration. Maybe it is because most people my age do not have this sort of an injury and have no idea how much it affects the quality of my life. I’ve had to move house, quit my job, stop carrying my precious babies, restrict my movement, go through a gazillion tests, do physiotherapy, let go of a number of heavy household chores and much more. This is my life. I live it without complaint because it is far better than many, many others’ and I am well aware of the privileges I have. But if friends won’t accommodate you, who will? If friends won’t say – hey, lets sit on the ground floor even if the AC isn’t working, then who will?

And this is just me. I’ve gone on holidays where the plans to sightsee are entirely suited to someone else’s kids’ schedule and diet. Mine have just gone along, eaten anything and slept anywhere. I say this not to praise them but because it’s not a big deal. We’ve all done it as kids – but parents now are madly anal about their kids’ schedules. What the hell are they doing traveling with them in a group, then? My kids will go to a home and take off their shoes at the door if required because you honor the hosts’ houserules. Of course after 4 hours of walking on the cold floor in only thin socks they both get sore throats and then the cycle begins. To say nothing of wet bathroom floors and mess on the kitchen floor. There are people who won’t bother with me for days on end and then ask me for a favour because I have a large network on FB.

Sometime last year I realised that I couldn’t tell the Brat to be more assertive in his dealings if I didn’t lead by example. And so I began to put my foot down. No, we would not be able to attend if the party was at X time because my kids were going for a playdate and I refused to cancel their plan to suit another. No, we wouldn’t be coming up for a quick drink before the movie because I was not willing to take the steps up and down for a 15 minute chat. If my kids don’t get along well with yours, I will only meet you sans kids. Our friendship will not be affected, but I’m not forcing my children to meet kids they don’t enjoy playing with. And if you have a no-shoes in the house rule, I’m not visiting in winter – my kids’ health comes first. If you insist on giving the kids junk every time they visit and cannot be bothered to make something healthy when you invite them, then they’re not being sent for a play date. No, it won’t kill them to eat Maggi yet again – but would it kill you to cook something decent when you’re inviting? A simple sandwich?

Here I will put in a disclaimer. I am willing to bend for an occasion like a birthday or an anniversary. Other than that I preserve the little strength I have left and don’t do general dinners if they require too much climbing of stairs. On the other hand I am willing to climb 15 flights for a friend who would do the same for me even just to say hi. I have finite time, patience, energy and health and no desire to extend myself for people who are rigid and don’t extend me the same courtesy. When I put in place this rule for myself, I resigned myself to losing a few of my more inflexible friends.

Strangely, all it did was open me up to relationships I didn’t realise were so good and give me a lot more time and energy to spend on the people who appreciate it and return it. I’ve often spoken about entitlement and kids. I seem to have missed that many adults have the same sense of entitlement. They feel entitled to re-organising your day, to expecting you to cancel a prior commitment, to dropping everything and rushing over just because they are free to do something but never returning that informality, to wanting everything done their way, almost like a 4 year old with poor social skills.

But I’m getting there, I’m reaching the point where I am finally learning to say NO. I used to believe that this was a skill you either had or you didn’t. But I seem to have been pushed into using it. I’ve begun to use my voice in the most random places now.

A few days ago we were shopping for utensils and the Brat and Bean were told to sit in a corner (and NOT TALK TO STRANGERS) because I was terrified they’d knock over something breakable. Apparently other parents didn’t seem to have that fear. One couple gave their kids a non-stick pan and egg beater each and sat them down on the floor. The din made me look up. Bang, bang, bang, screeeeech. The sound was ghastly and I lost my patience. Looking up and down the aisles I saw the kids. Of course I didn’t have the courage to take on someone else’s kids so I looked at the OA. He walked up to the kids firmly, bent down to their level and told them nicely, ‘Don’t do that beta. It belongs to the shop and will get spoilt’. One of them stopped and stared. The other defiantly went up a decibel level, bang, bang, bang.

I looked around and caught hold of a uniformed flunkey who was looking at us warily. Go find their parents, I suggested. It seemed like a good idea so he ran with it. The parents who as it turned out were standing a few feet away glared at us when the flunkey pointed at us. I might have melted away if it weren’t for the OA who looked at them and said politely but firmly, ‘Your children are spoiling the utensils. No one’s going to buy a nonstick pan with scratches.’ That’s all. And I nodded. By this time more sales staff walked up and the kids nervously handed back the utensils. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but in a country like ours where people seem to have no civic sense or concern for property other than their own, it seems to be the only option.

A few days later I saw a couple enjoying a meal at a food court while their kid happily yanked Christmas decorations off and smashed them. A listless maid stood by, looking around bored, not stopping him. I had the courage to tell her to stop him, ask the guard standing by to do his job and not let the mall get denuded and finally ask the parents who were sitting there ignoring all this, to keep an eye over and above the maid since she clearly had no idea of what was acceptable public behaviour. I might have come across as a nosy parker but I don’t care. It seems like people just stand by and let things go wrong, be it something as small as spoiling public property or an injustice taking place and an autowala getting beaten up.

Maybe I’m getting old and tired and cranky but I don’t understand why people can’t wait for the people inside a lift to exit before they force their way in. How do they expect the people inside to get out, if they’re standing in the door? I find it offensive to have to push past people and with my new found assertiveness I now stop right in the door, look people in the eye and say firmly, ‘Please let people inside the lift get out; only then will there be place for you to get in.’ One doesn’t have to be rude, one just has to state the obvious. It’s amazing how sheepish people look in the face of common sense.

But it’s been liberating. I feel less of a fraud for telling my son to assert himself now that I am doing it too. I hope he’s absorbing it and will find the strength to do it one day. I like giving of myself to people who make allowances for my eccentricities too. I love sharing my children with those who appreciate them and return their frank affection. I am still friends with everyone else, I’m just more reserved. I don’t know how long this will last, but it feels good right now and I’m in a happy place.

How’s your year going and what did last year give you? What lessons did you learn? What would you like to achieve this year?

A fine line…

You know, this is not about Yo Yo Any Singh. It is about the very same young men who agree a change in attitude is required, refusing to recognise that this too, is bad attitude. Who believe that by putting up a fight against a song we find disrespectful and violent in the extreme we’re denying him his freedom of speech.
Unlike purdah or vegetarianism, rape is one of those few issues on which everyone is in agreement – it is wrong. It is a crime. Why then is a song about it okay? What exactly is the message you send out when you say its not okay to rape but completely okay to sing about it?
Am I saying that men who listen to a song called Main Balatkari Hoon will go out and rape? No, I’m just saying that there is something seriously wrong with a song that glorifies rape and makes it acceptable. And something seriously wrong with dancing to those words mindlessly. We all spent a lot of our youth dancing to absolutely inappropriate music and singing along. But if 15 years later I can step back and take a fresh look at it, I’d just call that growing up and perhaps accepting where I was wrong.
No, don’t compare it to Munni and Fevicol. The slight difference most of you don’t seem to get is *consent*.
No, don’t compare him to Rushdie or Hussain. That would be sacrilege. And I don’t believe either of them promoted violence against any group of people. There are laws against hate speech – and if rape is not an expression of violence, I don’t know what is.
Yes, it would be nice if Bollywood and Ekta Kapoor stopped making regressive content, but that doesn’t mean one can’t object to this too. Still a huge difference between singing about graphic rape and watching a saas and bahu battle it out over a man.
No, I don’t think we’re distracting from the main issue – what is the main issue btw? Only getting justice for the late 23 yr old? Not a safer place for the living 3 and 93 year olds? We will keep fighting for a change in laws, for speedier justice, and yes, for a change in attitude. We will object and fight misogyny at every step.
With some pretensions to creativity, I believe in freedom of expression. But your freedom ends at my nose. And in this case my nose is right here. Where every woman’s nose is.
Is it not telling that there are no women who find this song acceptable? Freedom of expression is not absolute and does not give you the right to abuse someone. It gives you a right to interpret, yes, but there is a fine line after which you might be inciting violence.
Is it also not telling that expression of such violence against women finds acceptability even among some otherwise enlightened, aware, gentle men?
All the laws on earth can be put in place but until you change your attitude, you’re only putting away more people, not preventing it from happening.
And what is it that shapes our attitude? Our attitude is shaped by everything within our culture, be it film, books, music, what we teach our kids, what their schools teach them and what we soak up from people around us.
YOU may not listen to Any old Singh, but then you’re not the ones getting out of pubs and trawling the streets for unsuspecting women either. Neither are you the sort who paid 15k to have him bring in the New Year at an upscale hotel.
Ladies, that should tell you what you need to know.
There is a whole section out there who don’t believe we have a right to be out on the streets.
And then there is the section who believe we have an equal right to be out on the streets but are unwilling to even step into our shoes for a minute and see what it feels like to be at the receiving end of such violence, aggression and hatred.
I’ll end with Aretha:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. … Find out what it means to me.

Yes – what it means to me, not what *you* deem appropriate, but what *I* consider respectful.

Do read this piece on the effects of music on society  and this one of the role of music in society. 

I wish you all a 2013 that is better than 2012. May our daughters inhabit a safer world than the one we live in. May our sons be gentlemen in the true sense of the word.