Mohalla mobs

Years ago I lived in the now infamous Khirki Extension. I had just begun work, couldn’t afford more and wanted to live in South Delhi. My brother had moved to the US and I was left without a flatmate. After living with a succession of girls who things didn’t work out with, I moved in with a childhood friend. It might have raised a few eyebrows at that time, but our families were comfortable with the arrangement and that is all that mattered to us. His grandmother was my grandmother’s mentor and friend. His mum and mine grew up together. And then, he and his sister and my brother and I. Three generations of friendship.

His mother figured her son would be kept on the straight and narrow now that he had me as his flatmate. I’m known to be quite a prude and very determined. My mother was grateful that I wasn’t a single girl out in Delhi, alone. We got along like a house on fire, had the same friends circle, worked in the same office and had many of the same interests. In fact, he was one of the first to notice the OA’s growing interest in me and teased me mercilessly about him.

The OA would often drop by to visit us, as did our other friends. While there was no loud music or drugs, we did enjoy our little get together. They never ended well, though. We’d walk our guests out, only to find that all their tyres had been deflated. No, they were not parking in anybody else’s spot, but far out.

It’s difficult to explain the concept of Delhi’s many villages to those who haven’t seen them. Khirki was lal dora land. A maze of lanes, squiggly streets, piles of rubble, pink, green, purple houses decorated like confectionery, haphazard parking, houses built cheek by jowl, precluding any trace of privacy, paper thin walls, rooms built like train coaches so that you had to walk through one to get to the other, dingy shafts that hummed with the sound of pigeons cooing and smelled of their shit.

There were empty plots scattered across this mess that most of us used as visitor parking. We’d invariably stand around the car and stare in dismay at the four deflated tyres, while sanctimonious neighbours would stand at their windows, glaring at us, challenging us to take it up with them. There was nothing to be done of course. There was no way to pinpoint the culprit – if there were only one.

If it were too late we’d have the owner of the vehicle stay back at our place, else the boys would chivalrously roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Our landlord was a sweet old grandfatherly gentleman who either assumed we were husband and wife, or didn’t care, because we paid our rent on time, kept the house well and didn’t create a nuisance. He lived on the floor above and would painfully take the stairs, stopping to pant after every second one. Often he’d sit down at my doorstep to catch his breath and if I happened to see him, I’d invite him in. He always refused, but would smile and say – How hard you work, beta. My wife is fast asleep – always is!

I worked with a news channel, so there were shifts. I’d often walk back late at night because the car would drop me at the top of the main road and I’d negotiate the lanes by myself. I look back and wonder how my parents let me do it, but I guess that is what makes me the person I am today.

Khirki was rumoured to be full of ISI agents, plotting, planning, building bombs. We never saw anything to confirm that rumour but it was a running joke that they were too busy plotting about blowing up parliament to bother with us. They’d get their 72 virgins there and weren’t interested in women like us. We were probably haraam!  The streets were full of  young people coming back from work, TV channels, call centre agents. We’d just fall in line with any group headed into the dark lanes and walk home. Oh no, it wasn’t the ISI agents we were bothered by.

It was the local men of the village who were the real problem. Young single boys who thought of us as fair prey, waiting for their mothers to move out of view so that they could pucker up at us. Married men who would step out to pick up groceries and far from their wives’ watchful eyes leer, stare, pass comments. Often the outsiders, the boys who were renting apartments just like us, would defend, support, or simply walk up to the girls and chaperone them to their doorsteps. They were far from home, too. They knew what it was like to be alone. They worked alongside women in their offices and knew that the fact that we were single girls in jeans didn’t mean we were fair game/cheap/anything the local guys imagined.

The months went by and then one night I was fast asleep when I heard a noise at my door. Banging, shouting, abusing. I rushed to the door, to see that my flatmate had already got there. There were a bunch of drunken men outside, screaming abuse. I peeped out of the window and recognised the familiar faces. The guy who lived across the road and often stood at the door scratching his belly over a cup of tea. The creep two floors above him. The bearded guy who always stood at the chai shop down the road and stared. They’d united over a bottle I suppose and demanded that I come out.

I remember the look on my friend’s face as he went out to talk sense into them. I remember them getting violent. I remember rushing out to stand by him. I remember him hurrying back in, because it was the only way to keep me indoors and safe. I remember him barricading the door as best as he could, knowing he was the only buffer between me and those louts.

Those lovely, self respecting middle class men who believed I had the morals of an alley cat because I was sharing a flat with a man I wasn’t married to. Who believed that if I was his wife, I should be home cooking for him, coming out in my nightwear with a dupatta covering my modesty, only to bargain loudly and rudely with the subji wala. That I should  not be working odd hours and wearing sleeveless kurtas. Who were sure this was a den of vice where we solicited men and sold drugs. Who believed that the way to deal with this ‘problem’ was to get drunk and scream filthy abuse at my door.

Their wives stood at their doors and watched openly. Their eyes filled with hatred and distrust of the other. They didn’t like their husbands staring at us girls, and this was one way to get back at us.

The show raged on for more than an hour and we didn’t call the police, because we needed to live there. We couldn’t antagonise the neighbours further unless we had other options. My poor old landlord shuffled down and begged them to leave. He didn’t want to lose a good tenant either. Thankfully they ran out of steam and went home. I sobbed through the night, in terror and shock and anger.

It was the first and last time it happened to me, because I casually let slip in the morning to my maid (who the neighbouring housewives had been persuading to quit my place because it was a den of vice) that I was planning to lodge a complaint with the police and would call in my TV channel to report, if I was harassed again. Maids love to gossip, the message was put across.

When the recent raid on Nigerians and Ugandans made the headlines, I knew that the nosy, moralising residents were at it again – and this isn’t endemic to this area – happens all over the country. Never mind that the cigarette shops sell Madhur Munakka packets for a few rupees, ensuring that most of the much married men roam around in a drug induced haze. Never mind that they get drunk and harass single girls. Oh no… only they are allowed to create a nuisance there. Only they are allowed to set moral standards. Anyone not meeting their rather dubious standards of morality is at the receiving end of such mohalla committees. What next? Set up a khap panchayat under a tree and order the women raped while their men watch. Something like this poor girl who fell in love outside of her caste and was raped by 20 men on the orders of the village elders. Put yourself in her place and ask yourself if you want to be at the receiving end of such mohalla, majority justice.

I find this form of mohalla moral policing, the xenophobia and the misogyny, outrageous – particularly because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’m sorry I supported the new regime, if this is the way things are going to turn out. We wanted a more lawful regime. Not one where women are dragged out of cars at night, not allowed to use the bathroom, not arrested with a warrant, no lady police officer present. How is this any different from what a rather despised party in Maharashtra behaves around Marine Drive and Valentine’s Day?

I leave you with a piece by Aastha Chauhan.  

And one by Kavita Krishnan who I greatly admire.


21 thoughts on “Mohalla mobs

  1. OMG! I am shocked reading about your experience! I have never been to Delhi but never expected it to be so scary…how did you have the guts to continue in that house..i would have just packed my bags the next morning…

    After the Delhi gang-rape and the latest Somnath Bharti incident, I am speechless…my best friend stayed at Delhi for 6 months and was so frustrated that she begged her husband to move back to the US..

      • Tell me about it – A friend and I decided to take off to Rajasthan on a Girls only trip. What we did not know was the amount of eve teasing we were going to be subjected to all along the way. Starting right from the Volvo to Rajasthan from Chandigarh (Ye to I thank the staff of the bus or else God alone knows what would have happened). Anyway there onwards No matter where we were or what we were up to – one thing that was constant was being looked upon as objects – so much so that if one odd fellow did not misbehave with us, or rest his eyes on our breasts – I felt like going up to him and saying thank you. Like he had done us a favor, not realizing the fact that ideally this is how things should be. Everytime any such thing happened, that sleazy dialogue from Jab We Met came ringing back to my ears, akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai. That is the actual mentality of people all around and you know the worst part? That I dont think that they think that there is anything wrong with behaving like this. It’s as if a part and parcel of them being born with a penis. They have grown up watching it all so often that it’s very much a part of their being. They just can’t resist it. 100’s of foreigners were also doing rounds their, nobody uttered a single word to them – they were treated without any subjectivity what so ever – GOD FORBID, two Indian girls walk in, wanting to have some fun – and tables turn faster than you can imagine. I think it becomes somewhat of a challenge to the Indian Man when he sees any independent girl and by harassing her he does a favor to the others of the same category – in a way trying to show her, her place.
        All said and done MM, I feel you were very very brave to have not left that place, as far as I am concerned I don’t think I am ever traveling alone in India. I am sorry to say this, but we are a bunch of primitive primitive people who like it like that and despite all the hullabaloo, I don’t think this deep rooted mentality of belittling women can ever be rooted out. Sometimes I feel sorry that I am born in this part of the world. I saw westerners – so free- so independent – a thousand piercings on one body – a half shaven super cool hair do – the freedom to look nice and not worry about being eve teased- I swear I wanted that for myself – For even after following every rule by the darned Indian rule book –
        1. Like being Fully totally and madly covered (God forbids any skin shows)
        2. I never stepped foot out after dark (lest I provoked the Indian predator roaming about the Indian streets)
        3. I was never alone, not even for a second (because like they say in that commercial – You CANT TAKE your SAFETY FORGRANTED)
        4. I did not smile (even though I wanted to.)
        5. I did not even talk to any stranger (not even an apparent harmless old lady)
        6. I always tagged along with, lurking behind some Big fat Indian Family – so as to be mistaken as a part of them – and give the impression of a male presence around me.
        I did it all and yet I did not enjoy. So I pray with all my heart that in my next birth either India should be a better place (and since that seems like a far cry) I should not take birth here. It is not a place for a free thinking person.

        • Oh you don’t have to be sorry about saying we’re a bunch of primitive folk. We are. We’re constantly going on about our 2000 yer old culture of yoga and ayurveda. Well, we’re as primitive and barbaric now as we were then. Women are still property and racism is as deeply entrenched now as it was then 😦

  2. Oh my goodness!! That must have been a terrifying experience. Thank goodness you were safe…you and your friend both!
    It’s unfortunate isn’t it… how people get judged at the wrong end of the stick… for no fault of theirs… sigh…

  3. Now if you’d known Taekwondo back then, aisi naubat kahaan aati…

    But there’s still hope! Seekh lo, wahan lauto, aur laat maro! Phikar not, hum aate hain na camera ke saath, raid karne.

  4. This isn’t true for khirki alone, I’ve seen similar things happen in Bangalore, and heard of such incidents from friends in Bombay also. I feel the “lovely, self-respecting middle class” is often the one with the most demented views on most things. Your story proves that yet again :-/

    I’ve tried hard to filter out the biased media and propaganda out there, because I wanted a new, lawful, fearless regime too and deep down I think I still see what they’re fighting for. Its hard to push the outright zenophobia aside, and while I am in no way making a stand for moral policing and this kind of lawlessness, I wonder what can be done to make the police more accountable for what they do — which is what I believe is at the heart of this protest.

    It’s a sad sad time for us because it seems our choices are 1) an angry pro-change party that is in such a rush its willing to push us to the brink of a bloody revolution, 2) a bigoted blood-thirsty anti-secular party and 3) a party of looters

    This election is a real toughie. Deep down though, I think that revolution is upon us.

    • Sure – I want the police to be held accountable too. But I feel the party is growing too fast. A lot of difference in ideology even within the party (true of all parties I suppose). Couldn’t they have gone in the morning with an arrest warrant and picked up the women if they had to? It somehow seems unplanned, juvenile..

      • It does. And i think the biggest mistake was rushing in. Which has left so many loopholes to be scrutinised now. Since day 1 iv been silently wishing theyd just slow the fuck down.

  5. One of my good friends also faced a similar situation. She was living in Lajpat Nagar with another friend. One night out of no where a group of men continuously banged on the door of their flat while simultanoeously ringing the door bell. This continued for about 2-3 hours. After some hours, the electricity connection was cut off. I have no idea how they survived the night. This is one of the reasons, I fear living alone in Delhi 😦

    • Law. The law is a springboard – bring in laws and at least let people know that what they’re doing is illegal. Like they did for Sati and dowry. These were part of our culture until they were outlawed. Now people might still do it, but they do so knowing that they might face legal consequences and social censure. It’s a start. And of course education is the one solution to most of our problems.

  6. Politics is not easy, maybe, left alone they would’ve acted against their minister. However, it’s now become a political game, the brinkmanship that causes more harm.
    I’ve lived in many cities in India and USA, I’ve experienced some sort of racism/discrimination in all places,subtle in some and not so subtle in other.
    For Delhi, I hope, the newbies on the block they do well. I’m not too hopeful, however I turn hopeless when I think of the political biggies on the scene!!!

  7. What can one do? The mindset/thinking needs to change. For that to happen, people have to work on it. And most people do that only when they are left behind.. and they are out of options.
    No matter who forms the government, the people in khirki/GZB/Bulandshahar/meerut etc would still behave/react the same way.
    I never liked this guy Kejriwal though.. and I was in minority before and just after the Delhi elections. You see, guys like Somnath can be found anywhere.. there is no dearth of them.. but for Kejriwal to continue to keep him, is disgusting. for

  8. I live in New Zealand and woke up to the ‘khap panchayat verdict’ headlines in the local papers here. Its is beyond embarrassing, makes my blood boil. You can’t help if everyone here thinks that all Indian men are rapists. That’s what they read on a daily basis. Of course they are going to form judgments. Can I blame them?
    Over long skype calls with family, we discussed this filthy verdict from the “so-called” guardians of “culture”. They should really be brought to book, setting a tough precedent. We need laws that people will be scared to flout.

    • The khap needs to be banned like sati and dowry. It’s all very well to say that you can’t stop people from gathering – but the khap needs to know that what they’re doing, is illegal. That their existence as some sort of authority, is criminal.

  9. That’s so, so sad. 😦
    What gives some people the right to decide what is wrong and what is right for others? Who makes them the moral police? What is right and wrong, anyways? It is purely a matter of perspective.

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