The men in corner offices

I was 22 and he was about 35 when we were introduced. Actually, I had no idea how old he was and only knew he was fairly high up the food chain. He was intelligent, charming, witty, interesting, fun. And then he hit on me.
And I went scuttling back into a corner. I was too young to know how to deal with his advances, I was in a relationship, I was intimidated by his seniority and in an awkward position, and I was not interested in him at all. Period.
And then I felt very guilty about it. About how uncool I was being. About misunderstanding what might have been jokes. But they weren’t. He was hoping I’d respond in kind. I cut off all contact. He got in touch with me again, about 2 years ago and I ignored his message. I was older and now very sure that he crossed a line he shouldn’t have.
He passed away a while back and while everyone was singing paeans, all I felt was resentment for how uncomfortable he made a young girl feel. How he ruined our mentor-mentee relationship, and denied me his friendship and experience, and turned it into something grubby and grimy.
A few days ago, I was working on a project, again, with a man who has been in media for more than 30 years. He was, once again, mentoring us. And there it was again – the inappropriate comment, the whatsapp messages at odd hours, the off colour jokes that I smiled painfully through because hey, I’m an adult woman and it’s okay, right? Because this is media. We’re cool like that. Until I decided it wasn’t cool. The best part is that I was shocked. I’m married, almost bloody 40, and have a soon to be teenage son. Am I still to be fending off advances at this age?! WTF!
I called my partner on the project and told her he was making me uncomfortable, that I was going to ignore his one-on-one whatsapp messages and would henceforth only interact with him when she was around, and in a strictly professional capacity. No jokes, no fun. Naturally, she supported me all the way, even if it meant losing his help on the project.
This is the problem with men in positions of power. They’re men, they’re in positions of power, they misuse them.
And we liberals, we people in media, we’re so forgiving of all their sins. Especially the men in media, who immediately band together in a fraternity. I feel particularly betrayed by them because I expect them, more than others, to understand concepts of consent, patriarchy, abuse of power, and yes, nuance. I don’t expect bullshit from them about not knowing when a feeble no means yes. If you and I are doing BDSM, honey, trust me, we’ll both know. Until then, let’s not be dishonest here.

//Women are unable to call out their harassers in real time for a variety of reasons — key among them the fear of being judged and disbelieved and the fear of losing one’s professional edge. And consent, like choice, is a loaded word in the gender debate, especially when it comes to a man who wields extreme power and a professional woman who is dependent on his approval to survive. Could Monica Lewinsky as a young intern have really said “no” to Bill Clinton? If a twenty something reporter’s much older boss maintains that she has a conflicted crush on him, is the onus on him or her to establish equality? In some cases, the violations are obviously coarse and need no debate. But when liberals become complicit in the conspiracy of silence that shrouds such cases, we only come out looking like weak and hypocritical frauds.//

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The gradations of a no

I’ve always been the irreverent, cheeky parent. My kids and I horse around, wrestle, tickle, have pillow fights. Naturally, for years, I’ve held back and not used my strength.
This evening, however, the Brat and I got into a tickle fight and just like that he caught my wrist, and I knew I couldn’t release it without giving it my all. I realised that I’m no longer holding back, because I’m actually his equal. Actually, strike that – I’m not his equal, I’m weaker. If anything, I could sense him holding back, and gently releasing my wrist so that I didn’t get hurt.
This is how early the male realises that he is physically stronger than the female. This is how much stronger the average male is, compared to the average female. A grown woman like me, who doesn’t exercise, can’t beat a 12 year old boy who does nothing but regular play in school. He’s not a sportsperson, he’s not big built.
We were both laughing hysterically, with the Bean jumping in periodically and getting a poke in on any side, just to keep up the tempo. And I gasped through my laughter, ok, you win, I give up, stop.
This is how early he has learnt that even when you’re playing, even if you gasp it out, a no is a no. Even if I initiated the fight by whacking him on the head with a cushion, stop means stop. Even if he’s stronger and can get away with it, he *must* respect my desire to stop . I don’t know why so many adult males find it so hard to appreciate this simple rule. So Mr Farooqui might be a great artist, but if he can’t understand that even a ‘feeble’ no, is a no, I have no time for him.
For now I’m going to go sob in the corner over this milestone. My baby boy is stronger than me.
Title courtesy my friend Thinking Cramps.

But our parents did it too….

I didn’t share the video of the little girl being beaten, not only because I thought it violated her privacy, but because it upset me so. Years ago I whacked the Brat once and I’ve never been able to forget it, or forgive myself. It was an unacceptable loss of control.
But I’m following the conversation on every FB wall and almost everywhere I see people saying – but we all got whacked and turned out okay. Yes, we did. Because our parents didn’t know better. And maybe this mother didn’t know better either. And maybe we’d have turned out more than okay if we’d not been whacked (btw, I didn’t really get whacked, and the jury is out on whether I turned out okay or not!)
Our parents also let us go off with this driver bhaiyya to buy samosas, sleepover at that cousin’s place, and curl into bed with this uncle and listen to a story, never realising that we were being sexually abused by people we trusted. I have often written about being abused by the errand boy at our place, from the age of 4. He was a young boy himself and probably didn’t realise how much harm he was doing me. It’s why I don’t keep male househelp and won’t allow my kids to go anywhere alone with a driver. We know now that there are sexual predators everywhere, so shouldn’t we try harder? Only yesterday I got into a debate on a whatsapp group where one of the parents was planning a sleepover and had invited the Bean. I am not comfortable with her staying over in homes I don’t know well, with people I don’t know well. It wasn’t right to debate it on the group that the invitation went out on, but the conversation just flowed that way and before I knew it, I was knee deep in that one too. And yes, someone trotted out the good old – but our parents allowed it too.
The fact that we did it, or our parents allowed it, isn’t a good enough reason to do ANYTHING. Even animals can give birth. It takes a lot more conscious thought to be a halfway decent parent, and even then, life mein jitna bhi karo, saala kam pad jaata hai. Every day, ask yourself, can I do this better? Maybe it will contradict the way I parented yesterday, and I might even feel a little stupid – but can I reassess my stand? Should I always fall back on the old – My parents did it, so it much be okay, line? Our children are growing, evolving, and so are we.
So no, it’s not okay to justify such a tiny kid getting beaten up over a few numbers. We know now that corporal punishment does more harm than good. And the fact that it happened to us, sexual as well as physical abuse, is exactly why we need to protect our kids better. Even if from ourselves.
Yes, I’ll get off my soap box now.

Goodbye, Justice Seth

Within a week I’ve felt the loss of two people I loved and admired in very different ways. Vinod Khanna. And Justice Leila Seth. I found it hard to post immediately after each loss because it hit really hard.
I interviewed Justice Seth shortly after Jyoti Singh died, while she was on the Justice Verma committee. After we spoke about the rape and the law for the story, we also chatted about much else that didn’t make it to my piece.
One of the things she said about parenting, is something that ever after, guided me. She spoke about how her son Vikram spent 7 years typing away in a little room above the garage, writing his first book. (Reminder of what goes into a great book for those who think anyone can write one!) And how neighbours and well-wishers wondered rudely and aloud, how they could ‘allow’ their son to fritter his life away so. And would he ever make a decent living as a writer? Tsk tsk. What a waste of a child, coming from two such successful parents.
Her point? That we need to stop projecting our fears on to our kids, along with our aspirations. Even the most evolved parents say very proudly – I told my child, be a sweeper if you want, but be the best bloody sweeper. Err – why? Why best? What is the best?
The one that earns the most? Why not the happiest? (This was in context to her son’s sexuality.)
She went on to say that we also worry needlessly about our children needing to be successful in conventional terms, to maintain the lifestyle we’ve raised them in. We assume that it is a guarantor of happiness to earn more than your parents, and marry traditionally, into the safety of your own community. That it is our own fears that we need to let go of, and trust them if they choose to be unsuccessful but happy sweepers.
As long as you ensure that you equip them to accept the consequences of their choices, whatever those might be. They might never own a four wheeler or a flat in the suburbs (conventional markers of success), but if they’re happy on a cycle meant for two with a partner of their choice, then it’s your own fear and ego that you need to deal with. Not theirs.
I also got her to sign a copy of her book  We, the Children of India, for the kids (you can check out the review on our ever dependable Saffron Tree). If you don’t already own one for your babies, this is a good reminder to pick it up. RIP Justice Leila Seth. A few hours with you shaped me in so many ways. I don’t know if they will make more like you.

Coz you are so very

I just watched Pink and like most others, enjoyed it. But this is not a review. This is just a collection of thoughts. Every few months I end up recalling something from my eventful past – and this is one such.
( SPOILER ALERT)

There’s a scene where one of the girls’ faces is morphed onto that of a sex worker’s (discussion about why that is so chee chee, for another post) and the image passed around her office. That hit pretty close home.

It was the year 2000, when I was home for a break, and my parents casually tossed me an envelope that had been couriered to them. It had black and white printouts of my face, morphed onto a naked body. The body was too, err, well endowed to be mistaken for my 43 kilo self. Nonetheless, it was a horrific sight for any parent to be faced with and once again I am floored by how amazing my parents are, to have dealt with it the way they did. There was no melodrama. They just told me that I had clearly pissed someone off, so to watch out for more serious, physical harm. I assured them that I was unharmed and would stay alert, and the matter ended there.

A few days later, the images got more obscene, more graphic, sometimes my skinny brown face on massive white women’s bodies, emailed to me. I figured it was the same guy/s. I asked a few tech savvy friends to help me (I don’t think there was much in the way of a cyber crime cell in those days) and they traced the emails back to a most insignificant classmate. In fact, when they named him, I had to rack my brains to recall his face.
The story is such a stereotype, it almost writes itself – it is always the quiet insignificant type that burn with this sort of rage, because indifference is so hurtful. And because I chose to be friends with other boys, but not him. He was interested, I wasn’t. In fact I hadn’t even recognised his overtures for what they were and I suppose that is what was most galling. He’d waited four years to serve me his revenge, cold. I had the usual gang of friends offer to beat him up for me, but I’d been away from U.P. long enough to not take up the offer. He got tired of mailing me naked women. I forgot about him.

Today the movie reminded me of those who worry about our images being misused. Mine were misused 16 years ago when it was unheard of and to say I was devastated, would be understating it. I’m pretty much forged by fire now. (How did he find my pictures? I am guessing he got them off Orkut, off a common friend’s album.) I refuse to let the paranoia of pictures being misused, ruin my time and space online. I trust that my kids’ pictures are safe among those I trust enough to add on FB. To me this victim blaming of why-did-you-put-it-up-on-the-internet is no better than those who ask you why you went out late at night, wore a short skirt, or had a few drinks.

This is the internet, it is here to stay as a part of our kids’ lives, and I’m not going to tell my daughter to hide her image on Facebook because someone will photoshop her face on to a duck or a naked body. I’m going to let her know that worse might happen, and the only thing she can do is hold her head high, steel her spine, and say FUCK IT (Ooh, this is a first for me!) . I feel much safer and better for doing so myself. Sticks, stones and morphed images won’t break my bones. And it’s strange to say there is no loss of honour for a woman, in getting raped, while behaving like it is the end of the world if someone photoshops her image. We’re giving our girls contradictory messages. If someone does that, he’s a dick, just like the guy down the road who flashes you. Can’t put life on hold for it, so live it the way you want, fearlessly.

And while the movie ran on, I experienced what is common for most of us women. Manspreading. The guy on my right took over the common arm, and then stuck a leg out in front of my seat so that I was forced to squeeze into the OA. I didn’t realise that I was doing so, because we’re so used to making ourselves shrink and disappear. Move off the sidewalk, wear a veil so that you become faceless.I don’t think the guy meant to harass me – it was just his male sense of entitlement. He didn’t even *think* before spreading out. It didn’t bother him that his elbow was touching mine, his ankle bumping my knee. It was for me to move away.

The OA noticed it, and was about to tell the man to shove off and give me my space, when something snapped and I pushed back – it was my fight. It was a small thing, but a big one for me because I’m always so careful not to give offence – what if I’ve misunderstood? I defiantly crossed an ankle over my knee so that the sole of my shoe was almost at his knee, almost invading his space. He moved away. The OA saw that I was fine, grinned, and got back to the movie.

This is so much more about good manners than anything else. We were raised to be considerate, to not take up more space than we require, to never put our feet up on a table or stick our legs out so that our shoe soles faced anyone. Fighting back requires us to put our manners aside. And this is a hard line to walk. I find it really hard to teach my kids that they needn’t be polite to people who make them uncomfortable, because this is not a lesson that I have internalised yet.

PS: This song played in my head right through. Aerosmith’s Pink

Jump Start 2014 – Day 1

The last few days began on a low note  – open the newspaper to read about governors being transferred,  war against ‘love jihad’ and other such absolutely ridiculously demoralising stuff. The kind that makes you swear off the news and the country.

Which is why I was thrilled to attend Jumpstart 2014. It made me upbeat. It made me happy. It made me hopeful about the state of at least something in this country – in this case, children’s literature.

The theme this year is Let’s Play and boy, did we play! The session was inaugurated by Dr Martin Hanz, Deputy Chief of Mission, the German Embassy, New Delhi.  Split across two days, the first day is called Inspiration and the very inspiring Nury Vittachi gave the keynote address. His sense of humour and comic timing is impeccable and even if you’d never read a book of his, it was easy to see why his books are such a hit. He had the audience in splits and it was the perfect note to set for the day. He made some remarkably funny observations about Disney hating mothers, hence killing them all off – from Cinderella to Finding Nemo.

The first discussion was by the books panel and they spoke about the idea of game or play in children’s books and their experience of playing with books. Nury spoke about what it takes to write a good book for kids. In a culture of storytelling, your story needs to be better than the ones every mother and grandmother are telling. The message of the story, needs to be one that is international. As he pointed out, it’s easy to be a star within your own community and friends – what shows that your idea is valuable, is international acceptance. The stories that make it, are those that carry deeper messages than what is obvious. Even a simple fairytale like Cinderella says, your mama will die one day, but you’ll survive and eventually it will all be okay.

For those who don’t believe that writing for children is a real job, they need only look at the books that have supported the industry and raked in millions – the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games and most recently, The Fault in Our Stars. Currently, children’s books dominate the industry and one would be have to be blind to miss it. What is interesting is how many other industries are depending on them, from film to chart topping music with Frozen and the FIOS.

It is, however, a pity, that none of this work is coming out of Asia – and leaves us a lot of room for growth.

Author and illustrator of children’s books, Sophie Benini Pietromarchi  (Bangalore folk, you’ll regret missing her so check out these dates and venues) is exactly as I’d imagined someone who wrote such books to be. Very much the artist, she’s more at ease demonstrating than speaking and I was fascinated by the work she’d brought along to display. She points out that children learn to play with colour early in life. From mixing different foods on their plates to exploring their surroundings. To write for children, she says, you need to play all your life. Pick up mundane stuff around your house and create a treasure map around it. Her Colour Book gives you a good idea of what she means.

Asha Nehemiah has written thirteen books for children and is much loved by the Brat and the Bean. Perhaps, because of the way she looks at her audience – children can spot the enchanting in the most mundane she says and one is reminded of her book The Mystery of the Silk Umbrella. She works with schools for marginalised children and her word-a-coaster game requires them to make up entire sentences with each successive letter of the alphabet. Like – A Boy Can Dance Everyday For Good Health. And I picked this up just during that short session with her. She says the children can go through the alphabet twice without stopping and I am not surprised. A child’s imagination is boundless. Children’s writers who can capture that are the successful ones.

After the book/authors panel, the pedagogy panel came on to discuss Play in and as Pedagogy. Amukta Mahapatra, Director, SchoolScape, a centre for educators made a very spare presentation – concise, precise and very interesting. There are certain universal tendencies, she said and one of them is that humans have a tendency to explore from the time they are born. Next, they try to create order, or a pattern in their discoveries. Then they use their intelligence and imagination. And finally, they strive for perfection.

Children do all of this in play. She talked of the Victorian attitude we have towards play, where we dismiss it as diminutive, not recognising that it requires rigour, effort and all of a child’s faculties. Instead we patronise it, because children, like women, have traditionally been dismissed and oppressed. One might not agree entirely with that thought process but it’s food for thought.

She pointed out that our homes and schools no longer have space, nor give children the opportunity to play as much as they need. Very well said. Homes are smaller, schools have no space for outdoor activities and they’re entirely landscaped to prevent accidents during school hours and avoid rousing parental ire. Her presentation was over almost too soon and I realised she’d given me more to think about in those 7 odd minutes than anyone has in a long time.

Years ago I had interviewed EK Shaji and fallen in love with his methods. I picked up all the Jodo Gyan products that I could find at the Jodo Gyan resource centre and the Brat and the Bean learned maths the way he had demonstrated to me. I shop there every couple of months and give the maths aids as birthday gifts.

So it was added joy to see him at work again – he demonstrated a few simple ways to teach children maths based on the montessori method of going from the known to the unknown. What is missing in maths, he said, is purpose. So simple! For instance, why should a child care what 4 + 3 is? How does it affect his life? On the other hand, if you connect in an emotional, physical and intellectual manner, ask him guess how many pears in a bag, show him another, let him count the pears, ask him to divide it among his friends and now you’re connecting. After all, what is so romantic about counting rajma, he asked!

The last on this panel was Sujata Noronha of the Bookworm Trust and Library, Goa. She confessed upfront that she isn’t popular with conventional schools because her classes are noisy! She works with the underserved in the area and helps them connect with the written word in ways that excite them. A story about journeys might involve them forming a train, bumping into other carriages, whistling, hooting and running around. A good children’s book is deceptively light on the surface, but has a strong foundation in the ways that matter, she said. Books that deal with death, moving home, the loss of friendship, legitimise experiences. And then she quoted Cat Stevens and asks – Where do the children play? And no, this isn’t the physical space alone. She asked if we leave them enough space in their mind to play with.  She and Shaji made very similar points about the lack of contemporary stories and material that a child can relate to. Black haired dolls, dark skinned characters in the illustrations.

The discussion was thrown open to the audience and was extremely lively. Some of the points that came up were – The stories you tell needn’t necessarily be your own, you need to learn to harvest them. And it’s not always school that can engage your child in play – flip the question around  – how much time are you spending with your child, just playing? Does the current schooling system give children time to play? While telling a child a story, do you impose your morals on them? Do you suggest that this character was ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ for making the choice he did?

Post lunch, Mr Appadurai of Hewlett Packard spoke briefly about the innovations in print and the advantage that digital printing gives you, of personalising content for your reader. Of printing it on synthetic paper so that a child can take it to the bath, to the pool, drag a favourite story around the world without fear of ruining the book.

Author, game designer and screenwriter Anshumani Ruddra then came on, divided the audience into two and had a bunch of until then rather well behaved adults, screaming and clapping as he divided the room in half and turned us against each other as the Knights of Order and the Crusaders of Chaos. And this, he pointed out triumphantly is how a game builds a story and allows you to be a part of the decision making. Much like the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys we grew up with that allowed us multiple choices and endings.

Books are 600 year old technology, he said. Whereas games are as old as time and were played across every society. They were about rules, consequences and interesting choices. Which is precisely what a book requires too. Put it like that and even a purist like me finds it hard to object! While in a book the writer makes the choice for you, in games, you make your own choices. And a game offers you hours and hours of content. It’s up to a parent to decide how much time a child should spend gaming, just as its unhealthy for a child to read all the time. This one hit rather close home. The Brat is a voracious reader and I find myself loathe to push him to play outdoor games. Because you know.. reading is good! But then I remind myself that I’m the adult here, that giving him some balance is my job and so no matter how overjoyed I am that he reads, I shove him out for some fresh air.

Anshumani addressed that fear that many have and said it out loud – Books will not disappear, it is just the channels of distribution that will change. A book may not work in the same format on a screen and that is perfectly fine. It will be reworked by experts to fit the medium it is shifting to.

The final session for the day was Transmedia Storytelling: From Life to Books to Movies to Games to Apps. This began with Padmini Ray Murray, Digital Humanities expert spoke on transmedia tales and how to tell them. I took a special pride in this because 15 years ago we shared a college bench and here she was, giving us a talk that I had paid to attend! She broke down story telling into its main features – form, content, story and character, and the importance of each one in making a successful story. She also spoke of this being the golden age of writing. Of instant feedback (for instance, I write a bad post, you readers tell me so within minutes!) and so on. Of prosumers – consumers who create content around their favourite games and books, fan fiction on blogs and forums, getting instant feedback, and re-writing to suit their audience.

Publishers are the gatekeepers she said, but their role is being eroded. And as content moves from one form to the other, as your book becomes a film, it is only wise to work with those who are converting it to ensure that one form does not cannibalise another. So that the books continue to sell after the film is released. That the game does not kill interest in the film. The one sound bit of advice she offers finally is that as authors, just writing a book is no longer good enough. If you want to see it through all its avatars, you need to come to your publisher with a sound transmedia strategy.

Ralph Mollers, owner and publisher of Terzio Verlag, Munich spoke next. Terzio publishes children’s software, music and books and he spoke about his initial experiments with CD Roms and the beginning of the interactive experience.

The session was rounded up with Jiggy George. No medium is bad, Jiggy pointed out, while I argued that in my head – they’re all just different ways to engage. Be it the Eric Carle museum that gets you to engage more deeply with the Hungry Caterpillar or the fact that the Cat in the Hat is a book, a movie and an app. Digital media should be seen as an extension of the form of storytelling, not a substitute, or competition. Don’t try and do the domain expert’s job, he warns, do your bit and let it go. If you’ve written a game and want to see it converted to a book, give it to a writer to do, as in the case of the Angry Birds. A gamer knows what a game requires to be a hit and a cartoonist knows his turf best. As a creator, give your blessing and lay off. Every product should stand on its own merit, so an Angry Bird app will need to fulfill different criterion.

The day ended sooner than I wanted it to, leaving me with a hundred thoughts buzzing around in my head. Some I agreed with entirely, some I felt conflicted over and some absolutely new and needing a lot more time to mull over. But I have another day at Jump Start to go and I’ll be sure to come back and share it with you.

 

 

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.