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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Of Sluts and Walks

As is the case with any new happening, a lot is being said about the Slutwalk being organized in Delhi. And as is the fate of any current happening, most of us are using it as another opportunity of wordplay and pun-making. What we are doing, in effect, is trivializing it. I will tell you why that is wrong on so many levels. It isn’t, as most of us think, a day out in the sun for some feisty women who are comfortable with their bodies or feel free to express their sexuality. It stems from something deeper; something far more primal. It stems from a fear women feel on a daily basis; a fear only a prey can feel of its predator. It is a rebellion against that very fear. A lot of men I know are very sensitive and politically correct people. Yet, they at times, unwittingly treat it as casual matter. Even I ignore it and move on, because the prejudice is so instinctive and set so deep that there is way too much effort involved in confronting it, let alone eradicating it. But I believe it’s high time.
Dear people, it hurts when you trivialize things such as these. It hurts deeply. I believe you don’t see the violence that a woman feels in these daily acts of sexual abuse. And when I say sexual abuse, I mean everything from eve teasing, to molestation (verbal and physical) to rape. I don’t think the rape statistics that get flashed into our faces ever so often seem real enough to you all. Well let me make it real for you. Let’s see if it makes any difference.
I studied for five years at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. I was all of sixteen when I left home and came to an alien city. Do you remember being sixteen? Well, you could try. I came from Indore, which was a relatively safer city and I hadn’t faced much sexual abuse; or maybe I was too innocent to notice. My college was spread across three campuses within the city. Two campuses were at ITO, one opposite the Vikas Minar and the other, half a dozen blocks away in front of the Indraprastha Stadium. The road from one block to another went through a by-lane on the side of a flyover. The lane was usually lined with lal-batti cars belonging to the bureaucrats working in the nearby government offices. And these cars were occupied by drivers taking a nap or playing cards through the hot Delhi afternoons. It was one of the afternoons in August of the year 2004. I had joined the institute and was walking alone from one campus to another at about 2.30 in the afternoon. And one of the drivers walked up to me, asking for directions to Laal Quila. I told him I didn’t know. I don’t know when during the course of conversation, he flicked out his penis from his zipper and started massaging it. IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. IN FRONT OF HIS MANY OTHER DRIVER FRIENDS, WHO WATCHED AND LAUGHED. That afternoon, I felt fear and helplessness like I’ve never felt before. And for those of you doubt, I wasn’t wearing anything remotely “provocative”. It was our ragging duration, and we were supposed to wear salwar kameez and chappals and oil our hair till it dripped and tie them in a tight plait. I came back to the room, and broke down. I’ve never been the one to share my problems with anybody, and this is the first time I’m telling anybody at all about that incident. And I’ll tell you how it felt. I felt violated at the very basic level of my existence. It wasn’t as if the man had touched me or hurt me in any physical way. But the fact that he could do it, without any shame or fear and get away with it was what bothered me. He probably went away with the sense of satisfaction at my expense of intimidating a girl, he would’ve even forgotten about it, or done the same thing to the next girl coming down his way, I’d never know. Have you ever been screwed over by your boss at work? Where they abuse their power and take credit for what you’ve done. Obviously you can’t do anything about it. Now take that anger and helplessness, multiply it by a hundred. That was what I felt that day; and almost every other day after that. Ever since that day, I could never move around fearlessly in that city. I lived in mortal fear. That man came SO close to hurting me in one of worst ways humanly possible. THAT was the moment it became real to me. What also became real to me was my acute inability to do anything about it. After that I always moved in packs, carried around a cutter, and was constantly vigilant about my surroundings. Trust me, it’s not a great feeling, living in fear. And every single moment I went around feeling that way, it was by all definitions, exploitation.
In another incident, I was traveling in an auto with two other girls and another guy in an auto. This was at about 9 in the night, not late by many standards. After we crossed the Nizamuddin station two bikes appeared from nowhere and started circling our auto from both sides. Drunken men were riding both bikes and they started making lewd remarks. In spite of ignoring them they didn’t go away and kept coming closer and closer to our auto. One of them lunged and tried to grab one of my friend’s arm through the window. Again, this is at 9 in the night, there was mild traffic and everyone watched and did nothing about it. Our auto driver sped up and those guys tried following but then I they simply got bored and abandoned the chase. NOT AFRAID, NOT GUILTY. BORED. Again I felt that same mixture of helplessness and anger. It is the worst kind of violence, this mental abuse.
Once I was traveling in a bus from college to Vasundhara Enclave in East Delhi. One middle-aged, middle class ‘respectable’ looking man, came stood next to where I was sitting and started rubbing his erect penis through his clothes into my arm. Again, I gave him looks and told him to stand away, but he wouldn’t listen. I saw many people noticing, yet turning their faces away. As if nothing was happening. In fact the conductor gave him a sly smile like a symbolic thumbs up on his conquest. Hence it was futile to create a scene. But I guess I was acting too restless, he went ahead and started doing the same thing to another woman sitting in the seat ahead of me. She didn’t respond at all, or worse still was completely unaware of what was happening to her.
I can’t even begin to count the number of times such incidents have happened to me. I’ve retorted, sworn at, and on two occasions, slapped these men. But never did I ‘get used’ to it. I learnt to ignore it, but it made me feel equally miserable every single time. Now imagine every woman that you’ve ever known; especially the women most special to you, your mother, sister, loved one or best friend. All of this that I described above happens to them, in worse forms, EVERY SINGLE DAY. They obviously don’t tell you, because what can you do about it. You can’t possibly accompany them everywhere they go and keep beating these men up all the time.
So when you make fun of rape, eve teasing or anything along those lines, it hurts us in deep ways. It is an insult to those mortifying memories that we carry around. It’s like making fun of someone’s cancerous tumour. Like one of my favorite men @cgawker put it, “i'm guessing the slutwalk is as much about the right to dress like a slut as the salt march was about the right to eat salt.” When the British were ruling us, the people actually facing true physical exploitation were few. What do you think made so many people leave their comfortable existence and come out in protest? What made them angry enough to leave everything behind and lay down their lives? Well, the sheer fact that there are worse ways of exploitation than getting whiplashes on your back, or being taxed unfairly; the fact that it’s not worth living, if it’s not a life of pride and dignity. The Slutwalk might not be the most articulate way of telling the story that I am trying to tell here. I don’t know if it will be able to achieve its objectives or simply be subject to jokes and criticism. But it will for sure be an outlet of fears and frustrations that women feel every living moment of their lives. Vamos slutwalk, all the power to you. And more.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Powerpoint Girl Saves the Day! (Not entirely unlike the Powerpuff girl)

[Scene: My office, 5:00 PM. Five very high profile people (including the two partners of the firm) frantically trying to get a very important presentation done. Time's running out fast. I sit on my workstation, watching the proceedings out of the corner of my eye. I just don't envy my colleague who's working on it, with all those people breathing down his neck.]

[Fifteen minutes later: The presentation finishes with minutes to spare. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It is quickly transferred to the laptop.]

Boss 1:(to the colleague) "Thank you, . Good job."

[Others wipe their sweat, look throughly relieved.]

Boss 2: "Phew. Now let's go through it one last time."

Colleague: Sure. (Opens the presentation on the laptop.)

[HORROR OF HORRORS! The only thing visible on the screen is a jumble of odd symbols. The presentation was in Hindi and all the fonts went haywire. Panic attack.]

Colleague: Sir, that's not a problem; I just need to install all the fonts on this laptop. Then, it will read just fine.

Boss 1: The clients will also need a copy. The fonts are not installed in their system. What will we do then?

Colleague: (speechless)

Me: (In my famous nervous squeak): Sir, we can embed the fonts.

[Everyone turns around to look at me; puzzled.]

Me (Clearing my throat): Yes sir, there is an option in powerpoint, in which the fonts are saved in the file itself. The file will read on any system irrespective of the fonts installed.

Boss 1: Okay do it then.

Me: (Walk over to the terminal and "do the needful". Trying not shiver.) Sir, done.

[More transfers happen. Files are replaced. I pray desperately that nothing goes wrong. The file opens on the laptop, and Viola! It worked. All the fonts are right there. The presentation is perfect.

Everyone looks with respect at yours truly. There are pats on back and much gratitude is expressed. And I walk back smartly to my work station, head held high.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Heartbeat

(I studied at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. The most beloved memory I have of that place is the one of the dramatics society, Spandan. I wrote this article for a magazine a couple of years back.)

SPANDAN: the word means heartbeat, the constant rhythmic dribble that implies life. The dramatics society of the school of planning and architecture is no different for us. It came up “on a rainy day over a few cups of tea”, an interesting story which I’ll choose to save for another rainy day. When the birds start returning to their nests, bells start ringing in the temples, the sun begins to set, when the day begins to end, a few lost ends start looking for new beginnings.

One production for each semester is the target. Typically the odd semester is an in-house production. A professional director is called in for the even. Every production begins with a few theatrical exercises, games and a lot of enthusiasm. Everyone gets to know everyone else. Once the team is finalized, the hunt for the script begins. We start looking for dialogues for our voice. Once the script is done, the work begins. Character starts taking form. Form gets life. We start alternating between lives. The character then gets a soul and then fights for its space in our mind and body. The script becomes our new dialect. In the process we discover ourselves. After the hectic day at college, the meetings which used to be mad evenings become mad nights. The madness prevails and keeps us sane, it is not just legal here and it is a MUST. So is shouting at the top of your voice. In the process there are reality checks. The enthusiasm overcomes the language barriers. Sheer grit is what it takes to deal with the money matters and the college administration. Late night order-ins make up for the missed meals and sleeping with open eyes in lectures is the solution to the lost sleep. The academics that suffers? Ah! No cure found as yet. Costumes, makeup, lights, sounds, sets, props, brochures and posters are as integral as confusion, frenzy, anticipation, anxiety and triumph. We gain so much more than we can ever give to the noble art of theater. But at the end of the play, everything is so worth it.

The society has produced plays in a wide range of genres in the current past. Experimental, mystery, slapstick, thought provoking and just pure entertaining. We’ve done it all. We recently proudly concluded our 32nd production, “Gadhe ki Baraat”. But the heartbeat doesn’t stop. Within no time we will be ready with a new play, a new meaning, a new beginning, one another evening.

None the Wiser

A few days back, “Wisdom” chose the posterior ends of my jaw to announce its mind-numbingly painful advent. I am approaching the the silver jubilee of life and “quarter-life-crisis” awaits me or so I am informed by one of the many forwarded chain mails. It is also kind enough to inform me in a postscript that I won’t be the only one facing it. So I guess, gone will be the days of flippant buoyancy and my words and actions will be expected to display gravity. I also realized that what I feel about things lately is not sheer instinct. It can be called an opinion by virtue of it being more informed.

My “thoughts” in their infancy were pretty happy all by themselves but as they approached their adolescence they became restless and moody. They even ran out of control and used to cause me to clench my wisdom induced jaws in frustration. In an attempt to tame them I started writing. But as time passed they craved to be more social. They found themselves raring go out there and waltz with the others of their kind. They were hesitant and a trifle shy, but curious all the same. They heard about their glamorous big city cousins and their favorite hangout, THE BLOG. Like spoilt brats, they broke into this war-dance with a chant of blog-us-out blog-us-out. So, here I give in to their relentless cajoling and set the stage for something even I am unsure of. Let us see where it takes me.