Sunday, March 05, 2006

A sickening feeling, and old memories

As I read Vulturo’s post, a bunch of memories that I thought didn’t exist any more came back.

This was about two years ago, when I was traveling around Orissa with my parents. We were at the Lingaraj temple in Bhubhaneshwar, and those of you who have been there know that it can be rather crowded. It certainly was on the day that we were there. There was hardly any space between people jostling to get up front, and to me (back from the free open space in the States) it was positively claustrophobic, to the point that I was almost dizzy. Anyway, in the crowd, I had become temporarily separated from my parents. At some point, as I was trying to look over the heads of those standing ahead of me by standing tip-toe, trying to see what was happening right up front at the shrine, when someone behind me gave me a hard push (unintentionally, perhaps being pushed by the people behind him/her). Anyway, being on my toes resulted in me losing my balance, and I fell forward, and bumped right on to the young lady standing in front of me.

She turned back, and there I was, trying to regain my balance and bearings, and sputtering an apology. Something about being pushed. But she didn’t wait a moment. She had this look of horror and disgust, and immediately shouted “Bas***d, how cheap can you get. That too in a temple. Tumhare ghar me behen beti nahi hai kya?”

At that moment, I felt more miserable that I probably had ever felt in my life. And when I read Saket’s post, that moment's sick feeling, like being punched in my stomach, came right back as I remembered this old incident.

But then, when I read Anne’s post, where she writes as only she can, a whole bunch of other memories came back. It’s different when you’re in an open society like the States, where personal space is plenty, and you’re hardly surprised when you see women jogging out in the street late at night. It’s considered normal. But it is so true that women in Indian cities are harassed, from the moment they step out of the house, until they come back. Anne’s post brought back plenty of other memories too.

I remember once, years ago, when a second cousin visited us in Bangalore, I accompanied her on a bus to some place a few miles away. When she got off, she told me that she rather liked Bangalore buses. Though the bus was very crowded, no one had tried to grope her, and she said it always happened in Bombay (this was a different Bangalore, many years ago). What struck me most then was not the fact that she had an event-free bus ride, but that she (like most young women) feel it’s almost expected to be abused in some little way or the other.

I remembered suddenly an old episode of that thoroughly entertaining TV show, The amazing race, nearly three years old. On that particular episode, the group of travelers had gone to Bombay, that city of dreams. They, like every one else, took the local. When they got off, one of the women in the group was sputtering and angry, and screaming. Yup, you can guess what had happened. She felt abused and hurt, and I can still remember the expression on her horrified face. It wasn’t like she didn’t understand crowds or the unavoidable physical contact on a local train. She was a veteran of rush-hour travel in the New York subway, the London tube, the Tokyo trains, and quite used to being bumped in to. But she had never, every felt abused on a train before this.

I remembered times years ago, when my (now wife) girlfriend, still in India, would stay up late at night, after work, at a cyber-café to chat with me here (this was well before the phone-card boom). As she’d go back to her apartment (just two blocks away) at night, I would sit at my computer, sick with worry, till I got her 1-minute phone-call saying she’d reached home safe.

I remembered once, when a group of us from college (some guys and some girls) were on a bus, going for a movie, and were spread across the bus. A bunch of rowdy guys boarded the bus, leered and hooted at the girls, brushed against them, and got off (while some of us useless guys were blissfully unaware of the commotion, or perhaps we looked the other way, or were just plain doormats). I had this feeling of (impotent) rage, which lingered on for the rest of that day, while the girls just shrugged it off, saying that it happened all the time, and they had to live with it.

I understand Saket’s feelings. I feel just as mortified when, if I’m in a bus, and happen to sit next to a girl, she moves away and presses against the window. Or, if I’m sitting, and the seat next to me is the only other empty seat, a girl would rather stand right ahead of me than sit down. That “sick, contemptuous look”, like I’m some serial rapist isn’t much fun. But, I think I can see where that look comes from.

It’s not right, but the way we, as a society, treat women is far, far worse. And until that fundamental change happens, I think I’ll survive being looked upon like the scum of the earth.

(ps: However, I will, till my death, stand by my right to appreciate any beautiful girl walking by me. No, not ogle, not leer, just look. That’s my (and any other guy’s) birthright. If my wife’s with me, I’ll get rapped on my knuckles, tell her she’s far more beautiful, and still look. Down with all extreme feminism)


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
It is too bad that the lady in the temple misunderstood and reacted so inappropriately to your accident. But there is no reason to feel mortified by it, you didn't know any of these people and your parents never would suspect you of anything.

I think it is fairly natural for a woman to feel a bit uncomfortable when a strange man sit next to her. There really is nothing that can be done about that - you cannot make people like you. It is just an uncomfortable situation. And it is a pity when a woman makes the guy feel even more uncomfortable than he already does, but she might not intend to do that. Anyway, I try to avoid such situations. Another reason I never like public transportation.

Prasanth said...

Well written - especially the last paragraph !!. I agree with Michael on this - Harassment on public transport/public places is a "given" in India and this makes a woman suspicious of everyone.



Anonymous said...

Sunil, I guess women in India are so on their guard bcause thye expect to eb harassed in some way.. it is worse because it does not have to be a stranger, it can be a cousin or an uncle... of course, that is not "eve teasing" but a different story of abuse...
but even with checking out and just looking, where does one draw the line between that and intruding on a woman's personal space....?

Sunil said...

Michael.......i try to avoid such situations too. But i love public transportation. After over 5 years in the states, i still don't own a car, and use what ever public transportation i can find.

Prashant.....yes.....which is why i said i'll live been looked at like a criminal. Till it stops and society changes in India....that'll continue.

Charu....i feel very, very strongly against all forms of abuse, which is why i wrote this post. But you have to draw the line some where. If you're saying a person isn't even allowed to look at another person (leering can be extremely unsettling, but just a look?), how does one even walk on the street? With blinkers on? Or nose pointing to the ground?

Anonymous said...

To prevent abuse on women, all buses in Bangalore (and some in Madras) now have front door earmarked only for women, and the rear one for men. This ensures that even if the bus is crowded, the women crowd are separated from the men crowd.

But this creates another problem: Normally people get in at the rear, move forward and get down at the front. This new system affects this flow. If men move forward enough, they will have trouble getting down as they need to plough through the crowd to get back to the rear door. Similar is the case for women. So people end up crowding around the doors instead of moving inside - making matters worse.

Once I was stuck in the middle of the crowded bus. My stop was approaching. But if I moved towards the rear door (for men), I would miss my stop. The front door was closer to me and so I took that. Needless to say, the womenfolk weren't very happy with me.

froginthewell said...

Sorry for the off-topic comment but I strongly feel that anyone with any concern for future human beings, environment or his/her country should follow what sunil says regarding public transportation.

Soultan of Swing said...

I was amused with the way you ended it. To use a term one of my juniors uses on me very often.."Tu kabhi nahin sudharega!!!". But yes a mild tap on the knuckles from A~ should do the trick!

gawker said...

My feelings exactly. It's evolution. Can't blame an antelope for being afraid of humans can we, if she lives in an environment full of predators?

Sunil said...

Srikanth......yes, i think a lot of us have faced similar bus situations. But i think this constant seggregation of sexes in India has done much too much harm. Vikrum Sequeira had a nice post on this some months back (it's somewhere in his blog).


frog....i'm glad some one else in this world shares my zeal for public transport. Most of my friends make fun of my enthusiasm for it, and all the reasons i list out for why it's good for us.


Gawker......that's an interesting way of putting it. But then, this means that an antelope and a predator can never live peacefully together in any society. But women are (largely) treated fine in the west.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, here are two incidents that happened in my undergrad institution (both after I left the place). One. A professor has the habit of cracking 'jokes' in class to 'lighten' the atmosphere in the class. One female student took offence, and complained to "the authorities", and that professor was removed from that course. The professor claims that his jokes were harmless, and that the student should have talked to him before complaining. I think that this is a delicate issue, and do not know who is right or wrong.

Two. This is a clear-cut case where the culprit is obvious. One professor opened up the email account of a female student X, and sent an email to the students of the department (I believe that X had just graduated) saying that X is trying to 'use' guys to her benefit, and that guys should stay away from her, that she had was mentally unstable, that opening the emails were ok, since emails were property of the institution etc. He also attached some emails from her inbox to 'prove his points'. If such things can happen in the so called elite places, by people who are supposed to be respected, what can one say?

Sunil said...

Vishnu........i've found that most professors in "elite" institutions have awful views on almost everything. And too many are lecherous, or highly sexist. It's depressing.

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