“akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai”
— random official in film Jab We Met
That akeli ladki by virtue of being akeli is not a free, independent woman of the millennium in India. That is the dream. The ground reality is that she is open game. And being street smart means knowing how to avoid getting into situations that will invariably crop up because of such.
Training for all of these situations begins very young. I was 6 playing with other kids in my apartment complex when a stranger asked me to show him where the terrace is. Long story short, I was trapped with him on the terrace with him rubbing his penis with my dress (which thankfully I still had on). I completely froze and the freeze was broken by my Mom calling me home. Only then was I able to scream, cry out making the stranger run away. I went home in tears. There is no identifying the culprit. No one had seen him.
I was 10 when one of the street ruffians tried to pull up my skirt from behind. I knew he worked in one of the neighboring buildings and I officially put in a complaint. The men in the society created a ruckus. He was asked to stop coming to work. Only after the requisite amount of noise was made.
I was 13 when my genitals were grabbed by a passing guy. He grabbed, shoved his finger in through my clothes and moved past in the crowd with a dexterity that can only come from repeated practice.There is no identifying this guy.
I was 15 when I was travelling in the men’s coach with my uncle. In the crowd, a guy decided to press his body to mine and bite my ears. I yelled at him and my uncle and the other men around (who had seen what was happening) pushed the man away from me. My uncle was quiet for a very long time. Eventually, he told me in a very somber tone that the only option was for me to learn how to protect myself.
That no amount of friends, families, relatives, vigilant citizenship can protect me all the time. And no amount toeing the sharif ladki line was going to be enough. The first order of the day is to acknowledge that filth like this exists. The next was to accept that you cannot control this filth, you can only control what you do.
So you learn. To protect yourself.
You learn to recognize the intent of the people around you. On a street chock full of people, you learn to recognize the person who is out of sync with the crowd. 90% of the time, they are there to get that momentary gratification of reminding the woman that she maybe all that, but here on the street she is just breasts and butt. A couple of years traversing alone in the city and you start to see these a mile away. You develop a method to survive.
Step 1 is getting your bag and holding it close to your chest barricaded by both your hands. This will ensure that it won’t be snatched during the harrowing push and pull of trying to get into the train. But even more importantly, it means that your breasts are protected from uncalled for mauling during that moment when you are too focused on getting into the train to keep track of multitude of hands that are trying to touch you inappropriately at any minute.
Step 2 is to make sure that you are somewhere in the middle of the female crowd getting ready to hop on to the train. If you are at the front, there are various hands that are held out from the doors of the train moving onto the platform to get that “lucky touch” of the woman’s skin. If you are the back, this is the moment that loitering public decide to grab your butt. Being in the middle ensures not only that you will get into the train by the sheer momentum of the crowd behind you, but will also avoid the butt-grabbers and “chalte-train-wala grab”.
Once you get into the ladies coach, you realize that half the compartment is unusable because someone decided to shit on that side of the train. It only happens in the ladies compartment. The men would probably riot if it happened in theirs. If you are lucky enough to not have to travel during the rush hour, you are advised to use the second-class coach instead of the first class because there is safety in numbers.
Ensure that you don’t stand too close to the open doors. Especially in the mornings. Helpful in avoiding vivid images of people openly defecating on the unused tracks. Also, these people find it hilariously funny to throw stones at the ladies compartment doors. Or acid.
While walking down the streets, keep your eyes on the phone or on an invisible dot on the horizon so that you do not make eye contact with anyone. The only people trying to force eye contact are usually the ones trying to sell you something or about to make a lewd pass at you. Be constantly hyper aware of all the hands, shoulders, bodies trying to grab you, brush against you as you walk down the street. Constantly turn a deaf year to the catcalls that invariably exist.
Before planning a day out, consider the area of the city you will be visiting. Shorts and a tank top are perfectly acceptable for sharif akeli ladkis south of Bandra. They are hoe clothes north. South of Bandra, you will be accepted and welcomed at establishments as a representative of the new cool hip India we want to believe exists outside of the cool cafes and pubs. Jeans and tank top, and you will be accepted and welcomed for the corporate earned spending power that you have.
Anywhere north or the ‘burbs, unless you are travelling in a car or going to the mall, jeans and a kurti or jeans and loose flowy top are your friend. Shorts make people uncomfortable. Any hint of a cleavage is opening an avalanche of temptation that most people in this area of town cannot handle. You also run the risk of being a bad influence on the kids in this area. This distracts them from their studies and the requisite activities involving grooving to the “My Name is Sheila” and “Chikni Chameli” moves.
Growing up in India means coming to terms with truths like these. This is why there is a universal acknowledgement that the #MeTooIndia movement is a very important moment in our history. If we are not able to turn this movement into a vehicle for a big social change, the only other option is :
Filth exists. You cannot control the filth, you can only control what you do.
What this meant for us in the late 90s and early 2000 was go for gold while learning to live with the constant danger hanging over your head. Eventually, that sword stops being a burden. It is just stays there, a part of you, instilled so deep that it is similar to breathing.
What it also means is agar tum thik hoti to tumhare saath yeh sab hota hi nahi becomes the norm. Unsaid. Unspoken. But very much there. That the burden of what happens to you is on yourself. And not on the perpetrator.
And more than anything, that thought needs to die.
And this is why the next conversation for #MeTooIndia has to be sweeping social changes. An resounding acknowledgement that India needs rigid reeducation in thought, in action and in words in order to remove the filth.
Without that, #MeTooIndia movement will also go the US #MeToo way which died out without any true on the ground changes.