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Every woman has faced some form of harassment while taking public transport in India. Here is a story about how we’re all in this together – to fight back, and reclaim public spaces.
She was standing in the middle of the train compartment with her handbag clutched tightly in front of her chest to ward off unwanted touches, and a stole covering her neckline and bare arms.
After a 12-hour shift, this one hour commute back home was the most dreadful part of her day. The train stopped and she braced herself for the inappropriate touches, crude whispers, unwanted gropes, and lecherous stares.
As expected, a young man in his late-twenties came and stood close to her, in spite of the compartment being relatively empty. He held on to the overhead rail loosely, his arm swinging with every lunge of the train, dangerously close to her chest. She shifted her bag on the side where he was standing and moved further away. The train stopped again and another horde of people entered. The man used the opportunity to slide closer to her.
She saw, from the corner of her eyes, his gaze moving across her body, staring openly at her waist and her bottom. Disgusted, she looked away. Moments later, she felt something on her bottom. She was horrified when she realized it was the man’s hand moving leisurely along her body, hidden from view by her own stole hanging down her back. She looked up at him, helplessly, urging him to stop. But he paid no heed to her desperate looks.
She saw, from the corner of her eyes, his gaze moving across her body, staring openly at her waist and her bottom. Disgusted, she looked away.
She noticed that he seemed to be educated, from a well to-do family. He was even carrying a laptop but that didn’t change the fact that he was molesting her openly. The man met her pleading gaze with defiance and an unapologetic smirk. She tried to move away but there was no space.
She looked around trying to catch someone’s attention – anyone who might help her, who would protect her, who would teach the man a lesson he should never forget. But everyone was engrossed in their own world.
She did manage to catch another woman’s gaze who was looking at her with horror as well, but when she caught her staring, she just shrugged and looked away; thankful that she had managed to find a seat today. As a result of her silence, the man was getting bolder. She could feel his hand moving up her back and inching towards the sides. She closed her eyes and prayed for patience. She prayed for her stop to come soon so her ordeal would end.
A resounding slap accompanied by thunderous yelling made her open her eyes. She noticed that the man’s hand had rested near her bra strap. She looked from where the sound was coming from.
“Saale! Kahan jaa raha hai? Tune toh chu liya, ab meri baari hai!”
(“You dog! where do you think you are going? You have touched already, now it’s my turn!”)
She saw a young woman – barely in her late teens- was holding a scared man by his collar and was hitting him everywhere uttering the choicest of expletives.
“Baap ka maal hai jahaan chahe chhu liya? Apni Ma-Behan ke saath bhi aise behave karta hai tu? Train mei chalne ki tameez nahi hai, ab kyun muh chupa raha hai?”
(“Am I your father’s property that you can touch me wherever you want? Is this how you treat your mother and sister too? You don’t even know how to behave inside a moving train, why the hell are you hiding your face now?”)
Every word was accompanied by a slap or a punch. Finally, the cowering man sat down in front of her with his hands folded.
“Maaf kar do behenji… aage se kabhi kisi ko haath nahi lagaunga.”
(“Forgive me, sister! I won’t touch anyone ever again,”) he said with tears streaming down his face.
“Chaar thapad kya pare mai behan hogayi teri? Jab mujhe taad raha tha, galat tarah se chhu raha tha tab kya hua tha! Aaj toh main tujhe police ke paas deke rahungi.”
(“Now that you have got four slaps, I have suddenly become your sister? Where did this feeling go when you were staring at me and touching me inappropriately? Today, I will take you to the Police.”)
She kicked him hard in the groin. He doubled over with pain. An elderly man spoke up, trying to pacify the girl’s rage, “Jaane do beta. Maafi toh maang raha hai. Keh raha hai na dobara nahi karega. Kyun police ke chakkar mein padna chahti ho tum.”
(“Leave it, child. He is apologizing and saying he won’t do it again. Why do you want to get into the Police mess?”)
“Uncle ye mera mamla hai, aap beech mein na bole to behatar hoga,” she put her hand up.
(“Uncle, this is my business. It would be better if you did not interfere,”)
“Such a rude girl! did you see the way she was talking? Such gaalis (expletives). No respect for elders, and look what she is wearing, her top is so tight. And who wears shorts in a Metro. No dressing sense. No wonder they get picked on,” muttered two aunties amongst themselves.
“…No respect for elders, and look what she is wearing, her top is so tight. And who wears shorts in a Metro. No dressing sense. No wonder they get picked on”
The girl appeared to have heard the gossip surrounding her. She took a deep breath and said to no one in particular, “I will talk the way I deem fit. I will wear what I want. I don’t need anybody’s permission for that. And you know what the problem with this country is? When you see something wrong happening, you pretend not to notice and when someone shows the courage to do something right, you only discourage. So I don’t need your advice and suggestions. This is my matter and I will handle it according to my sensibilities. You guys go back and hide behind your phone, books, and papers like scared ostriches.”
She looked at the man lying by her feet, “As for you, get ready to spend the night in the lock-up.” She kicked him again.
The woman with a stranger’s hand on her bottom witnessed the episode with admiration and a growing sense of pride. She was shocked to notice that even after witnessing the whole scene the man’s hand was still on her body.
She was instantly filled with rage and all the bottled-up anger, gathered after years of keeping quiet and not saying anything, bubbled up to the fore. She cleared her throat to draw his attention. He looked at her with a lazy smile which angered her even more.
She whispered with as much menace as she could muster, “if you don’t remove your hand from my ass within the next second, then it will be my hand on your face. You don’t want to be next, right?”
She pointed at the cowering man sobbing at the girl’s feet. At first, he thought she was joking. But, when her stare didn’t falter, he realized she was serious. He moved his hand hastily and gulped. The smile wiped from his face, he got down on the next station. She smiled proudly. A sense of relief and gratitude enveloped her. She tried to catch the eye of the brave girl, that stranger, who had unknowingly given her the strength to stand up for herself, but she couldn’t see her.
She turned her head in the opposite direction and saw her predicament being repeated again.
“Maybe she got down,” she thought absent-mindedly. She turned her head in the opposite direction and saw her predicament being repeated again. A woman was standing rather uncomfortably with a bald man standing behind her and swaying with the train’s rhythmic movements. The woman had pure disgust written all over her face.
Suddenly, she looked up and they both stared at each other, as if bound together by an invisible thread. She tried to tell her that she was not alone, that she was not weak, and that she has nothing to be ashamed of, that the first step is always the hardest. She just nodded slightly – the nod of solidarity. The woman seemed to understand the unspoken words, the silent communication.
Without second thoughts, she turned around and pushed the man away, “thoda peeche hoke khade ho, saari train khali padi hai, kahan chipke ja rahe ho!” (“Stand a little away! The whole train is empty, why are you standing so close?”)
The man stared at her stunned and moved away, shamefaced. The woman turned back, looked at her and smiled broadly.
At that moment a connection was made between these three strangers, between three women – a connection of fighting back, of not suffering silently, of speaking up, of solidarity.
This post was first published here.
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