Nine years ago, 17-year-old me accompanied my mother to the INA market for her weekly grocery run. It started off as a normal day, as normal as one can feel outdoors during the peak of Delhi’s summer.
After purchasing everything on the list, we were waiting for the items to be packed at a shop. My mother was talking to the shop owner while a younger boy was packing the groceries, standing behind the owner. He must have been in his early 20s.
I noticed the boy staring at me non-stop while packing the groceries. Initially, I did what most Indian women when faced with such situations in public would do – I pretended to not notice. I pretended to not notice a man who was barely three feet away from me, ravaging me with his eyes. I pretended to not understand what was happening, and I tried as hard as I could to not meet his eyes. This uncomfortable exchange transpiring between us without a word being said went on for another few minutes.
The boy had not quit staring at me the entire while. He was simply waiting, waiting for me to just look at him one last time.
I looked at him in the eye and the unsaid communication turned very direct. Without breaking eye contact, he stretched his tongue out, made a V-sign with his index and middle finger.
I was blank for the first ten seconds.
I could not comprehend what was happening. I thought I had avoided anything further by simply ignoring him. Funny, isn’t it? The monster makes his move and you ignore it in order to avoid any further damage. You hope and pray that in your act of silent acceptance and defeat, his humanity buried somewhere deep down inside takes precedence over his true nature. Funny how the human mind rationalises things in the heat of the moment.
Ten seconds pass, and I find my voice. It is shaky but loud. I scream “BC, MC”. It is my instinctive reaction. I don’t think about my surrounding or the fact that my mother was standing next to me. As if on cue, my mother stops midway in her sentence and turns back in shock. The shop owner stares too.
I am staring back. I am staring right into the eyes of the monster. He looks scared now. He looks scared because he knows he has taken it too far and he could get into trouble. My mother is concerned and says: “ What happened? What happened? Are you okay?”
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I turn to her and explain what had been transpiring between the boy and me for the last five minutes. My mother is angry. She insists we take the boy to the police station.
But the owner of the shop starts defending the boy: “Madam, gareeb ladka hai, galti ho gayi maaf kardo. Maaf kardo (Madam, the poor boy made a mistake, please forgive. Forgive him)”
My mother does not budge. She says she will call the police to the store if the boy doesn’t go with them. The boy is scared, he does not look like the monster he did a few minutes ago. He looks human, vulnerable and scared. I drag my mother out of the shop, I just want to go home and forget the incident.
This is the first time anything of this sort has happened with me – and it is not the last.
I am 18. I am in Janakpuri with (let’s call him) Mr A, who works at my dad’s office, to get my driving license made. I am excited and a bit apprehensive about the number of men jam packed in the line, but the excitement of having the license at the end of this ordeal trumps everything.
Mr A. does not leave my side for a minute. One of the last steps is to line up in order to get my picture taken. It is extremely crowded and hot. I tell Mr A. to relax outside and get a cold drink. After all it is just a two-minute line and I will walk out as soon as my picture gets clicked. What can go wrong in two minutes? He leaves.
Barely a minute has passed since he has gone and someone squeezes my butt. I turn around in order to slap the first person I see standing behind me, only to find 200 people queued behind. There is no one to confront or blame. Whoever had done the deed had quietly slipped away in the crowd.
These are “minor incidents”, says a male friend who I share my ordeal to later in the day. “It could have been worse Shrutika, women have it much worse, and you’re privileged. Don’t make a bigger deal out of it than it is.”
I want to scream. I want to scream and hit him and tell him that I haven’t made a big or small deal out of it at all. I want him to try to understand what it is like being a woman in this country. I want to ask him what he would have done had he been in my place?
I don’t say any of these things. I merely give up and say my goodbyes. There is no point. There is no point.
If only I had told my friend about the number of my ‘privileged’ female friends who have faced harassment, be it on public transport or within the confines of the four walls of their house. If only I had told him about the friend of mine who was gang raped and did not pursue any legal action because her ‘educated’ family members feared the social stigma or about the friend who was almost about to be raped by her auto driver when he started driving in the direction opposite to the one she had told him to go in.
Unlike me, she screamed the first time itself. He pretended not to hear, she kept screaming and scratching away at his back. It was a life and death moment as she told me later. He stopped the auto after what seemed like forever only to turn back and tell her she was a randi who needed to get out of the auto immediately.
I wanted to tell him about my other friend, another ‘privileged’ female who had been abused as a child at the hands of her uncle. She buried the abuse and never spoke to her family about it. I wanted to tell him all of this but the sinking realisation that none of my words would resonate with him had crept in and I chose not to fight this battle.
He had his ‘privilege’ and he is entitled to it. I guess.
‘Privilege’ in terms of safety is what was afforded to my male friend, not to me or my other female friends or the countless women all over India who suffer abuse – be it mental or physical – most of which goes unreported.
Recently, the an infamous stalking case was being discussed over dinner at a friend’s house. Just a bunch of ‘privileged’ people trying to make sense of the entire incident. Sounds harmless enough right? It was until a to-be lawyer said the following: “It could be a conspiracy, I mean we don’t know the facts. They obviously knew each other from before, and honestly, I have trouble believing her version on face value. I mean look at her. Had she been good looking it would have made sense but she’s ugly man.”
The last line keeps playing my mind over and over and over again. I still do not say anything. I know privilege only operates out of silence but I do not care anymore. Everyday it is a new tale, another day another rape case, and these are just the ones reported.
The prime minister of our country follows men on Twitter who openly give out rape threats. Why should he unfollow them? Other politicians talk about raping dead women. Leading film stars compare their physical agony while shooting a fight sequence in a film to the agony of that of a rape victim. Who should one fight against? How do these things change? I don’t have answers. I don’t even have questions either.
All I have with me now is a lot of deep-rooted anger at the entire system and the world. And a pepper spray in my bag at all times.
Shrutika Shridhar is a 26-year-old lawyer practicing in New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Marin Barisic/Unsplash