“Jaat kya hai?” sneers my to-be landlady, scratching her bulging stomach that is covered by the most mundane of churidar suits. She meets my jet-lagged eyes with a cloudy, chagrined gaze that blinks rapidly. She pushes away a wisp of dirty white hair from her face as she kicks the door shut – her movements are as graceful as an aged seal trying to navigate its way on particularly rocky terrain.
I do a double take.
I had landed precisely 47 minutes ago in an unfamiliar city for the job of my dreams only to be welcomed by a burning Maruti Omni in the middle of a road and people threatened by the name ‘Salman Rushdie’ on a book that I was carrying.
After a whole minute of staring blankly at her face, trying to comprehend the logic behind that question, I realised that Salman Rushdie wasn’t the trigger – ‘Salman’ was.
Looking back now, I do appreciate the irony. But at the time, I broke into a sweat. Fortunately, her son came to my rescue, “It’s just a book, ma! She is the same caste as you and me, we saw her Aadhaar.”
That incident acted as a harbinger of a series of unfortunate events.
Hailing from a city where I and thousands of others are blessed with the luxury of communal harmony and an unprejudiced existence, the crass, suspicious demeanour was unsettling. Jarring and unacceptable, I would later find out, when I would join my highly unprofessional and unethical workplace – a famous and supposedly illustrious media and entertainment company that was worth crores but ran on young and immensely exploited manpower.
Having lived a solitary life as a woman in my twenties with little or no support from my family, I wore my thick, seasoned skin as a badge of honour. From being subjected to inappropriate questions about my character because I sought accommodation as a bachelor, to an iota of inconveniences that I tackled single-handedly from a young age, I had seen enough of how society treated single, young women. Especially women who could fend for themselves. To top it, I had painstakingly built a life for myself in my hometown – one that was lonely, but devoid of external traumas, one that allowed me to recuperate and heal from a motley box of mental and physical health issues that were a direct result of my environment and genetics.
And this is how my big break turned out to be!
The city, its people, and the volatile workspace incited a colour in me that I was struggling to leave behind. I remember a particularly ugly spat that I had in my so-called ‘hip’ workspace where threats of physical abuse were flung about quite carelessly – I had to reaffirm the fact that this is not how companies functioned, at least not the professional ones.
Everyone kept telling me how kindness is the most potent attribute the people in this city harboured but I would later find out that kindness came with its assorted box of caveats. If there is anything I understand about people who foster deep, lifelong biases, or have questionable moral compasses, it is that they always try to compensate. And compensate they did, in one way or the other, through elaborate, performative actions. Not to generalise a community based on stereotypes, but it is only when I experienced the bias firsthand, is when I realised stereotypes exist for a reason.
This experience has in no way distorted my perception of individuals dwelling in the corners of communities who are indeed kind and accommodating but it did make me fully grasp the concept of collective culpability. And in our case, it’s a whole country! Of course, there is not much that a commoner can do but heaven forbid, we forget.
A series of stolen security deposits, abusive workspace conduct, exchanges with men who wouldn’t leave me alone, women who would talk about kicking me out of the society if I misbehaved, security guards who would reaffirm the women’s statements and would proudly brandish the fact that they were the ones who did the kicking out and a harrowing bout of Covid later, I had enough.
I was prepared for roadblocks, but not for the contempt and disdain channeled my way. Perhaps when I was born, a tiny larva of mishap found its way to my psyche and attached itself there. As a result, I’m pushed from one point in life to another through this invisible force of comically bad events. I call it the ‘Magnet Theory’, wherein I am the magnet for mishaps.
But when I finally moved out of my hometown, it dawned upon me that to be a single woman with no rigid support system meant that minor inconveniences would only compound and aggravate mostly because there are very limited resources, let alone people, to help us through the prejudices lurking in the shadows of everyday life.
A country’s political identity speaks for more than its politics. But what do we do when our country’s political identity takes the form of old landladies who feel threatened by a name on a book, aggressive autowallahs who insist on dropping you off with their friends, in the form of evil workplace ethics, and in the way it treats its women and other minorities?
And so I did. I quit my job, lost a chunk of my hard-earned money, and dashed back to my hometown with a reformed perspective about how I want to live my life.
Now, if I ever find it difficult to sleep at night, I just think of the precedents set by the flag bearers of our country and spend the night pondering about what dystopia would look like once it arrives – or if it already has.
Akankshya Mohanty is a writer-editor by profession who has grown up angry. She enjoys reading, writing and the simple pleasures of life. She hopes to retire to the hills someday.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.