I was wearing a pink bra under a white shirt, it wasn’t conspicuous, but pink has a way of showing under white. I didn’t think about it at first, and then I did — out of habit. I ran a few calculations in my head: It is raining, my shirt is white, the material is thin, pink is an ‘attractive colour’, there is no time to wear a different coloured bra, my camisole is in the wash, I should cover myself with a scarf, Oh! It’s too sheer. I should just wear a blue cardigan over it. The weather is too warm, but at least my personhood will be warmly enveloped, protected from questioning eyes.
Watching Shoojit Sircar’s Pink was not easy. Within minutes, a cloud of anger, frustration and helplessness sat over me and stirred my cauldron of experiences and memories. Minal Arora, Falak Ali and Andrea Tariang are all of us women negotiating the terms of our sexual availability to the world at large. It was both cathartic and disturbing to watch various vignettes of my own life experience unfold on the big screen with such accuracy.
When I was seven years old and walking to art class, a truck driver looked at me, made a hole out of his palm and pushed his other index finger into it, repeatedly and then proceeded to laugh. I confided this to my sister, who asked me to keep walking and told me to ignore such men.
I shouldn’t have looked at him in the first place.
At 13, 16, 17, 19, 20 and 21, I saw male genitalia being flashed in front of my eyes. I’ve seen a variety of penii, none of which had anything to do with my consent. I was always with a small group of girlfriends during such incidents and they all screamed, “Yuck!” and followed it up with, “Arey! Just ignore it yaar! Chee.”
We should not have been giggling with such careless abandon.
I was groped in a movie theatre while I was with my family in Warangal. I was only 13, I still remember the colour and print of the clothes I was wearing — yellow with tiny blue dots, a salwar kameez. I also remember his face, his pudgy hands that were clasping my waist, with a stubborn resolve.
Our bodies are a burden, we should know that.
In 2007, I took an overnight bus to Visakhapatnam from Chennai to visit my friend. My worried father told the man seated next to me, an older ‘gentleman’, ‘decent looking’ who was in Ayyapa attire that I was travelling alone and it would be appreciated if he could watch over me in case there was an issue. In the middle of the night, however, I woke up to his hands groping me. I grabbed his hands and slapped him. I beat him and I screamed. In a fit of rage, I hit his head to the window and I plucked the Ayyapa maala (necklace) and flung it. He cried. He said he was sorry. I walked to the front of the bus and demanded for a different seat. But there was no sleep to be had, I spent the next 5 hours wondering if I had given him a signal to misbehave. I went over every minute detail of our interaction — did I laugh too much? Did I talk to him unnecessarily?
In 2009, I took an overnight bus from Chennai to Bengaluru with my cousin. This time, the man, who sat behind me, fingered my ears. I woke up and looked back and quickly hit his hands, but he giggled. My cousin was asleep, I was exhausted, mostly shocked so this time I kept it to myself. I texted an old friend who gave me some solace and company for the rest of the night.
In 2013, I had wrapped up my life in Hyderabad and took a bus journey to Chennai. A man named Harish Naik groped me while I was asleep. I still remember his cold big hands and his face. I screamed. I slapped him. I beat him up. I berated him. I did everything I felt like doing in that moment. And somehow, I still felt like I was on the losing side. As a journalist at the time, I had media support — a privilege, and help from my father’s friend, a well known lawyer, and accompanying me was another working journalist and yet, I cannot forget the disdain and suspicion in the police officer’s voice who took down my complaint.
You do not know the man?
Did you speak to him?
Yes. Briefly, but I also responded to the gentleman on the other berth.
Acha. Hmmm. Why did you speak to him?
I was being polite.
Was this after you retired for bed? Or before?
I was on the losing side.
Even within my circle of feminist friends, these stories are inevitably met with varying versions of:
“Oh yes! This is ridiculous but why do you take buses? I never take UberPool. I only take the ladies compartment. I just don’t want to deal with this nonsense. I always have my resting b**** face on, it’s a good deterrent. Look stern like you mean business. Ignore these ba******s.”
After the 2007 and 2013 incidents, my father told me a number of times to stop taking the bus; that I should plan ahead, take trains instead or save money and take flights. But dear father, how do I tell you the mode of transport, the place or the time of day is hardly the issue? How do I tell you that a man once tickled my foot in a train. How do I tell you that Akka (sister) got groped in an AC second class compartment on the train. How do I tell you that there was a man on my flight from Istanbul to New Delhi who harassed the living daylights out of me? So, here’s the thing, I won’t stop taking the bus. I won’t stop taking UberPools. I won’t stand for harassment of any kind. I would rather slap a 1000 men into behaving if I have to, but I won’t give them the pleasure of my absence. It’s exhausting, but someone has to do it, ideally everyone should do it.
Every time I’ve spoken about such untoward incidents or generally bad and entitled behaviour from men, I have always been made to feel like I am on the losing side. Not just from men, but other women. We have internalised that our safety is our responsibility. No one finds it ridiculous when I tell them that my grandmother taught all the Bhandaram girls, the safety pin technique when we were kids — if there’s a man harassing you, poke him with a safety pin, there will be no noise and you’ll get want you want: Freedom from the harasser. When my friends hear this trick, they chime in with their own strategies: A searing pinch, elbow to the rib, crushing their foot under yours — inconspicuous, effective methods of practicing one’s own safety.
These are stories reserved for my female friends, where we share with one another the one thing we all have in common — harassment. In telling my friends, I find quiet resolution, in the comfort of their “that’s sick!”, “what the hell!”, “it happened to me too”, the agony of my gendered life experience becomes a laughing matter, a welcome break from wondering about the pink bra that can be seen from under a white shirt, even if it is for a few hours.