I was 18 when S said, on one of those lazy college afternoons usually reserved for post-morteming friends' boyfriends, that she hated family functions. In the three months we had spent just out of the city's most expensive schools and in one of the least expensive, spectacularly unkempt government colleges in Kolkata, S had been conveniently labelled a snoot worth a role in a Gossip Girl-y soap. And like newly-minted wannabe socialists, I chose to ignore her.
Only, this time, she chose to clarify. "Not because I think it's uncool, but because I have to see the face of my father's friend. He lives next door. When I was about 5-6 years old, same guy, would not leave one chance to slip his hand into my knickers when no one was looking. It felt odd then, now I want to puke at his face," she said, typing away listlessly on her mammoth new Nokia phone.
D, a wide-eyed easily shocked literature student, screeched. "Maa ke bolechis? (Did you tell your mother)". "Right! Mom! She'll think I'm mad," S quipped, still glued to her phone.
While this was supposed to shock, S's mid-week anecdote was more reassuring for me. Almost like the way you feel when you know your friend's flunked the math exam too, with you.
For too many years, I had whined about an uncle whose affection-mongering gave me more creeps than lizards did as a child. My mother had, all those years, dismissed him as 'hujuge' - a mildly admonishing Bengali word for over enthusiastic. And asked me to stay away if I didn't like him.
Almost ten years down, my mother is still a little flummoxed at the idea, though way more willing to accept it. And since I didn't live with any scarring experience, I just let her be.
That is probably also why I know she will look at the One Billion Rising campaign promos on English television channels with the same kind of dismissive curiosity with which she used to check out Harry Potter trailers on TV and never figured what about it excited a 22-year-old.
These things, don't happen in our realms. While it's easy to be outraged, when I think it through, I can't blame a 55-year-old woman with an ailing mother, a junk-food loving daughter skipping meals in Mumbai, a eight-hour job and a truant maid among other things, to not have much time for deep symbolism and suchlike.
Because, we, who get it, and have either the taste, time and resources to quietly exclaim at how nicely shot a video is, how interesting it would be to dance to celebrate our gender, are just a handful. While we matter, we are not the only ones who matter. So, while we get dizzy and charged up at the idea of a 'flash mob' that we hope will put a creep in his place, we spend our resources over drilling a message a lot of people might not get. Or don't have the luxury to think over.
S's story, had also reminded me of a similar story then. That of a fourteen-year-old, who used to wash dishes to help her mother - a domestic help in our middle class Bengali neighbourhood. There was no way to verify it, only my aunt came back from the local grocer one day, saying that the girl and her mother had been banned from the para... the teenager had complained that some man in the house she worked in had tried to molest her. It could have been a fake allegation. But there are equal chances that it could have been true. And a flash mob or a bunch of dancers at a street corner, in that case, would be far from reassuring a thought to turn to.
While I am all for symbolic manifestations of protest, I can't deny the fact that such attempts are far from inclusive. Say for example the Delhi Rising video - it's thoughtful, stylishly shot, just the kind I want to go, Like and share on Facebook. Yes, I have taken another step to secure myself and my ilk from abuse - we who already have some means to protect ourselves, be it a home, be it a concerned family, be it enough education to go and file a FIR. How have I helped those who don't have access to all this? Not in too many ways.
Such grand symbolic spectacles, where a Farhan Akhtar strums his guitar and Rahul Bose reads out from a poem, also run the risk of garnering attention of the useless kind - people who turn up to take a Farhan Akhtar picture on their phone, people who have time and no work and people who will stay away because these are things 'people do'. Not them. Say my cab driver, who seemed mightily pissed at having to deal with odd-hour traffic, or the office goer whose long haul home just got longer. We like it or not - these people and their ignorance are what should worry us the most!
For example, the NCRB report points out that city or town where the number of crimes went up the most in 2011, almost by 87 percent, is Asansol - an industrial town in Bengal, far away from Kolkata where the One Billion Rising campaign was unfurling in full force.
So what's the answer? Should we stop protest - of the elaborate kind that uses the most popular aspects of our culture? No. But we also have to find a way to make it not look like a carnival that not everyone has a taste for.
We could probably start with talking, not ceremoniously, but in a way the other person feels like he or she is an equal in the conversation.