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What women want: Manto on eve teasing and flirting

by Aakar Patel  Mar 15, 2013 16:15 IST

#Eve-teasing   #flirting   #Manto'sMusings  

Trust Manto to take up a subject as unusual as the forcible interaction between sexes - what we call eve-teasing and molestation in India - and write this long essay on it.

What strikes one on reading this pre-independence essay is how playful Manto's mind was before Partition. His title is a reference to Ghalib's couplet 'Yaar se chhed chali jaye 'Asad' (Ghalib's early pen-name), Gar nahin vasl to hasrat hi sahi'.

Manto uses the Indian word chhed, meaning to annoy. It does not have the fully negative sentiment of 'molest', and retains some of the playfulness of 'tease'.

Chhed khubaan se chali jaye 'Asad', by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel

If not the ecstasy of union, then the sorrow of unrequited love.
And so, till men have no access to union with women, they will continue to harass and tease women, and to molest them.

So how did all this actually begin? Who was the first man to have teased a woman? History books are silent on this for some reason. It's possible that in some thicket of Eden's garden, or in the shade of one of its trees, Adam began this tradition.

Saadat Hasan Manto. Agencies.

Saadat Hasan Manto. Agencies.

It cannot be for nothing that he was booted out of that paradise.
But even if we were to assume it was Adam who began this pleasant tradition, it's not easy to figure out how it happened. His attempt could have been crude, or it could be that he was extremely elegant in his approach - it's difficult for us to say which. We have little knowledge of those times.

We can't even say what reaction this produced in Eve and how she responded to the masculine overture. Many things come to my mind when imagining it. What's imprinted is something resembling a scene from a nudist club in America. Adam as a white man and Eve his madam.

If not the ecstasy of union, then the sorrow of unrequited love.
In Europe, which is living out an age of civilisation and culture, there is more union and fewer sighs of unrequited love. But even so, teasing and harassment is commonly to be found there too.

Their women, uncovered of face and often of body, are stared and ogled at just as we stare in India at whatever bit of our women is on display. And Europeans are bolder in their approach than us. This is counter-intuitive, but the hunger for flesh cannot be sated just by having one's fill.

As long as men are put next to women, this harassment will happen. There might be a time when women's existence is no longer necessary for men and this will stop of itself. But not before that time is it going to end.
The other day Gandhiji wrote of the educated girls of India that "Each of these Juliets has a hundred Romeos behind her." At this there was such an extreme reaction in Lahore that the heavens trembled.

Ms Mumtaz Shahnawaz and other girls gave a strong response to Gandhiji. For many days, even veiled women wrote essays in India's papers against this half-covered man. But Gandhiji did not soften his opinion. He wrote another piece, addressing boys and targetting them with his ahimsa-tipped arrows. He said to them: "When you walk in the bazaar, keep your gaze down. Wear a hood so that your eyes don't light upon the faces of young girls. Thus you'll hold on to your virtue."

Gandhiji's hold on India is intact. But alas, his essay had little effect on India's young men. Pretty women continued to be teased and molested. The censor could not control the young men's eyes. Their horny nature remained intact.
Gandhiji's attempt was as much of a failure, in fact, as that of the Congress to impose prohibition in Bombay.

But if it had succeeded, think of what a change Gandhiji's advice would have brought to this country. We would have seen our young men walk around the streets with hoods on their heads and with their gazes lowered. There would have been chaos in traffic.

Accidents every day caused by this. And the victims would all be men. Hood on head, eyes down, directly in the path of cars coming at them. With young girls, ungazed at, walking about here and there. Horns being sounded even louder than they are now. The hospitals would soon be filled up with wounded young men. And there too the poor fellows would presumably be hooded so as to not accidentally catch sight of the young nurses.

Anyway, let's put this hood-wood business behind us. It would have made life immensely boring. Passions, like still water, would not stir. All excitement would come to an end if men were physically stopped from engaging women. There would be no spark that's produced between two strangers. The intoxication of youth would sober up. The world all around would turn serious and grim. Faces would become longer. Their glow would vanish. Deprived of an essential motivation, men would turn sluggish.

We would also destroy our culture of poetry and literature. This didn't happen because it is impossible for it to happen.

Every adult man, each adult woman knows why this sort of teasing happens. It happens because it isn't unnatural. It won't be out of place here for me to reveal information I got from interviewing some young men on this subject.

These are the questions I asked the men:

1) Why do you tease girls and women? Can you tell me a reason you do this?

2) What particular type of girl or woman do you target?

3) How do you go about it?

4) Do you think the girls and women like to be teased in this manner?

5) Tell me an episode of teasing that has stayed on in your mind.

I put these five questions to 12 boys who were between the ages of 16 and 24. Seven of them could not give me a coherent reply to the first question. The other five answered and their answeres resembled one another's. More or less, they said this:

- We harass girls and women because we enjoy the act of doing it.

- In particular, harassing those who cannot or do not protest, who keep their anger silent. It's impossible to describe the joy in engaging with them.

- We tease them because we are driven to doing this, at times unconsciously. Often the most gorgeous girl passes by and we do nothing. It's a question of mood. If we are in that space, no girl can pass without being engaged by us.

- At times we have to listen to abuse, and some times we are in a position of danger. After this, for a while, our passions are subdued. But then again they stir.

- There's no question but that we exploit the helplessness of a woman. But we don't think of it as helplessness, because she's not within our reach. Her thoughts and feelings are not known to us so we just see her as some unreachable object that we want. Like a kite on a branch that we throw pebbles at.

- You ask why we tease girls, we ask why should be not? If we don't, who will? Our relations with them have always been such that a little teasing is required every now and then.

Of these five boys, one was 24. He was sharp. His ability to think and respond was better than that of the others. He said to me - "You'll get the answer to why we tease girls soon enough. But tell me this, I passed a dog in the market the other day and winked at it. If you asked me why I did this I'd have no reply. Why do you think I did this instinctively?"

To the second question, eight of the boys answered that: "We like teasing those girls who appeal to us of a sudden. Often they are ordinary looking, often extraordinarily beautiful. It all depends on what about them it is that excites us. We believe the girls generate this feeling in us. The sentiment is always within us - it is she who does something to stir it."

Two other boys said: "We only tease plump and overweight girls. We've never gone after the slim ones. It's great to tease girls who are heavy of body."
One of them said: "In the bazaar or on the street, when I see a fatty I always wink at her. It brings a special feeling. It feels like my wink has darted into and penetrated her soft body. Fat girls are in any case shy and self-conscious. When they flare up in embarrassment at my actions, a surge of pleasure goes through me."

To the third question, ten boys gave more or less the same answer. That while there were many ways of teasing girls, what they preferred to do was to wink at them. This was not particularly dangerous to do, and one didn't have to be close-in to do it. It could be done effectively even from distance. It also gave satisfaction because it was a complete act. It was mischievous more than anything else, but the act held within it the question - "So, what do you say?"

That split second's act communicates the message of a thousand questions. It produces either anger or fear or shame that is immediately broadcast by the girl's entire body. Winking is not dangerous because it leaves no evidence and is difficult to prove one did it. Just do it, watch her face glow up in reaction and move on. Sometimes they even smile.

And her smile stays with them for a long time. It contains within it a fleeting emotion, touching you like the wings of a butterfly, briefly, and then it's gone. If you left the eyes aside, other than the voice only the hands remained as instruments of engaging with girls. The boys said they used them, but rarely.
"Because hands can't be controlled once they're in contact.

And then there's trouble to be had. Of course, when there's a big crowd and much confusion, there it's fine to feel a girl up. Or places where they are concentrating on something, for instance a man riding in the well of death. There it's easy to do something to her and not even be noticed by the girl. Sometimes we rub ourselves against them and walk on. Sometimes just put our shoulder into them as they walk past. These are the ways in which we do it."

Of the other two boys, one said: "I've never winked at a girl. I know this is done, and I've seen other boys do it. But I can never do it right. When I tried, the other eye would also shut itself and that ruined it. I've never molested anyone with my hands either. My style is different and actually unique. I always walk up to a girl and ask for the time. It is only girls with watches on their wrist whom I approach. No girl has ever refused to reply. But very few actually consult their watches before telling me the 'time'. This is because they're quite jumpy when suddenly approached with this question. They can't refuse an answer because it's impolite. I also put on an air of urgency, as if I have to be somewhere and am running late. In five years, I've done this 157 times."

The other boy said: "I only do it verbally. I've tried winking but it gives me little pleasure. I call out such a line that only the targeted girl understands that I'm making a pass. To be able to do it in a manner that nobody else has figured out what happened is an art. But such lines cannot be composed all the time. Only when the mind is alive and alert. And when it is, the pleasure I get is indescribably good."

To the fourth question, nine of the boys answered in almost exactly the same way: "We don't think girls like our teasing them. This is because a man and a woman can never have a comfortable understanding between them unless they are man and wife. The woman looks at a man as a lamb looks at the butcher. In the man's imagination, she stands on a taut rope of chastity. Even when we think of the teasing as harmless entertainment, they weigh it in a delicate balance of sin and virtue. Truth be told, we think only of the girls, not the punishment of our actions.

If they don't like it, so be it, and if they're angered, that's fine too. But we'll continue to harass them."

Two of the boys answered the question in this way: "Women like and dislike being tormented by us. Woman is an interesting thing, a bearer of ambiguous "yes" and "no". This is why we like them. In fact, if they didn't have this aspect we wouldn't enjoy harassing them. Yes and no are mingled in their character so that often their "No!" is a "yes". This is what gets us excited."

One boy answered differently from the others. "The truth is that girls love being hit on. Why should they approach their youth differently from us? They grow up in their shalwar-qameez while we grow up in our trousers and shirts. What other difference is there? I go after girls because they like my doing it to them. When they're teased, they will immediately share the details with their friends. This produces feelings - perhaps jealousy - in the other girls. I know this and you don't but their not being attached to a man produces something in them that makes them yearn. If I hadn't come to this realisation, I would not be harassing them."

Now let's turn to the answer they gave for the final question. Each boy narrated an episode where he had picked on a girl. Only a few of them are the sort that I can reproduce here. Many were of this type - "I molested this girl, she screamed, I was caught and humiliated" and so on.

The most interesting story came from the boy who had whistled at the dog. He said: "This happened four years ago. In Amritsar, many people were being arrested over a Congress agitation. Jallianwalah Bagh was festive and full of students and others. I'd slip out of home on the excuse of studying and head there. One day, when I was going through the bazaar just before it, of a sudden my gaze turned up.

I saw a head in a white turban in a balcony. I thought for a moment it was a Sikh. Then the face came into view and I was amazed to see a dusky, gorgeous girl. I could see her churidar and pyajama through the railings. The clothes fitted her closely.

When she noticed me, I said to her loudly "Tasleem arz karti hoon", as if I were a girl. She was startled. She let out an embarrassed cough-smile and, under pressure from my direct and unrelenting gaze, fled into the room.

At the students' union camp in Jallianwalah Bagh, I recounted this to a few of my friends. I learnt from them that she was the wife of a Congress worker who had been arrested a few days ago. She was underground, hence her disguise. They had only been married four or five months. And now she was alone in that house. When I heard all this, I left for my house, which wasn't too far away.
I shut the door to my room and put on a blouse. In it I slipped two halves of a rubber ball to act as breasts. I wore a petticoat and then wrapped around myself a sari. I wore my hair very long in those days, and now I parted it at the centre, sending a few stray curls down the sides.

I looked into the mirror and an effeminate face stared back. What wonders a few clothes can do. I slipped on my sister's burqa and left. On the street I stumbled a few times as I walked, the burqa catching the soles of my unpractised feet. I found it difficult to get the femine gait and stride right. The thought of being discovered also quickened my heartbeat. But I was resolute and crossed three bazaars to reach that house. Its stairs were right next to a halwai's shop.

I lifted the veil from my face and climbed up, my heart racing. The thought of what I was doing aced any other sentiment I had as I walked up. I knocked, having decided that if a man answered I would not say anything but turn and leave. If needed I would explain in a thin voice: "Sorry, I came here by mistake."

Then I knocked again. I heard footsteps. I had one thought of fleeing but it was too late at this point, and the latch was being unfastened. I lowered my veil again. The door opened. The girl was before me. She was distraught. Her hair was in disarray. She was wearing a different kurta, but she had on the same pyjamas as I had spotted her in. On seeing that ot was a burqa-clad 'woman', her fear left her. I calmed down too.

She said: "Please come in."

We crossed a large room and went into a small one. It had two chairs and a small bed, on which was the kurta I had seen her earlier in, with one of its sleeves turned out. Next to it was that white turban.

She asked me to sit, lifting some books off one chair and setting them on the bed. I was troubled by main door, which she had left ajar. As I sat, she said politely: "You can take the burqa off".

When I looked around, she assured me there was nobody else in the house. "I'm alone" she said. I had decided I wouldn't speak but couldn't stop the words "Please shut that door outside" coming out of my mouth. I had used my own voice, but she didn't react to that.

She got up and left to shut it. I lifted my veil and waited. My face was still framed by the burqa's cowl. My ears were hidden and my hair covered much of my face. So I thought this sight wouldn't shock her too much.

She returned. I turned my face towards her. She was about to sit on the bed but sprang up like she was bitten. She gave off a soft shriek. As the saying in English goes, the cat was out of the bag.

I took the burqa off. Her legs were trembling, I could see. I became bolder. I smiled and said: "Aadaab arz karti hoon". She had recognised me. She was paralysed with fear. I looked into her eyes and said: "You look pretty in men's clothing. What do you think of me in this outfit?"

She couldn't figure out how to respond. Even if the skies and fallen and the roof caved in she wouldn't have been more shocked than she was now.
I felt for her. So I picked up the burqa and said: "Don't be afraid. I'm leaving. The prank's over."

As I began to walk past her she said with a trembling voice "Wait."
I stopped: "Well?"

She was looking at my blouse, from which the half-globes had slipped out. "Will you be able to go home like this?" I said: "Why not? It's how I came here."
But even as I was saying this I knew that now, with the excitement behind me, I couldn't take a step further in this outfit. She said: "Think it over."

I did. I was sure I couldn't. I went through my options. I could take the sari off. But in just the blouse and petticoat, I would look like some sort of actor in costume. I could take it all off and wrap the sari around my waist but that was equally stupid. I reconsidered putting the burqa on again but the thought of stumbling around in it soon put paid to the idea.

I said: "Is it all right if I sit for a while?"
She said "Sure", but then of a sudden she seemed to have remembered something.
"No, you must leave! My father-in-law is on his way. I'd forgotten about him. Please leave now."

I now felt as if I was naked. I stubbornly settled further into the chair. She was in panic. "He's going to be here any moment. Please, you must go now."
I was furious with myself. I said sharply to her: "What do I care if he's coming? I can't walk another step dressed like this."

Despite the tension, she laughed. I remained sullen. She thought for a moment. Then she pointed to the kurta on the bed which she'd worn earlier and said: "Take this. I'll find you pyjamas. But for god's sake leave now. Don't think of anything else."

She didn't wait for me to respond. She bent over and pulled out a trunk from under the bed to look for the pyjamas. While she looked I took the blouse off and put on the kurta.

When she couldn't find a pair, she said: "Wait here. I'll take mine off and give them to you." She went out. I spent a strange couple of minutes waiting. Then she came and handed them over. "Please hurry" she said and went out again.
I put them on with a bit of effort. She called out: "Are you done?"
"Yes," I said. She came in and told me again to go: "I fear he'll be here."
I took the burqa in hand and was sallying forth when she said: "What about all this other stuff?" I looked at the sari, blouse, petticoat and two halves of the rubber ball. I said: "Let these remain."

She didn't reply to that. I walked towards the door. She came with me. When I opened it and was on the other side, she smiled and said: "Aadab arz karta hoon."

I never saw her after that. She went away somewhere the next day. I tried to look for her and asked around but nobody could tell me much.
Her kurta and pyjama are still with me. Perhaps my sari, blouse and petticoat are still with her. And those two halves of the rubber ball. I cannot say if they are. But I know that this wasn't the sort of thing that either of us will ever be able to forget."

The boy who liked asking girls for the time said this:
"When I moved to Bombay I was ecstatic because I saw girls walking around everywhere, often wearing watches. One day, in Nagpada's Jewish neighbourhood, I saw a Parsi girl on the footpath. She was walking with quick strides towards Batliwala Hospital. On her slender white wrist, I could see the black strap of a watch. I was about 200 metres behind her, a distance a covered in no time.

I walked a couple of steps ahead of her and turned around to ask in Gujarati: 'Tamari ghadiyal ma ketla vagya? (What time is it on your watch?)'
She lifted her wrist, but the watch was gone!
'Mari ghadiyal kyan chhe? (Where's my watch?)' she exclaimed. My Gujarati gambit was over.

I said in Hindustani: 'Aap ki ghadi mujhe kya maaloom kahan hai (How should I know where your watch is)'.

Man, she began shrieking. In Gujarati. And in her Parsi-manic manner. I was terrified. I had seen it on her wrist only moments before - god knows where it had vanished.

She kept shouting: 'Tamej lidhi hase (I'm sure you took it)'.
I kept trying to reassure her that I hadn't: 'If I had, why would I have asked you for the time? And forget that, how is it even possible for me to have taken it off your wrist?'

By now, many Jews and Christians gathered around us on the footpath. I was surrounded. Loud voices in every possible language began to raise themselves.
I tried to show myself innocent - sometimes in English, other times in Hindustani. But they were all on her side, of course.

I was tired of protesting my innocence and about to tell them: 'Go to hell if you don't believe me.' Just then I spotted a little child through the crowd. It was playing with a black strap. At the end of the strap was the watch.
I pointed with a shout: 'Look! What's that child holding?'
The girl turned first: 'My watch!'

An old Jewish woman took it from the child and gave it to her. I didn't say anything, and didn't have to because I thought I was quite the hero of the moment."
That boy, who said girls like being teased, told the following story:

"As I said girls like it and often they invite us to do it to them. I can prove it with my story.
This happened a couple of years ago, when my thinking on the subject was different from what it is today. I was quite unsuccessful at love then. I'd be morose all the time, out of the frustration of not having a girl.

When a friend of mine told me one day with vivid detail that he'd made out with a girl in this particular lane, I was even more regretful about my failure. I was so saddened by being a loser that tears came to my eyes.

But then I thought of going to that same lane and spending time there regularly till I met the girl. There was no other girl I could think of who would allow me to do the things my friend said he had with her.

So for a couple of weeks, I walked through the lane at the same time every day. I saw the girl there often. And she noticed me. But I couldn't move the thing forward.

One afternoon, the lane was deserted when I entered. Near its masjid I saw a lone woman in a burqa. As I went past her, she put her hand out and held on to my arm. She shouted: 'Kyon ve gushtian, tum har roz idhar de pheray kyon karnaiyen?' This meant - you moron, why are you here every day?

I began to tremble. I said: 'I... I... I... never come here.'
The woman laughed. I could see her glittering eyes now through the burqa's mesh. It was her.

My fear evapourated. I shrugged my arm off her grip and pinched her ass so viciously that she screamed 'Allah kar key marjaein! Tera kakh na rahe' meaning that she wished I died and that nothing remained of me.

But everything remained, of course. She remained. My fear had left me. And her anger now left her.