Unlike the ladies of our glorious Capital, who presumably come to realise this at around the same time they learn to walk, I had no idea how difficult life for India's fairer sex could be until I turned 17. It was a wild time. Doordarshan -- our public service broadcaster, for those born after 1990 -- was suddenly made redundant by the arrival of satellite television. To cut a long story short, I was introduced to channels that played rock music instead of Hum Log, and the notion that men need not have short hair. And so, I 'dared to think beyond' the recommended middle-class length of ten centimetres.
My family didn't react with horror; not at first. By the time my hair reached the small of my back though, our relatives had split into two distinct groups that (a) questioned my sexuality in a subtle manner or (b) urged me to turn to God. Pointing out that images of Jesus Christ depicted him with long hair only encouraged both groups to pray for my soul.
Unjust: The fairer sex in India always have to be on guard, as you
never know when obnoxious pairs of hands would try and get close
But, I digress. It is only after my hair reached my waist that I realised India was not the same country for men and women. The epiphany arrived, as they usually do in Mumbai, on a local train. Struggling to step into a Churchgate-bound fast one morning, I suddenly felt a pair of hands squeezing my buttocks. This wasn't supportive squeezing, the kind given to shoulders of those in need of comforting. This was rough stuff, reminiscent of mating rituals on Animal Planet.
Turning around was impossible, obviously, because no one can turn around on a Mumbai local. Once inside, one is pointed in a particular direction and forced to stay there. And so, until I managed to put some distance between what I can only refer to as my buttock-squeezer, I had to bear it. It was not a rare occurrence either. I would try entering a crowded train, crowded bus, or crowded store -- most places in Mumbai involve crowds -- and an obnoxious pair of hands would try and get close to me.
The experience of being felt up would end only after I turned around, at which point my faint moustache-beard combo would dispel the myth of my being a nubile 17-year-old girl with underdeveloped breasts. Apart from a great deal of staring, the question 'aati hai kya?' was also asked often, and never politely. Some men would snicker, while others pretended to be eunuchs and clapped their hands before laughing uproariously. Men on motorbikes would whistle as they went past, and continue until they noticed the beard. They would then slow down and abuse me for leading them to believe I was a woman.
Eventually, six years on, I went back to a respectable ten centimetres. As my relatives praised God for showing me the light, I began to shave again. I wasn't exactly the same person though. At 23, I was armed with the knowledge that a large number of my countrymen were nothing but desperate, insecure folk who had no idea how to treat a woman. I also struggled to understand how India's women went grocery shopping, managed careers and became fabulous mothers, wives or managing directors in the face of behaviour that often bordered on hostility.
There were normal men too, of course, but what struck me was how one abnormal, sex-starved lunatic could ruin a good day simply by assuming it was alright to make a pass at someone he thought was female. If this could happen in a metropolis, how did repressed men in smaller towns behave?As I write this, television channels are airing footage of policemen in Bihar assaulting women with bamboo sticks. If, as many have pointed out, 'any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members,' don't you wonder what sort of India her women live in?
Lindsay Pereira is Editor, MiD DAY Online (twitter.com/lindsaypereira)
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