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Surviving ‘Eve-teasing’ in a Small Town

Anuradha Kumar (anukumar0811@gmail.com) is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

An account of how girls in small towns have coped with harassment in the streets.

Twenty years after I had left the town of C, I found myself looking at it again on a map. I had no idea until then that the town was so very small, and it remained so, even after I had magnified it on Google Maps. A sliver of land caught between two rivers, and located two hours away from the sea, I had known the town in a very different manner while I had lived there. To me, it consisted of the roads I took every morning and afternoon in a rickshaw, travelling to school and back, as it did for my other schoolmates who attended the only girls’ school in the town offering English-medium instruction.

For a few minutes of my journey, I would pass government bungalows with their gravel driveways, impressive porticos, and beautiful gardens. But, otherwise, it was a route lined with terror, marked by spots that were particularly tormenting. These were areas claimed by the “eve-teasing” gangs of my early adolescence—rickshaw pullers, college students, idling men, and schoolboys bunking school—all out looking for some “fun.”

They occupied certain strategic spots marked out in this first early map of the town that I can still see in my mind’s eye: the tea stalls, the shaded copse of trees where Cantonment Road branched off into the Old Fort area, the Christ College gates, and the roads themselves where the gangs would appear on wheels, in twos or in bigger groups.

One learnt early on to recognise the whistles, the comments—for though one didn’t understand the words, their meaning and intent were clear—exchanged between cyclists as they weaved in and out, following a rickshaw with a girl in it. One had to be aware, yet pretend ignorance. One could hear the whizzing bicycle wheels, feel a shadow creep up and, then, one had to learn not to turn around or to look them in the eye. One had to sit hunched forward to protect oneself. One had to hope for invisibility.

It was a pose cultivated in identical measure by every girl I saw around: those headed to school, other young women out on the streets, those running an errand or simply walking their children to school. We had a near identical gait, a universally acquired demeanour, a way of thinking that monitored how we dressed and behaved. Just as blinkers placed on a horse condition its behaviour, these cues we picked up had seeped into our thinking, our very being. In this way, I realised later, every small town was just the same.

These harassers never operated alone. They would either be in groups, or a couple of them would come around on a cycle, one of them seated on the top tube of the cycle and leaning backwards to stare as the other pedalled.

“Just ignore,” we had learnt to say. And, if one did that, they would veer away bored, looking for other prey. Sometimes when these harassers broke into vulgar song, we pretended to not understand. But, it was hard, especially when some Hindi film songs became very popular. For instance, for a few years, a popular song sung by the biggest film star of the time was aired on Vividh Bharati almost every day. The song detailed the special qualities of wives of every shape and it became the harassment anthem in the town of C.

To the men, we were perhaps just a pair of breasts, for they stared specifically at them. Even the driver who drove my father’s official car had once positioned his rear-view mirror in such a way that I, seated at the back, knew exactly what it was focused on. I just hunched forward in the way I had learnt.

Years later, when I detail these observations, my friends who went through the same ordeal laugh it off. This is what we did then too, in moments afterwards, when we were somewhere safe and secure. We giggled furtively and laughed softly, knowing that by keeping quiet and ignoring, we had put away harm. We swallowed the insults and the harassment, some of which were downright strange. Sometimes gangs of rickshaw pullers raced against one lone rickshaw, and then having crossed it they would yell slights at its lone girl occupant in triumph. But, there was always that one consolation: we were not harmed. Nothing happened to us. No acid was thrown, as it happened to a girl who had dared to spurn a boy’s attention. She died days later in a hospital. For us, when we laughed our half-guilty, half-ashamed laughter, there was also relief: at least there was no rape. It was a word we were just beginning to understand.

We had to watch out, though. For, indeed, there were those predators who did come close. For some months, in the town of C, the whispers had grown louder, and the giggles had turned into nervous ones. A different kind of harasser had appeared on the roads. He rode alone on his motorcycle, along the lines of rickshaws carrying girls, including my schoolmates on their everyday journeys. Then, he chose his victim, swiftly coming up alongside and squeezing a breast, before revving up and rushing away. You’d never get to see his face, only squeals of alarm, and the sound of a motorcycle zooming away, a sound loud in the town of C, especially in the early hours of the mornings, which were filled with the faint sounds of bicycles and rickshaw bells.

This news must have reached the police. It must have made them realise that this menace had to be curbed. My ­father’s friend, who was the deputy superintendent of police in town, hit upon a novel idea; one that was innovative enough for the town of C to make it to the pages of big ­magazines like Sunday, published from Calcutta. Girls, he announced, would tie rakhis to boys and young men, who by this special bond would now become their protectors. And, thus, there would be no more harassers on the streets of
the town.

It was enough for many people that the town was finally in the news, in the years when far bigger cities dominated. The town of C had, it seemed, finally done something, even though this bit of news made up only a paragraph or so in Sunday magazine’s back pages. I remember the gatherings and social meets that followed among the older people. They laughed and teased the police officer. A traditional idea adapted to modern use, they said.

The next morning it was back to business. The next morning, I did see him: the motorcycle predator. He came up the ­opposite way as the line of rickshaws continued quietly on their way to school. It was clear it was him, the way he moved with his motorcycle, his eyes darting sideways, despite his dark glasses, looking for a seizable, graspable chance. But, by now, I had learnt to read things, and how to behave. I knew how to erase myself completely from someone’s gaze. Becoming invisible was a matter of practice.

 

Updated On : 8th Mar, 2019

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