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I Said 'No'. & You Hear 'Yes'.
It was a cold night in January. I was at a literary festival in Rajasthan and the evening party was still abuzz with writers, publishers, agents and invitees. Some groups huddled around fires. Some others stood nursing whiskeys. There was much conversation and laughter. But I was weary even though it was just a little past 10 pm and I slipped out of the poolside party and walked towards the lobby. I was staying at the same hotel. A tall young man peeled himself away from the shadows and began walking with me. “Are you a writer?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said noting he wore the festival badge. “And you?”
“I came with my grandmother.” He said mentioning the name of an important politician.
"I hope you are enjoying the festival. Good night!” I said as I walked on.
Instead of taking the hint, he matched his stride to mine. When I stopped to speak to someone, he stopped as well. I began to feel uncomfortable. Adding to my sense of discomfort was the fact that the hotel lobby was teeming with a wedding party. Men, women and children dressed in their finery teemed around the bride as photographers shot pictures. The door of the hotel was impossible to access and I had to wait outside. The young man refused to budge from my side. I turned my head away resolutely and pretended to not notice him. “Are you alone?” He asked.
“No, I am with friends,” I said hoping that would make him go away.
“I meant are you single?”
I frowned. “I am married. And I have a son almost as old as you.”
That didn’t seem to deter him either for his next words were. “Do you want me to escort you to your room?”
I blinked in shock. I had been propositioned before in my life. But never so blatantly or so casually.
Perhaps earlier in the evening he had seen me huddle with a group of writers and journalists, mostly men. We had been drinking, chatting and laughing… I must have seemed like a good time girl to him!
I managed to enter the hotel lobby hoping to have escaped him. That’s when I noticed he had followed me in and was hovering like a menacing wasp. I collapsed into a sofa waiting for him to go away. Why would someone who lived in this city be staying at the hotel? I wondered as I sat there.
In the world, I inhabit I have always felt safe with the men who populate it. Even random strangers, even when they are embarrassingly flirtatious or drunk. At some level I do know that they will understand a no for a no. And will not cross the boundary into sexual harassment or worse, sexual violence. But for the first time in my life I was beginning to feel intimidated.
The hotel lobby was filling up with more people from the marriage party and I thought my stalker had finally left. At the lift bank as I waited for the lift to arrive, I saw him again. And he had come to stand at my side waiting to follow me into the lift. He couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that I had said no.
For a minute I wondered if I should complain to the reception. The thought of making a scene held me back. Besides and this to me was the horror of the episode – he could just turn around and say that he was staying in the hotel. And accuse me of paranoia; he could turn this into an issue into something else especially given his political clout if his grandmother was really the person he had mentioned. – Again for the first time in my life, I felt helpless, vulnerable and completely at a loss. What was I going to do? I thought as the lift display indicated the lift coming down, floor by floor, 7, 6, 5, 4…. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
As a girl, my growing up years were replete with adages about the fragility of a woman especially as a sexual be in didn't Whether a thorn falls on a leaf or the leaf falls on the thorn, it is the leaf that gets torn.' 'You can’t leave cotton wool and a flame side by side; the cotton wool will get burnt.' – I used to wonder at the nature of the minds that had first worked out these thoughts.
For a nation that is repressed in many ways, we can’t seem to stop thinking about sex. Just yesterday, someone tweeted me remarking on the sexual passages in my new novel ignoring everything else. 1000 words seems to have won over 1, 99000 words. The irony of it defeats me.
There is a quote in the Manusmrithi, (2/215): “Wise people should avoid sitting alone with one’s mother, daughter or sister. Since carnal desire is always strong, it can lead to temptation.” And this is a treatise that has always been upheld as the ‘shoulds’ of dharma or one’s moral responsibility, and has had a profound influence on the Indian population even if indirectly. For our mindsets have been fashioned by its tenets. It appalls me to read that a man may not be able to hold himself back even if its his mother, sister or daughter. Pout what unnerves me is the subtext: a woman is never safe.
Apart from everything else – socio economic identity limitations – an Indian woman has to contend with her sexual being at threat too. My son, a post graduate student as part of his gender studies project was involved in a campaign against sexual harassment. One evening he came home flustered at the reactions from a group of 18 year old boys he had been conducting a seminar for. One boy thought it was perfectly acceptable to wolf whistle at a woman if she wore ‘revealing clothes’. Read that as a form fitting dress with a slightly revealing neckline. Another said a woman walking on her own at 10 in the night was asking for trouble. On being asked why, he said that it was against Indian tradition and hence she was giving wrong signals. Next they were asked if a girl dressed as one of the volunteers were in a pair of jeans and a top would provoke rape. A boy answered almost nonchalantly: yes.
My son was horrified by the responses. “This is Bangalore, mum, what is happening?”
Even if these were extreme reactions from a small group of young men, I can’t but think that in the back of their minds these notions do exist. What then is the influences in their life that have sown these seeds in their mind? Who are the people who have continued to nurture these thoughts rather than stamp it to dust? It is this that one has to watch out for. It is this that bead triggered the situation I was in.
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