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Freedom in Three Acts: @Koinon3a

January 7, 2013

Guest post by @KOINON3A

New Friends Colony Park, 1996.

There’s a funny telepathy between people running or walking in opposite directions along a narrow jogging track. You both move to one side to avoid bumping into the other, only to find that the other person has moved in exactly the same direction you have. We exchanged half smiles at this long before we actually collided. As we approached each other, I smiled more widely as an acknowledgment of having managed to get it right and avoid each other.

His pockmarked face broke into a smile too. And in the moment he passed right by me, he reached out and grabbed my left breast hard and then moved on. Something I couldn’t have planned or thought about happened; I snapped like a brittle twig, swung around and went after him. His back was turned to me and he didn’t expect this. I hit him in the middle of his back with my fist, my keychain around my fingers giving him an additional gouge. He whirled around, surprised, the mouth now a quivering O, and went for my chest again.

Again, a moment of reflex. I have never studied self-defence but I have always been an angry person. Furious, I put my foot between his ankles and pulled up and towards myself hard. I did not expect that he would go down so fast and so easily. Suddenly, there he was on the ground. I was more conscious of my rage now. I was saying words that I’d only ever said under my breath: motherfucker, asshole, fuck you. I was kicking him in the side, hard. I bent over and stabbed his chest with my keys. It felt good to say the words out loud.

I kicked and kicked and screamed. He spluttered and that broke the spell. I realised where I was and what I was doing. He started to get back up. I panicked. I turned and ran as fast as I could all the way back to my PG. I never went to that park again.

Moet’s, Upstairs, Def Col Market, 1997.

I was waiting for Roshni in Moet’s on the second floor, the one with the bar and the miniscule band space (and a sign that said Strictly No Dancing Please). It felt grown-up and risky to be drinking in Moets in the afternoon. I was the only woman in the bar. Two other tables were occupied: one with a group of four young men, probably around my age, at the other two old men with bloodshot eyes. I ordered a beer and got a book out of my bag. The table of younger men was staring.

They stared and stared and laughed  talked amongst themselves and stared some more. I doodled on the coaster. I felt my ears grow hot. Their laughs grew louder. They’d say something, turn around and look at me and then burst into laughter. I had to say something. I looked up and asked loudly, twice, across the room: kya chahiye, kya dekh rahe ho? (What do you want, what are you looking at?) I got up, went to their table and said, kya dekh rahe ho? Their reaction stunned me. All four of them snapped their collective gaze down to the table and stared, stared, stared at the coasters.

Mayur Vihar Phase 1, 1999.

It was just another boozy Saturday night bouncing from Jor Bagh to Def Col or GK One to Someplace Else at The Park. So I am not sure why but we found ourselves outside the Ashoka Hotel around 1:00am trying to get rickshaws. Most of my friends lived in South Delhi; they could just about gauge where Ashram was, so Mayur Vihar where I lived, was an invisible place. I was always having to take rickshaws alone and I warmed to anyone who lived in Siddharth Extension or Jungpura.

I still wonder why a group of men and women let me get into a rickshaw on my own and trundle off to Mayur Vihar at that time of night. I imagined the responses.  Sorry yaar we were pretty smashed. Shit so sorry maybe we should have dropped you but it is so far na. However, it was a pleasant and uneventful ride. I felt good about coming back to the city I was born in. I was dreamy about the wind whipping my hair, the blurred halos of streetlights, the endless ribbon of the road, the ridiculous little pontoon bridge to Jamna-paar.

I tumbled out at Mayur Vihar.

As I fished around for and held up notes to the street light to make them out better, the rickshaw wallah said quietly, it’s okay to go out but don’t take rickshaws alone at night. Don’t be friends with people who let you travel on your own. I replied speaking truth: I will always be okay whatever happens.

****

The day I moved to Delhi they discovered poor Naina Sahni, shot and then chopped up by her husband and stuffed in a tandoor. That grisly story haunted me for days and I tried not to let it cast a shadow on all the things I had come to Delhi for: to have experiences, study, grow up, see Art, be a Writer, become worldly wise and then go to America to get a PhD.

Delhi was unglamorous and hard. The weather was unbelievably bad. There was the foreign-ness and novelty of living in Bhogal. For the first time I found people asking me, to my face and fairly casually, what my caste was; I learned very quickly not to mention that 23 of my chromosomes came from Bihar, the very thing that made me interestingly different growing up in south India. There was the daily t’ai chi of organising my body and clothing to hack into the dense lattice of the city. Loneliness, long bus rides, being a student and having very little money and few friends.

I had little sympathy for girls who remained cocooned in fear despite their big cars and bigger daddies. I am a bit of a mean girl. I frothed at the protectionism of older friends and parents of friends. Do you think I can’t handle it? I was rude to men with well-meaning but ultimately small ideas.

The threat on the street made me tense and on edge but I was adept at rationalising it. Sometimes I even wanted to be confronted just so I could prove to myself, and others, that I could fight back. I imagined awful scenarios and how I’d resist. Just try me, assholebastardbhenchodfucker. On the good days it felt like a superhero scenario.

There is a constellation of factors that made it possible for me to arrive in Delhi at the age of 20 and find it within myself to gaze back at violence: class privilege, personality, the fact that I was intern-ing at a women’s rights organisation, endless reserves of questions and anger, the books I read, a desire to experience the city.

I began to notice things about myself. I walked differently. I knew enough bad words to throw around and in a non-Madrasi accent. The near-misses and risks I took taught me useful things: the Delhi abuser-man doesn’t expect to be challenged. This gave me immeasurable confidence. The more you talk back, the better you get at it and that confidence grows on you like skin.

I got politics; I talked it, read it. I had a community of people who talked about violence and gender and sexuality. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t being leered at, called out to, groped or grabbed as much even though I spent a lot of time in Mudrikas. I heard a line from a story Flavia Agnes narrated at a conference: I’ve told my daughters to go out and have a life in the city and that in doing so there was a good chance they’d get assaulted or raped but to always, always, come home and tell me about it. I liked the liberation embedded in Agnes’ words. I made them mine.

There is a cathartic and community value in the me-too ‘autobio-geographies’ of sexual abuse. I think I’ve experienced things that have had the opposite effect of what the constriction of public space has meant for most women in Delhi; instead of fear and retreat, my (mostly reflexive) responses only inspired me to embrace the city and own it and think about the differences between protection, safety and freedom.

There is no algorithm for resistance or personal agency in the glare of risk.

Tactics for negotiating your own conditioning are a game of trial and error built over years. There is luck, timing and other such whimsical things you grab at when you narrativise your life. There is an unraveling of your sexuality as you infer what a persistent state of tension does to your mind. Yes, bad shit happens, your heart breaks and your body hurts. You also learn to be smart.

Strategising to stick it to the man, fight the good fight, change the law, improve access to public space, push for responsive law enforcement should, hopefully, gain some traction now. Personal strategies for agency, however, are harder to formulate. I find myself updating imaginary Situationist syllabi for learning how to be a woman in and of the world; some part of this is about managing the female body in cities, but it really shouldn’t have to be. Anything could happen when I finish writing this and go downstairs to buy some milk; I hope I still know how to be okay whatever happens.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2013 1:01 PM

    This is exactly how I have felt in delhi. I expressed this several times on various platforms but my voice seemed to be the minority. The over riding sentiment seems to be that of ‘protect the women’ because a woman cannot protect herself. I disagree with that line of thought. I have lived 28 years of my life in ‘yamuna paar’ a place where autos hardly go. And it never stopped me from living life. It never made me change what I wanted from life. I could, and will never be scared or worried about travelling alone. And yes when I confront instead of weep silently about being harrased, I know that it will happen with lesser frequency. I could see myself in this post. thanks for this less morbid, less I am a wounded woman of delhi post.

  2. January 7, 2013 1:03 PM

    wow. brave, brave, brave. inspiring, gutsy, provocative, full to the brim with the wonderful whiff of freedom.

  3. January 7, 2013 6:07 PM

    This is brilliant, once again. You owe us the list of required reading.

  4. Lesley permalink
    January 7, 2013 8:31 PM

    really connected with these stories. my best friend who lives in canada took an auto back to my home at the edge of south delhi, from a bar in chanakyapuri at 2 am last winter. that ride ended with her running for her life with the auto guy chasing her. providentially i was at the door and when she yelled out to me i responded, and hearing my voice, he ran off. she knows delhi very well and definitely couldn’t say she didn’t know the risks of taking an auto alone at that hour. she too was among many delhi people who ‘let’ her do it. but though my first reaction was anger at her and then at them, the reality is that the blame lay only with the aggressor. it is possible that at times we let our guard down and make ‘mistakes’, and neither we nor our friends should have to pay a price for doing so. as kavita krishnan said so well, we have every right to be ‘adventurous’ or ‘risky’ without having to suffer terrible consequences. i hope that change comes soon, when we in delhi will no longer each have stories like these to tell

  5. January 7, 2013 8:39 PM

    Beautiful piece. Wish you more courage, more freedom.

  6. January 7, 2013 10:33 PM

    fantastic article. flow is spot on and the anger palpable. thanks.

  7. Zee permalink
    January 8, 2013 12:03 AM

    I visited Pakistan recently and was shocked at how people travelled. My relatives would not allow me to walk out or get a cab. Why would anyone have an interest in an old woman like me? I wasn’t brave enough to try out going out on my own. I wonder…

    Now back in “the West” I look around and wonder what makes women safe? I don’t know but I am going to find out..

  8. Anon. permalink
    January 8, 2013 2:06 AM

    Here is the thing- women are our worst enemy. I was taught by my mom and various aunts that men are lecherous, and have only one thing in mind -sex. They taught me to come home and share, too. But they also insisted that it be not revealed or made public- the shame you see, and the fear of being called ‘forward’ or ‘slut’ or ‘modern’. Because only those girls get groped.
    I’m a bit like you- not brave in the self-aware sense, but my gut reaction is rage and violence. I was pinched on my waist in a bus on the way to college. I caught the hand as it moved away from my body and whipped around (as much as you can whip around in a crowded bus), and guy was leering at me, ‘yea, so it was me, watchya gonna do bout it?’ kind of look. I was furious, I snapped, I hit, I punched, I pulled his hair. The guy was a foot taller than me, but was so stunned that someone was fighting back, he did not move. After a few seconds, I realized what I was doing, and I had no space to turn tail and run. It was not like park which I could safely avoid, it was a bus I HAD to take everyday to college. Not one pathetic soul on the bus stirred to help me, not even my classmate( she tried to sushi me). I got the impression that they wanted me to shut up and go away.
    Here is the sad part- I’m 28 now, I live in a community and am very socialble. I have a blog which is read by people I know. But I will not write about this there- my community would still not accept it, my husband would not accept it. There is such a pressure to keep things quiet from one’s own family- even my mom. I’m a confident mother of two, with a good career, excellent support system and strong financial back ground, and I can’t speak, not because I have nothing to say about the recent Delhi gage rape, but because no one wants to hear it.

    • Tejaswi permalink
      January 8, 2013 4:48 PM

      Then speak about it and damn the rest of them. That is what empowers men and boys – the silence of the lambs.
      If you are not a tigress, you will be gobbled. Speak and let the world know – not loudly, not with vociferous spite, but sensibly like you already have. None of us are brave, not one of us. But when cornered, every animal fights. And I hope that instinct is not lost to us. So, please write on. Blog, local newspapers, articles – just write.

  9. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    January 8, 2013 4:05 AM

    I liked Flavia Agnes’s advice to her daughters. It empowered them while also betraying a mother’s concern. Your own post too is quite empowering !

  10. Dinaz Stafford permalink
    January 9, 2013 8:11 PM

    It has been this way for so long that I am thrilled to see that it’s finally time to lash out en masse rather than in isolated incidents as a single girl. Being a Bombay girl I was always angry when I visited Delhi! Glad to hear the outpouring of words

  11. January 10, 2013 1:45 PM

    I loved that you bring up the differences between protection, safety and freedom- a distinction that is oft abused and mostly ignored. If only each and every one of women decided to indulge (for lack of another word) in three liberating acts of freedom everyday, things might change sooner than the pessimists would have us think.

    Good luck!

  12. Sharanya Deepak permalink
    March 14, 2013 12:25 PM

    I try to surprise them, the starers/letchers/assholes. By pretending to take a photograph on my own or telling them the time though they didn’t ask. The anger is exhausting so I try new things but eventually I just want to hack my fist into someone’s brain. I wish that for one day Delhi could be easy to love. Not complex, and eventually “oh BUT the mutton at chandni chowk is so beautiful” kind of love but just a “taking a walk on this road is so much fun” kind.

  13. Sunalini permalink*
    March 15, 2013 8:06 AM

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Reminded me of bell hooks’ work. I remember the same thing happening to me – I was in a parking lot, 7 pm, enough light, lots of shoppers, cars, the lone security guard – your usual scenario. I had only just entered it when a man – smartly dressed, young executive type with a laptop – passed me, I sidestepped, he grabbed my crotch hard, released it and hurried on. For a second my heart collapsed to my feet. Then for some odd reason, after all those years of being silent and frustrated at the world, after all those years of painful self-flagellation and paralysis…I whirled around with a gigantic wave of anger that had just crashed inside me and grabbed his arm with my left hand. I pulled him in front of me (he was at least a foot taller than I) and with my right hand I was slapping and punching him blindly. Until my hands were red and swollen. And I was shouting abuse I didn’t know I knew. I kept asking him “why did you do it?” (as if there is an answer) and he shrugged, expressionless. Which made me angrier…The crowds ignored us, probably thought it was a lovers’ quarrel, and when my grip on his hand slipped and he silently and efficiently ran away melting into the crowd (confirming to me this was not his first time), the guard walked over hesitantly, asking if something was wrong. What could I say? But despite the one hour spent afterwards sitting in my friend’s car, crying and utterly exhausted, it was worth it. I had snapped. Delhi could take it back from me, because I wasn’t going to feel that vulnerable ever again.
    Friends were supportive, shocked along with me, and eventually we all began to joke about my big explosion. Some of them said it was because of the ongoing fight I had been having with my partner – it had got transferred to the attacker. Who knows? Who knows for sure if that wasn’t a factor? This is what annoys me no end about paternalistic folk who try to give readymade ‘solutions’ for all possible scenarios of sexual assault. And this is what your post so beautifully put, “There is no algorithm for resistance or personal agency in the glare of risk.” All we can do is teach our daughters less fear and ‘respect’ and our sons a little more of both, and hope the algorithm will work, at that moment.

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  1. The Discussion on VAW in India as 2013 Begins | Genderlog
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