Freedom in Three Acts: @Koinon3a
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.