Growing up in Delhi came as a rude shock after spending my first few years in small town Gujarat. I came from the land of simplicity to the land of bling, of ‘shosha’ – a term that is difficult to translate, but roughly means ‘show off’. And most of all, I moved from carefree to unsafe.
The rules in Delhi were clear – stay at home unless you need to go out. Never go out alone – always move in pairs or groups. That way, if you are in trouble, somebody can run and get help for you. Be aware of everyone around you and never let anyone even walk close to you. Be aware, you may be followed. But of course, with your eyes lowered. Never, ever make eye contact with anyone, certainly never with any male. And certainly, never ever smile. A smile is an invitation without limits.
Even today, I never sit in the seat behind the driver in a car for fear of eye contact. Ladies do not, if they can help it.
Each one of us who grew up in Delhi had dealt with eve teasing. I speak not of the disgust, the shame, the fear and the violation. However minor, it hurt our souls – we were minors too. We learnt to cope. I still do not walk at the edge of the road, leaving enough room to dodge in case some one lunges towards me. We learnt to walk with our elbows akimbo. In buses, we learnt not to sit on the aisle seat. A friend carried a compass and did not fear poking those who poked her. We were never alone in public transport, yet we were silent. Grim women, who feared to speak – for one never knew what revenge might be extracted for opening our mouth. Hushed stories were shared, and fear fostered. We were young. It took me years to start saying loudly and clearly – Bhai sahab, thoda peeche ho jaayeye. (Brother, please step back). Accompanied by the clear eyed look that teachers have.
There were more rules – never step out after dark, certainly not alone. Even during the day (we learnt later after a near miss), ensure that there are more men than women in every private vehicle. Never enter a bus after dark, definitely not one where there are no other women. Even today, decades later, I look at every passing bus and rarely see a woman there after dark.
Ensure clothes were camoflague – large, shapeless and designed to blend in. Of course we dressed prettily, for fun too. We were Delhi girls – we don’t get beaten down that easily. But we did not break the rules. There were bounds to everything we said and did, Lakshman rekhas never to be crossed. We looked like everybody else – bright voluminous ships floating by unseen. For to be seen, to be noticed was dangerous.
My grandmother had come through the partition. She never spoke of it, so I fear there were stories not to be told. I rebelled when she said that my arms must always be covered, I screamed when she asked me to look dowdy on most days, I ranted when she or my grandfather followed me when I stepped out to go to a friend’s house in the evening. It was much later that I realised that they were not judging me. They were judging the animals out there on the streets and wanted to be sure they were there for me.
There were those who did break the rules. No, not talking about ‘bad’ girls. We did not judge our friends, they made their own choices. I speak of the ones who did not have to stick to the rules – the ones with brothers in politics with goonda friends or the ones with connections in the police or the army. Those girls were safer, they could even party in the evening, not ordinary girls. Those girls had more power than we did – their connections could get the predators beaten up – and they did. They were left alone. They had ‘back’. We oiled our hair and studied at home. We cooked, we wrote, we repaired fuses – but all in protected zones. Did we miss freedom? We did not know any different.
We were not backward or awkward, nor did we see ourselves as conservative. But staying safe was a priority. The first filter in any decision making was safety. Stepping out of our bounds was unthinkable, the consequences too brutal to even imagine. I now look back and wonder if we grew up in paranoia. Then I read the newspapers, hear and remember the stories, and sigh – At least we were safe.
I do believe that self referencing is not a good way to judge a society or a market. This is but a personal note, not an article.