THERE are certain everyday occurrences that you, as a woman, probably never really pay attention to. They are, after all, as everyday as dal-rice. It could be the balding old uncle, respectably dressed for his government job, who just can’t stop staring at your breasts on the bus. Or it could be the idle college boys, propping themselves up against a wall, who pass certain comments as you walk by. You’re not sure what these comments are, because by now, they’re part of the noise of life, much like traffic. But if you stopped to listen, you probably won’t like what you hear. Or take the many men who, as you rush towards your fast train at Churchgate station, go out of their way to brush against your arm. Or better yet, feel the soft press of your breasts. God alone knows what pleasure they get out of it, you wonder casually, as you dodge them just enough to merely let them scrape your sleeve.
But if you pause and really, truly think about it, you probably won’t be so dismissive of it. Really…what do these men get out of pinching the bum of a girl they don’t know? Is it sexual pleasure? What pleasure can come out of that momentary encounter? And it’s clearly not going to be a mutual thing – the man may pinch the girl’s bum, but its highly unlikely that she’ll respond with any pleasure and give him a kiss. Or a blowjob. Or even a smile. What he is likely to get is either feigned ignorance or, if the girl can raise herself out of her apathy and/or terror, a slap in the face. Or at least a glare. Where is the pleasure in that?
It only proves, as you have no doubt read, that sexual harrasment is less to do with sexual desire and more to do with a exerting power. These reprehensible acts of pinching, prodding, shoving, squeezing are all part of a desire to reduce their victims to mere objects. A woman may be independent, she may earn more than you or have more respect in society that you, but if you reduce her to being a mere recepient of all your sexual acts, what can she be, except a victim? She’s reduced to less than human stature and by default, your stature rises.
These are just guesses of mine, of course. I don’t really claim to know or read the minds of all those men who mouth obscenities at me as I pass them by, or those who feel they have to show their acknowledgement of me as a woman by feeling me up. Or flashing their penises. But I do know how I feel. I feel rage. I feel bitterness. And I feel very very helpless. Often, I’ve found myself musing if there will ever be a day when I won’t be forced to face the fact that just because I happen to be female, I have to walk with my bag held protectively in front of me. That I have to stick out my elbows when I make my way through a crowded bus. Or that I jump at the slightest touch – even that of a young child, just trying to push her way through. I feel saddened by the thought that some of the most basic pleasures of life are denied to me. I can’t just walk, lost in my own thoughts, along Marine Drive because that would be an invitation for catcalls or unapologetic staring. I can’t sit quietly on a park bench, reading a book or simply staring into space, because that would mean I’m ‘soliciting unwanted attention’. My only refuge is my home where I can feel safe from unwanted attention. [FYI: this is a topic that has been dealt with in a new book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. It’s on my ‘To Read’ list.]
For some women, though, even that little comfort is denied. One girl is pimped out by her father to local policemen. One girl is raped by her father and, many years later, by her son. We can’t count the other rapes in between. Another woman is forced to take the virginity of each of her male cousins, while the rest watch and videotape the acts. It was a shock even to me, aware as I am of how prevalent sexual harassment is, to learn of these stories.
You’ll read all these and more in Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing. It’s the story of a beautiful, charming dance bar girl, Leela, movingly told by the author. The first, brutal sexual violation, the determination to get the better of her circumstances, the first harsh days in Mumbai, the brief triumph and then the downward spiral into desperation. For Faleiro, it started as a reporter’s article, but she clearly got emotionally involved with the subject. I heard her say at her Kala Ghoda book discussion earlier this year that as she talked to Leela, she realized that there’s a book in there. I’m not surprised. Leela has a fascinating story of her own, but she’s ultimately just Faleiro’s, and the reader’s, gateway into this whole other side of life that we’ve never really bothered to think of. Or maybe, we were just too scared to devote much thought to it. Who knows what unpleasantness we would unearth should we delve deep into the subject?
Mercifully, Faleiro is free of such apprehensions. She’s gone down to all the brutal details, but she’s not been heavy handed about it. It isn’t one long litany of miseries that she lists. There are some moments when Leela and her friends seem truly happy. Like when they attend a birthday party in Kamathipura. Or during their nights at the dance bar where they’re showered with attention and compliments. But it’s by no means an easy book to read, neither is it uplifting. Read it if you’re interested in not sticking your head in the ground anymore.