2.7.05

http://hemanginigupta.blogspot.com/

Train to Chennai
I wrote out this blog post in my head long before I was anywhere near a computer, and funnily now when I sit down to actually write it, whatever happened sounds like the narrative I've been unleashing on people not a real incident at all.I took the night train to Chennai Saturday night for a friend's wedding. I was travelling alone, and happy to have the Upper Berth of the three tier compartment. My mum came to see me off and worried, as she usually does, about the occupants: "That guy looks shady", she said, pointing to the occupant of the other Upper Berth but I brushed it aside as paranoia, reminded her I'd been travelling alone on three tier since college and then, once the train left, went up and straight to sleep.It was hard to sleep, despite the sheet covering me. I was restless and tossing from side to side. The guy in the Upper Berth next to me appeared to be jerking off, but I ignored him. Finally I drifted into a light sleep till about one a.m. when I felt something brush my foot. I moved my foot well under my sheet, thinking 'Funny, I didn't think I was tall enough to be extending out of my berth'.Then, about three in the morning, the lights are off, it's deathly quiet, the guy in the Upper Berth next to me (I haven't noticed him much so far, since I'm not wearing my lenses or glasses) gets restless. He wakes up, goes down, shuffles around, then comes back up and just sits still on his berth. Next thing I know (and I'm half asleep, crouched in my usual foetal-sleeping position facing him) he reaches out and touches me, between my legs, with the end of his foot. I start, jerk my hand out and push his foot away, so he withdraws immediately. I think (and why, why, why do women always do this) he must have made a mistake and just been stretching or something. Lots of people stretch their leg, unintentionally touching the other berth. I tried to drift back into sleep, thinking of an FIR I had filed earlier, on grounds of harrassment when a Maruti car, messing with mine as I was driving, eased up to my car, lightly bumped it and then veered away, it's occupants hugely amused that they had shaken me. The cop station, where I was offered tea and then commented upon, "You are so thin, yet so brave, Madam", proved more harrassing than the incident. My mind was running through that incident. Also it struck me as sort of unfair, in that deathly quiet compartment, that everyone would be fast asleep while I was left uneasily awake, wondering about the intentions of the man next to me and having to be on alert. I wanted to turn away from him, but in the back of my head an alarm bell had rung so I didn't.At 3:30 a.m., my Upper Berth neighbour reaches and touches my breast. I don't know what he was expecting. That I would simper coyly and turn away? That I would ignore him? Encourage him? Mind boggling possibilities.I'm hugely sensitive to men touching me, often stopping calling people who even casually throw their arm around me (it's just a thing I have), so this was trauma for me. I was up like a shot; my mind blank in my half-sleep and all I did was scream. It was strange, thinking back on it. I wasn't angry, I wasn't yelling expletives, or hell, even sentences or words. It was just like an animal-in-pain screaming. Shrill, loud, repetitive. No words, just screaming and screaming till the lights were flicked on, people hurriedly woke up, the TC came running.Upper Berth man says loudly aggressively, "Kya hua? Kya hua?" ("What happened? what happened?") and then slowly words formed in my head; the shock, the outrage, the sense of violation was replaced by a hysterical screaming, "Kya kar rahe ho?" ("What are you doing?") Again and again and again.The TC, sensing Upper Berth Man's apparent complete shock turned to me, still shaking in my berth. I could barely see anything, compounding my sense of disorientation. "Madam, you must have been dreaming," says the TC. No one else is talking. I realised in an instant that the whole episode could quickly turn against me. Everyone would be annoyed at being woken up by a silly, hysterical girl, the Upper Berth guy would be glad to evade responsibility, the TC glad to avert a potential nuisance.So I calmed down. "Sir," I pointed out, in my best English, "This is not the first time tonight this has happened. This man has been repeatedly touching me.""Are you alone, Madam?""Yes, sir."I think that's what did it. Upper Berth man was yanked down, the Railway Cops (they had come by too, by this time) grabbed hold of him, and the TC told me to come down and write out a complaint.The Man began begging for mercy. "You are ruining my life," he told me in Hindi. "Please forgive me." Then, in English, "I could not control myself." Like a Saamna editorial. I told him to stop touching me again. I told the cops to hold him back. I wrote in shaky handwriting something that resembled a complaint, on the back of the TCs name sheets. I was unsure what to write so I wrote coyly: "A man was touching my private parts". His baggage was pulled down and, still begging for mercy, he was led away. I went up to sleep. No one else in all the people who had gathered said a word either to each other or to me.I tried to sleep, felt a little tearful, found I couldn't text the one person I wanted to, and finally fell into restless sleep till 5:15 a.m. when we reached Chennai.I thought it was over, but the TC was back, and told me if I wanted to file an FIR (and I was sure I did) I would have to come to the police station. I told him I'd join him and waited for the compartment to empty. No one had said a word to me in all of this, which was fine, I didn't expect them to, but as they left the train, everyone passing me would look up, glance at me and then move on. It was horrible. I felt guilty somehow. For waking them up, for having screamed so much, for not just shutting up and going back to sleep, I suppose.As I left the train, the Man was outside, hands folded, begging some more. I walked with the TC, the Man behind us, surrounded by Railway Police. Someone else came up to me as I walked and said in a low voice, "Madam, treat me like your brother, I am a member of the public. Have mercy on this boy, madam, he has come to do a Railway exam. You will ruin his life Madam. As a member of the public, I appeal to you, Madam."I'm not a very angry person, so I didn't feel angry. I felt annoyed. And tired. Whose side was everybody on? "Where were you when this happened?" I asked him."Sleeping, Madam.""What did you do when you heard me?""I came running, Madam.""And then?""And now I request you, Madam?"I can't follow this kind of argument especially not after a night like the one I had had."I'm not in a particularly good mood," I said, "please go away." He did.The cops were waking up at the cop station in Chennai Central. Buttoning up checked chirts, joking sleepily on their walkie talkies. I was asked to sit, the Man thrown on the floor by me.The cop on duty was told what happened. He broke into Tamil. "You've come for an exam and this is what you do?" he asked the man. Man spoke no English, he was from Bihar. Another cop wandered in flicking a long cane stick and walloped the man, making large swishing noises. I felt like in a scene from Maximum City.I was made to file another complaint. The Man kept reaching out to touch my feet, "Ma, ma," he kept saying. In Hindi, 'don't ruin my life.'It's funny how everything becomes familial when a woman is concerned. The Member of the Public was my brother, my molester calls me his mother. My identity is submerged in this larger social structure. Soon I have another identity:
The Hindu journalist. Every time I was referred to after that, I was The Hindu journalist. In Chennai, it's a very big deal.The Man is taken off into the lock up and half and hour later a woman cop shows up. I'm taken into another room, where she offers me boiling coffee from a thermacol cup and suggests, somewhat deferentially, that I should reconsider pressing charges because (again), "You will ruin his life Madam."I tell her in Tamil that, as a woman, she should understand my feelings. "I feel strongly about this," I say. She apologises and agrees that I could do whatever I thought best and she would facilitate.The Sub Inspector now arrives, I file a third complaint with many details (such as his name: Sanjeev Kumar, age: 28 and address: Madhubani District, Bihar).At 10: 30 I have to return to meet the Inspector. On my way to his room, I pass the Man in lock up. I cannot bear to look at him, I haven't throughout all this, except to notice two rings he wears on his two last fingers of the left hand, but my friend points out he is cowered in a corner, shirtless.In instances like this, you feel (or atleast I did) a huge overwhelming feeling. For me it was outrage. At his audacity, more than anything, and the fact that I could not call a tiny berth my own without someone impinging on that space. But when you want to respond with an equivalent grand gesture, such as filing an FIR, imprisoning the perpetrator, the system stalls you. In a devious way. It's not hard to do, it's just long to do, complex to do. Hours to wait. For Sub Inspectors, TCs to attest, women police, Inspectors, and I found out at 10: 30 am when I returned with a friend, some two hours just to make handwritten copies of the FIR. It's so exhausting and annoying you want to walk away, wash yourself, get food and sleep. That's how the system breaks you down. Through triplicate copies, not any direct refusal to do your bidding.Anyway, Sanjeev Kumar has been booked under Sections 354 and 509 of the IPC and under the Prevention of Harrassment of Women Act, 1998. It is a non-bailable offence for 15 days, during which he is in a remand facility. After which he needs someone to furnish a bail warrant; the bail amount is minimal. And then the hearing will be in a few months. I haven't decided if I want to come down from Delhi all the way for it.Everyone I told this story to, had a story of their own. My friend's tummy was rubbed up and down till she woke up, another woke up to find two hands on her breasts, my aunt woke up to find a man had straddled her, my mother woke up to a man running his fingers down her body... everyone has a story. I called my mum after I left the cop station the first time. I said, "Do you think I over-reacted?" And this other voice in my head laughed at me, and our society. A strange man, touches you twice in the middle of the night, and your greatest worry when you screamed and complained, is, "Did I over react"?!And some... almost, guilt... when people kept telling me I'd ruin his life, and when they looked hostile at my screaming. Some amazement that no one said a thing to me after the man was taken away, all happy elderly couples right beneath me, middle aged women beneath my berth. Not a word. Cops wanting to dissaude me. Some inexplicable class-consciousness feelings toward Sanjeev Kumar - "You dirty, low caste man touching me" - this is too uncomfortabe for me to believe I was thinking like that, but it happened so I record it.And now, some satisfaction that he is locked up for 15 days.Update: I took a flight back, like a wuss. And I felt like I was doing sort of a disservice to all the people who couldn't afford to buy their way out of a situation, but I just couldn't bear another three tier overnight journey. Really.

11 comments:

  1. There are about 124 comments on the original post so I'll start this one off here. I am saddened by this incident - sad that women have to "put up" with this sort of shit everyday. Sad that the infrastructure meant to protect them ends up being so uncompassionate. Mr. Sanjeev Kumar deserves, in my mind, a lot more than a simple slap on the hand (15 days - is that it?) Are there other viable prescriptions (other than jail time) that may, teach men to respect and cherish women?

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  2. had dropped by to paste in the link to this post, glad to find it already here.

    Unfortunately..i dont think we can ever make people like sanjeev kumar understand how to "respect and cherish women". If one spends a considerable amount of time in various parts of India one would be surprised by the varying degrees of (dis)respect that women are treated with. Having made my journey from the land of matriarchical society in Meghalaya, through the eclectic mix of rural and urban mindset in metropolitan Calcutta and now the urban yet traditional Pune, I have felt that it is the culture of a region that dictates how its inhabitants would turn out to be. i have been physically molested multiple times on the streets of Calcutta and turned back to find the molesters gleefully fleeing after enjoying their brief moment of "triumph". Venturing out on the streets always came along with the baggage that one would be exposed to catcalls and other forms of harrassment. evidently these men used such means to reassure themselves in small doses of their worthiness which was otherwise not visible or they just didnt give a damn as women according to their physical surroundings or culture were never respected. ..so even if a lady ends up as a highly educated professor or CEO etc..she would still be a second grade human being in their books.

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  3. akhila2:25 pm

    I truly appreciate the grit and determination it takes to go the whole hog and as i read it i couldn't help but relive my sevral such experiences but where i felt angry and helpless... While on one hand it felt empowering but it was also very depressing... it is at times like these that one feels truly alone...

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  4. Pritha5:53 pm

    Akhila, you're so right. I have protested loud and clear a couple of times, at the workplace, only to find myself alone in the battle to retrive my dignity. Suddenly there's no one around you. Have stood my ground but also in a sense been alienated while the offender has gone on ahead with promotions. I admire Hemangini's grit and courage and hope there'll be more such women coming out and making sure that these men get what they deserve.

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  5. Something else from the story that far more scarier -

    The guy was arrested, beat and imprisoned on the basis of nothing but a word from the woman. What if in a different scenerio, a woman just cries foul against an innocent man and accuses him of harrasing her without him having done anything .... I am sure he will be destoyed just because some crazy woman wanted his life destroyed! Truly scary (I am not saying this was the case here, so please let the flame_artists stay home).And how is the system unfair to women, again? Perhaps, you should stop for a moment and think: may be you demand too much; may be you want to live in utopia!

    Does it take courage to do what she did ?

    Determination, yes. Courage, no. Courage to do what - destroy the life of some "low caste" person ? I am sure we are doing enough of that as a society. It is not really a big deal to go to the station and spend a couple of hours and keep checking in every few days (which required patience but not courage), but you make it sound like she scaled the mount everest.

    Your shackles are self-imposed. You think filing an FIR is a big step; its not. She is not going to be fired from her job, disowned by her family, or ordered to marry the guy who harassed her! Any woman with a ounce of self-respect can do that; but, most victims internalize the shame, and do nothing about it. And, who's mistake is that (I am not talking of non-mainstream circumstance where children are involved, , etc., but adult woman with a head on their shoulders)? This is how I look at them:

    These women want to get a free ride on the changes that might happen because of people like this woman (who complained), but themeselves are unwilling to expend the effort to do the least (go and file an FIR) when it happens to them. And, instead of blaming themselves for allowing the harassement to persist, they make a legend out of an ordinary activity of going to file an FIR! Phew.. twisted justicication at its best. I have no respect for the victims who glorify silent suffering, when there is a possibility to do something about it, but they are too squeamish to do anything. You are not going to obtain change untill you demand it and do something about it.. but, please stop gloryifying what this woman did (so that you can still deem you inaction normal, and her unusual), and start peeling off the layers of weak reasons you give yourselves to let incidents like this go unreported.

    And, all this inspite of a system that beats the living daylight out of people because of your word, just because you are a woman! Aah.. the lies we tell ourselves to validate our chocies and our inaction. Next time you leave things unreported, just admit that you are too lazy, or that you really dont care about harassment enough to actually do something about it.

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  6. chinmayee12:13 pm

    junk_alpha - much as i hate to admit it, you are actually extemely fascinating. why the hell don't you update your own blog and take your rants there?

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  7. why the hell don't you update your own blog and take your rants there?

    If you understand this, you will know the answer:

    Q. What colour is the sky?
    A. A Fish.

    Email me, when you do, coz then, I must admit you are fascinating too ;)

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  8. well everybody i know experiences it. who talks about it and why?
    did anyone here share their experience of street sexual harassment when they were children? I remember being silent, feeling guilt and sick about my body.

    while discussing the clothes project with old classmates from school....most said that they would like to send their school uniform to build testimonials..

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  9. " And, who's mistake is that (I am not talking of non-mainstream circumstance where children are involved, , etc., but adult woman with a head on their shoulders)? This is how I look at them:"

    but adult woman with a head on their shoulders)? This is how I look at them:"

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  10. >> Well everybody i know experiences it. who talks about it and why? ... I remember ... feeling guilt and sick about my body.

    "Sexual Harassment" is not one problem. It is a constellation of problems. And one cannot hold children responsible for not complaining about "sexual harssment of children" because, well, they are children. We as a society, have notions of major and minor before attributing people full responsibility of their actions.

    I realize that you pose a rhetorical question here, and I am not suggesting that the victims should be blamed for being victims. However, they can be blamed for not seeking action to do something about it. I realize, there might consequences for themselves (people blaming them instead etc.), but since they are unwilling to pay the price, it will most likely remain a problem.

    Of course, there is always a chain of responsibility for a given cause and effect:

    1. The perpetutor of the crime, is primarily responsible for harssing a girl, and is the necessary cause.
    2. The victim who lets issues stay unreported (for whatever substantial reasons) come next in the chain.
    3. The prevailing norms of the society that discourage the victim, and passively encourage the perpetuator are untimately responsible.

    There are different strategies to deal with each of chains of responsibilty, and only the first falls under "a functioning law and justice system". The other two are battles in the mindspace, and must be tackled for long term results.

    However, I must hasten to add that, this project though works in the mindspace, does not work towards a concrete objective, and so its utility towards effecting some change is only nominal.

    And if you want to prevent children from street harassment, then talk to them and tell them about their options and recourses; it would surely be more efficient than targetting the perputators.

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  11. Anonymous3:18 pm

    Infact I've even seen older men often brush up against young ladies on roadsides etc.

    This was one ordeal on train,imagine what women and girls have to go through on roads,buses everyday.

    Pathetic state of affairs.

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