Everyone has strange encounters in Bitch City, but last week I had one that was…just, well, bizzare. Later, I wondered about it, and about my reactions to it, and thought, maybe I should’ve done something different. Here’s a play-by-play.
I was taking a train from Mahim to Vile Parle, dressed in a skirt and a tank top, with a shawl to bundle up in. I was carrying a staff.
I don’t really see how any of this is strange, except the staff. To clarify, it was a fire staff, and I was travelling to a friend’s terrace for a weekend fireplay session. I stepped into the ladies’ compartment at 11.15 pm, only to realise that this wasn’t the “24 HRS LADIES ONLY” compartment, so there were a few men hanging around near the door.
A genial, middle-aged man smiled at me and asked me what the staff was for, and I told him. He inspected it, tapping at the end, which is something I don’t really appreciate, but I smiled politely anyway. Then, he reached into his bag and pulled out a miniature copy of the New Testament.
“Free gift for you,” he said. “Read it. It will change your life.”
Awesome, I thought to myself, I always wanted an excuse to peruse the Bible and its possible philosophical flaws. I flipped through a couple of pages and then put it away to people-watch.
The next thing I know, this sweet gentleman with a bag full of Bibles has taken out his cell phone and is taking photos of me.
This has never happened to me before, and I didn’t really know how the fuck to react, so I instinctively just turned away. I looked away, hid my face under my long fringe and wondered what the hell was happening and why. Just before I stepped off at the next station, the sweet little man snapped yet another photo, and as I got off the train it suddenly hit me that something was very wrong here.
But I was probably just having a bizzare day, right? Right?
I told a friend about it later, laughing at the strangeness of it all, and she said, “So did you take away his phone?”
That’s when I realised what an idiot I’d been. I should have just made a scene and taken his phone away, because by keeping quiet, I was letting this happen. Apparently, in this city, in this country, silence means yes.
I’ve been reading through an underground internet forum as part of some research I’m doing, and it’s suddenly hit me that all eyes are on you. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you look like. It makes no difference if you’re wearing a baggy Patiala or a tiny skirt, or anything, really. Someone is looking at you. Someone is making a mental note of your vital stats in their head. Someone may think of you when they’re in bed.
And you can’t do anything about it.
Stepping off the train, I was reminded of Bombay-based photographer Fabien Charuau’s project, ‘Send Some Candids’. (link) The project is a compilation of candid photographs of women in public spaces, found on various Indian internet forums by Charuau. In his description to the project, he explains that, while entire fora are devoted to highly voyeuristic cell phone images, there are also very candid and moving images online. “Through these sites, we get a first hand account of Indian male sexuality. These images also represent the skewed power structures where men are predators, and women must forever be on guard,” he writes.
And that’s just it. Women must forever be on guard. Walking around my neighbourhood one night at 2am, just because I feel like it, I’m subjected to repeated hisses of “Ey sssssexxy,” not 100 metres away from my building. Keep your hackles raised, fists ready to punch, guard up all the time, is that it? Live in any city in India every week, thankful that you haven’t been poked at, but knowing that at least ten men are staring at you at any given point? If I sift through more forums, will I possibly find a grainy image of my face, hidden by my hair?
If you think about it, really think about it, chances are, you won’t ever want to step out of your house. There are two ways to go about this. Either be paranoid, or, just…practice acquiescence, as so many women do every day. Stand by, as so many people do, while their rights are infringed upon. Because what else can be done, right? And with things like photo-taking, what can you even complain about? I’m a photographer myself, I take photos of people on the street (when they’re not looking). When it comes down to it, how is what I do any different from what happened on the train?
It’s a grey area in my head. But what I do know is this. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, say so. You don’t have to make a scene or anything, but just say what’s going through your head. And what went through my head was simply this: “Uncle, I take photos for a living, I prefer being behind the lens, so please stop shoving your shitty phone cam in my face, thanks a lot.”
That’s all. Maybe that would have helped.