Not lockdown, but still lockdown.
Not lockdown because many shops are open during the day. The number of people milling on the streets has gone up. I miss those initial days of lockdown when I could walk out into the street, and it would just be me and the trees, and the occasional crow or mayna or pigeon (Probably trying to angle its butt over my head. Never succeeding. I move fast).
Everything is shut after 7 in the evening. All it takes is an errant virus to turn metropolitan Delhi to look like a dim dull inconsequential town of some far-flung impoverished state; so many of those in India. One faraway street lamp. An open shop in the distance. A couple of boys leaning on a bike, and the rare cycle squeaking away to its tedious destination for the night’s respite. This is Delhi now. Five months into 2020.
I go out for walks at night. Spending entire days at home, within walls is psychologically damaging. You don’t see it, but it manifests itself a little bit each day till you realize you are ready to be a monster. So, I go out for walks at night. Not every day. Maybe every other day. Yes, that’s about right. And I see the number of vehicles increasing gradually. A week back I saw my first auto. It’s shiny pink seat inviting me for a quick spin around my city. The driver slowing down a little.
On that evening, I got out as I usually do. I am fuming for some reason. Staying at home makes me feel docile and peaceful. And I realize that makes me angry. That’s not my situation of choice apparently. I want to be ‘galiyon ki rani’ or something like that it seems. I am ambling down my usual path, circling the locality of my residence. Pretty much the same route I tend to take. Gives me maximum mileage.
When suddenly I hear a sigh, “kash mere naseeb mein bhi aisa maal hota”.
Three decades of female human existence on this planet, so to say this part of the planet, has tuned by radar sharp to spot indecency even when I’m not looking for it. I notice it before my mind can process the comment. It’s a dimly lit road joining the highway just a few steps ahead.
To my right, leaning on a bike sits a young boy, talking on the phone, and he had just gestured to his friends to come join him. Has nothing to do with me. They are dealing with some conversation on the phone. Their damn business. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see 4-5 boys walk towards the bike. And that’s when I hear the comment which makes my radar beep.
By this time, I am already walking ahead of the group. Yet it doesn’t take too much wit, intellect, or as a lot of people say rocket science, to figure out that sigh which was just breathed out was aimed at a female human. The only female human on this stretch of the road is me.
Do I let it go? I should let it go. I just want some peace of mind. I have had a rough day. I don’t need this. This is when I turn around. About 3 meters ahead of where the comment was uttered. And I walk back with a head bob asking, “did you say something?”
This is not the first time I find myself in this situation. I have heard lewd comments before. I have faced worse. I was 11, and on my way back home from school with my mother on a DTC bus when I felt a man rub something really soft on my arm. Something really vile. I didn’t know it back then. Yet I knew it back then. I knew it enough to not be able to push him away. Not be able to tell my mum about it. To feel dirty. I bottled it up. It now comes back as anger. Irrepressible vile dirty anger, and it is, my friend. My savior and my death.
I have had decades of practice, so, when I walk back I have no doubt in my heart. I want to shame the loser who thinks he’s too smart to zip it or keep it in his pants. I want to slap his teeth out of his skull.
I don’t though.
The thought is amusing. The exchange we have even more so. It’s impressive how glib he was when uttering his intentions when I was not looking at him. But now when I turned back, looked him in the eyes and asked, “did you say something?”
His first reaction is to pull down his COVID mask, stutter like a nincompoop, and repeat a line he had said before the problematic comment.
He doesn’t even have it in him to own up to what he said. I press on. Watching his imbecile brain at work. His “bro gang” does what bro gangs are meant to do. Step up in his defense. The word “ma’am” comes up.
“Ma’am, he was talking on the phone.”
“No. He was not talking on the phone.”
Having got a moment to gather his thoughts, the imbecile walks ahead of his group, turns to me and says,
“Let’s go there and talk.”
“No. Let’s talk here.”
Another “bro” stands up to defend him.
I stop him with a gesture of my hand and turn back to imbecile. “You know what you did. You should know what you did.”
And walk away with nothing better to do. Quite an anti-climatic end to the altercation. Not for my body. My body is having trauma reactions. It’s shivering. Palpitating. And my mind is quickly taking into account the situation we are all in.
COVID-19 has emptied the streets. It’s dark and deserted, and needless to say, for most men this is the perfect playground. How confident the imbecile must have felt to utter his wistful shit thought out loud. All we need is a virus to show us our true standards. The progressive human race. Some even go as far as to call it ‘mankind’.
But I’m glad I walked back. I will walk back a thousand times over to have this similar insipid exchange. Because my mind knows I stood up for myself. I owe it to my 11-year-old self. I wasn’t some vegetable on display by the side of the road that you can pass, says a comment on, and get away with.
I can’t remember when I started doing the talking back act. I know a lot of people, particularly women, have asked me to not do it for my own sake, for my own safety. No way in hell am I going to choose being safe over standing up for myself.
That trauma reaction? That would have happened either way. Whether I walked away or not. When I am objectified, my body reacts to it. I’d rather go down with a fight. Amen.
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