Growing up as a girl in sexist India was not easy for me or my mother or her mother. It is not easy for the next generation of spunky girls.
Every day, someone is taken advantage of or has her modesty outraged.
The heartening thing is, we now have a collective noun to name the horrors. Also, all women are unified by the fact that at some stage or another, we all have faced gender-driven atrocities and violation! The only difference is that some of us have been better equipped mentally, physically, socially by our families to face, combat and emerge victorious over the innumerable #MeToos.
Here follow a handful of impressionable snapshots of my life’s story speckled with several #MeToos. The way I have turned out to be — largely scar-free — I have a lot to thank a clutch of significant men and one courageous woman for.
The grounding must start early.
I must have been a stout two-year old, bigger and stronger for my age, as I stood next to a boy who was a few years older but several inches narrower. That I could throw him to the ground in one swift move became ‘folklore-ish’ in our family and friends circle.
My family taught me no toys are only for boys. (Picture for representation: Reuters)
Moral of the story — I was not laughed at, the boy’s ego was handled with sensitivity, so that he didn’t grow up bruised, I was taught that I was no less than a man (or a boy in this case) and that I needn’t grow up differently than a male child. This was in the western part of the country.
It always starts at home.
We moved up north when my father got posted to another station. Staying in a big, old, cantonment bungalow was fun. There were so many games to be played with a large group of friends — both boys and girls. It was also fun studying in a co-educational school that reinforced that boys and girls were much the same, and one was not superior to the other.
At one time, in this spacious bungalow, my grandfather came to stay with us just as I was getting ready to celebrate my fifth birthday. One day he was especially upset with me and chucked my male doll (‘gudda’) at me. I was as upset at getting my doll hurt as I was at being grazed myself. I thought he was cheesed off with my loquaciousness and precocity, but years later, I was informed through the familial grapevine that he had reared some sort of a grudge against me in those years, as he had wanted a grandson in place of this chit of a girl who was treated as a princess by her adoring father — his son.
You see, even back then as much as now, sons were more sought-after (to carry forward the lineage, family name and all that) in many parts of the country — significantly Punjab, a male-dominated state to which we belonged.
The entire afternoon was ruined for me as I went about recounting the story to my mother and cousins, but waited to really vent it out in front of my father when he returned from office. No amount of veiling of the intent and watering down of the act, which I thought was really grave, pacified me.
I told my father about the incident in minute detail. Of course Grandpa denied it, reducing it to an inadvertent slip, but I knew that my father and mother knew what had really happened and I was content that the old man had been suitably embarrassed.
Moral of the story — My parents respected me even as a little girl.
My parents stood by me, knowing fully well that their little one would not lie. I learned that I had a voice which would be heard and I would not stand being wronged, even by the family patriarch.
Even within the family, not all men will want to hold a little girl by the hand and help her move ahead. (Photo: YouTube)
We ourselves are our best ally or worst enemy.
One lesson that my mother drummed in constantly through my growing-up years was not to get overfriendly with the uncles and never sit on the lap of a lot of male visitors — family, friends, acquaintances alike. She shared the whys and wherefores only to the extent that my mind could grasp, sparing me the unpleasant baggage attached to it. Maa opened up in installments directly proportional to my age. Nothing too much, too soon, yet she ensured that I learned to draw boundaries and recognise the lurking danger, even in the most familiar or unexpected quarters.
I once complained to her that I did not quite enjoy a ‘kissing game’ that my maternal uncle urged me to get into as he lured me out on a seemingly fun outing. Maa listened to me with concern and did not brush it aside as a figment of my imagination. She handled the uncle with all the care needed to encounter an errant family member, without blowing the whole thing up into an ugly monstrosity. Yet, she taught me how to recognise the early signs of good and bad touch and learn to know the difference between harmless friendliness and loathsome incestuousness.
The spirit and the mind must be liberated.
Once we lost my father, my mother and I returned to the family farmhouse in the sylvan setting of a north Indian valley town. My mother was eager to bring me up in the same way I had known and enjoyed when Dad was a strong presence in our lives. She paved the way for my talents to blossom and ensured I bloomed in the social circle, as against turning bitter and crawling into a cocoon at the grave loss of a fond, fair, fantastic father.
Teach your boys what is right and they will grow up to be upright. (Picture for representation: Reuters)
If I wished to cycle down the hill with the boys, off I went. Friends — boys and girls — would come home for study and play. They had to help me first with the chores of watering the nth trees my mother’s garden boasted of, or carrying the big, bulging sack of weeded-out grass on to the dump as mother and her gardener stayed with the more busy things of planting saplings, pruning and ploughing, before we got down to the serious business of games.
Teach your boys what is right more than telling your girls what is wrong.
Boy pals were treated equally with the same affection as girls and were given an equal opportunity atmosphere in our house. Little wonder then that some of those boys grew up to become my best friends and loyal chaperones. They turned into my guards of honour and would jump to protect me if a new boy in the circle made as much as a pass at me at one of our several jam sessions. Now most of them are caring husbands and doting fathers themselves.
Moral of the story — You teach boys to like and respect women when they are toddlers and the lesson stays with them for life.
I remember one incident distinctly. I had grown up on the family fodder that Dad was a lawn tennis champion of sorts and in my attempt to ape him, I took to table tennis with a vengeance. Honing my skill and game meant I cycled down to the local club for practice every evening. My favourite gear would be a nice Tee and a decent pair of shorts, for comfort and practicality.
A friend of my mother’s, who was both negative in thought and acerbically conservative in her approach to life, let out a string of rumours around how much my mother wanted her daughter to be ‘modern’ and outgoing. I am told my mother broached the subject with the lady with the huge doses of intelligence that she was known for.
Besides, she did not let the negative wave hit me, encouraged me to carry on as before, showing me how shallow such comments and regressive thinking was. She motivated me to focus on my game and when I began to win local matches, my mother had the last laugh.
Moral of the story — A woman can be as much a villain. She can be anti-women and anti-progress. And you can kill a negative with a stronger positive.
I grew up into an opinionated, independent, free-thinking, less parochial, plucky young girl. All thanks to the examples my mother set, the right amount of autonomy she gave and policing she did as a strict, yet indulgent parent, the ideas she helped nurture and the strong, decisive personality she lovingly shaped.
Wheels gave me wings. (Picture for representation: Wikimedia Commons)
Besides freedom of thought and attitude, I also enjoyed the freedom of wheels in my college years. I was one of the first kids in college in my hometown to be gifted a bold, burgundy moped by my mother. I discovered new places with my new set of wings, along with running many more errands for her (I guess the gift was double-edged!).
Sometimes fight, other times flight. Decide prudently.
One fine morning, wishing to help Mom with a task before I headed for classes, I found myself speeding away over an old iron bridge across town. It was morning rush hour with young ones like me rushing to college, folks in a hurry to get to work and contractual labourers in a mad dash to get to their day’s assignment.
A couple of such labourers decided to have some fun at our expense. They raced with me on their bicycles as the suspension bridge forced me to slow down. They made some crude jokes and tried to brush past me. They didn’t know that I had a lioness riding pillion with me. Once we crossed the bridge, my mother asked me to race on, catch up with the erring men and just when we caught up, she stopped the two, held them by their collars, gave them a tight, stinging slap and made them apologise for their bad behavior.
Moral of the story — As a woman, you needn’t take things lying down. As a woman, you can fight for your cause and many a times, you will get the upper hand. As a woman, you cannot allow men to treat you in an undignified fashion. Finally, as a woman, you can also teach the right attitude and behaviour to the boys in your society.
Years later, the scene was recreated as we enjoyed a day at Delhi’s best known cultural hub and a similar incident played out before us. Only this time, it was my niece who had been rudely groped and this time, it was me egging her on to teach the misbehaving boor a good lesson, even if it meant bringing her palm in contact with one side of his face in a loud, thunderous noise and a bigger impact.
Moral of the story — You teach good or bad lessons to your kids, within the four walls of your house and they get passed down from one generation to the next. We, therefore, must be very cautious and mindful of how we behave and what we teach.
Two other incidents come to mind.
In the first, I was returning from college in public transport after an evening class. The bus was packed with people like an overstuffed can of tuna, so I stood in the aisle, keeping a balance by holding on to the overhead pole strap.
For most people, the main aim to travel from point A to B is to get to point B in the best, safest, most stress-free manner.
But as almost all Indian women (and we don’t need a study to tell us that almost 100% of us have been teased, molested, harassed to one degree or another) will let you know, this is not the main aim of many male co-passengers. Buses, trains, metros, cabs, planes, even roads are operational zones for most Indian men, for whom harassing, humiliating or harming women is a form of perverted amusement.
Every woman knows the menace that public transport can be! (Photo: PTI/file)
So, while I had getting home in time on my mind, the man standing right behind me had other things playing out — making my commuting moments terribly repulsive.
As he pressed his manhood against me, repeatedly without being put off by my glare or stern stance, the only recourse I had was to jab by elbow sharply into his sides, step on his toes with all my weight and move on to another area, the rush in the bus permitting, hoping that at least the next man was decent.
Several years apart, on another bus journey in another city (this time, the capital city of India) I was clad in a sari — the traditional Indian dress regarded as the most conservative attire — and I had my back savagely pinched. I felt helpless as in that sea of men, it was difficult to find out who the culprit was. So the man got his two minutes of entertainment leaving me not only fuming in that time, but also managing to ruin the rest of my day.
As any woman who is harassed will tell you, any such unwanted act is as much a psychological torture as it is a violation of her physical being.
Moral of the two stories — A woman should give it back when she is in a position to. What you wear is never the cause of inviting such behavior towards yourself; it always is about the attitude that the man wears within in the crevices of his mind. As women living in such a society, we must learn to handle the three forceful Fs — fight, fright, flight — in the right combination and with tact.
I am not conventionally pretty or traditionally beautiful, but for some strange reason, have enjoyed the unwanted attention of several men. Hence, I had to learn early to walk the tightrope and handle such attention with poise, persistence, or at times, a well-honed ability to pulverise the intention into nothingness.
In one particular episode, I was over thirty, already part of senior management at work, thought to be the Top Dog’s right-hand woman, and yet was made a terrible pass at several times by a colleague who apparently couldn’t help his libido and fertile imagination.
Negotiating the workplace is a challenge — probably the biggest challenge is co-workers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Every time the colleague would make a fool of himself with me, my patronising mentor would see red and ask me if he should go ahead and pull the guy up by his b***s. I thanked the boss with utmost sincerity and gratitude and requested him to only intervene if I couldn’t make the colleague see reason.
My husband stood by me and showed his undying faith, both in me as an honest person of honourable reputation, and my perspicacity to come out triumphant in such matters. A few games of mental chess, moving my pawns deftly on the board in the mind game with this fella and I had him asking after my husband, pet children and family in little time.
Moral of both these stories — A woman will encounter lascivious, depraved men with terrible mindsets and much worse intentions everywhere. She must learn the strategy to save herself; quickly set her priorities right and decide which side of the fence she wishes to be on.
When a woman says no and is unwilling, it must mean no for the man. That a woman is ambitious, enterprising and has stepped out of her home to work does not mean that she is available. And yes, also that not all men can be judged with the same yardstick; that many of them are your good friends and are on your side much more than a lot of women.
As I see my niece, whom I have virtually brought up, raise her heckles for the same anti-women issues, pounce back at a groping scumbag of a man, stare an eve-teaser down, be ever-ready to lend a hand to another woman in distress, get into campaigns that promise a better world to a Third World woman, I feel happy and content that the flame my father, mother and a few significant others lit in our hearts and minds will never extinguish and that it will continue to burn in one heart after another, passed on as a customary, familial baton from one generation to another.
So, to close the loop of thought, we are what we wish ourselves to be. We will be treated as we allow ourselves to be. We will cultivate such people and nurture such a society that we have learned from our elders and pass on as a legacy. And this simple, basic philosophy holds true for any kind of malevolent behavior in any setting or society.
Once we have this in control, then we can strongly put the blame elsewhere — even on those Martians who some of us claim to have sighted.