Friday, April 26, 2013

Side effects of being Indian, part 2

Or, The story with a semi happy ending.

For the first two side effects, see Side effects of being Indian, Part 1

3. You are afraid of school-kids. This happened to me yesterday. I need to document it because in these times of utter fear and mistrust, the Delhi police treated me with respect and concern, and that at least is something to celebrate.

Yesterday, 3 PM: We leave work early, and Rigveda drops me at the street corner, which is less than a 5 minute walk from the gate of my apartment complex. There's a school across the road, and I see the students for the first time - I usually return from work much later than this. They're done with their school day, and there's about 2 dozen boys in school uniform hanging around the ice-cream seller. Some of them stare and point at me, and I'm acutely conscious of the fact that I wore a skirt and high heels to work today. But they're kids, calm down, I tell myself. As I continue walking, the jeering starts - 8 or nine voices, saying various things about various parts of me. I feel an icy cold hand on my heart, which is part fear, part shock and part anger but I decide to keep walking.

And then a pebble falls on my back. This is unbelievable. I turn around, angrier than I have been in a long time, and yell - What the hell! Most of them have run away, and the rest are standing around, giggling. I may have used some 4 letter words, but mostly I called them ill-mannered and rude, I think. I continue walking back, relieved that I'm almost home, miserable because I hate confrontation of any kind...and then a pebble hits me again. But this time I am too angry to shout. This time I have to walk back to where they are huddled up, feeling secure in their numbers, the little monsters. I say to the guy in front, the one's who's staring at me. He's taller than I am. (Why is he angry with me?) - "Look, this is where I live. I'm going to walk back every day. And I'm going to have the police on speed dial, and call them tomorrow if one of you attempts this again. Get it?"
He says - "I didn't do it."
I say - "I don't care who did it. And neither will the police. They'll take away all of you together, and teach you all some things you need to learn"

4 PM: I have cried for an hour, called friends, recieved love and sympathy, and finished all the ice-cream I had in the fridge. Made resolutions never to wear skirts, or to come home at this hour - and felt ashamed at being cowed down enough to make stupid resolutions. And I continue to feel miserable. There's only one thing to do - I google 'women's helpline Delhi' and find these numbers: Delhi Commission for Women 23379181/ 23370597. I feel a little crazy, wanting to complain about kids, so I ask the woman what I should do. She's amazing - she seems to understand exactly what I'm feeling and tells me that a minor can be as dangerous to your safety as an adult. She advises me call the nearest police station and let them know. "And if you can't reach them, please call me back." Wow.

4.30 PM: I've been debating with myself if I should call the police. Will they tell me I'm over-reacting? But I call the police station up anyway (the numbers are really easy to find on Google). Once again I'm blown away by the sensitivity exhibited - apart from interrupting me once to tell me to speak slowly and in Hindi, the guy at the other end listens patiently as I talk to him. He asks me for the name of the school and the area, and tells me they'll post a constable there from tomorrow onwards. And he reiterates that minors can harass too. "Apko dobara aise suffer nahin karna padega" (you will never have to suffer like this again). Wow.

I don't feel great, but I feel a little safer.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Life Imitates Jigsaw Puzzles

Let me clarify and admit without any shame: I'm a jigsaw puzzle geek. I once spent 14 hours on the floor on a cold winter night (okay Hyderabad winter, but still) working on one. It's like heroin addiction - eyes may water, legs may cramp, it's impossible to stop once begun.

Over 10 hours of work..
It occurred to me last week, as I was helping Prashanth put his 1000-piece Beatles picture together, that the number of things common between a jigsaw puzzle and life is astounding. The broad principles you use to assemble a jigsaw, are also the principles of a life well lived:
  1. If you find yourself putting something in place and asking yourself (or your friends) - Does this fit? - it probably doesn't. When it fits, there will be no question in your mind. It will feel perfect.
  2. When you've spent hours struggling to find a solution that you see very clearly in your head, it's a good idea to take a break, and go to something else for a while. When you come back, you will find that the thing has been lying right beneath your nose, and you were just too exhausted to see it.
  3. When you think you've tried everything that could have fit, and you're convinced the one piece that would fill in a really annoying gaping space has been lost forever, through your stupidity or someone's carelessness, calm down. It's not lost. Nothing is ever lost for good - you'll find it.
I'm thinking of flying to Kolkata next weekend to help Prashanth finish the picture.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Side effects of being Indian

They raped a girl and hurt her so badly that she died of her injuries. No matter how much time goes by, there will be one family who lives with that grief forever. And one entire generation of women will feel an ache every time we remember the weeks we prayed for a nameless, faceless young girl to live.

This was one event, one of many such. They leave us feeling much - bereft at what was lost, scared to walk back alone after parties, or charged up to fight and look at that groper in the eye; but they do something else too. There's this one side effect that distresses me more than all the others - they leave us with an inability to trust each other. Strangers are no longer friends waiting to be made. They're just potential rapists and murderers. This particular side effect, this paranoia that we will all live with forever, damages us in two major ways: 

1. We don't have magical chance encounters.  I remember reading a story on Tumblr some months ago - about a guy called Gare who always stops to help hitchhikers and people with car trouble, and makes great friends in the process. He started the tradition because a family from Mexico once helped him when his car broke down in the middle of nowhere. He begins by saying - "This story is one of my motivations to becoming a better person." It's an amazing story and makes me feel emotional every time I read it. (You can read it here: Today you, tomorrow me) My point is that it's a blessing that our man Gare did not start practicing this philosophy in India - he'd have been raped and left for dead long before he had a chance to help hitchhiker no.3.

It depresses me that I view every unfamiliar person (and some familiar ones too, come to think of it) with suspicion. A potential flatmate called me last week to ask if she could come see my flat after work that evening. She then called at 10 PM - "I'm so awfully sorry, but I'm leaving work only now, can I come to your place right away? I need to take a decision about the house tomorrow.." Part of me was annoyed. Is she crazy? This is Delhi! This sounds like such a con, and I'm alone at home! But part of me wanted to fight the paranoia. She could be someone just like me, a regular girl, stuck late at work and needing to figure out a place to live. I realized I was punishing her for what the five rapists had done in December. This was the full extent of their crime - ordinary people going through life looking at each other with doubt and fear. She was profusely apologetic about putting me through the trouble, and I decided to let her come. I was right, she was a lot like me - I even have the exact same jacket and skirt she was wearing. But I did not feel any victory over the paranoia. I had palpitations in my heart, and my hand on the speed dial button all the time she was in the house. And she was equally jittery. She was in and out of the house in less than 10 minutes. I did not offer her coffee.

2. We leave each other to bleed on the road. This happened in Jaipur a few hours ago. And it happens often. I cannot quit thinking about this - would I have stopped to help? I think I would have. And so would a lot of people I love and respect. But the people who didn't...they carry in their hearts the memories of hundreds of crimes, and those memories can block the cries of a four year old who's asking you to stop and help his mother. I don't blame them. It's the awful side effect of being Indian.

My friend Mehul would say that this rant is unfair because isn't as if there aren't crimes and negligence in other countries, and I agree. And yet there are places where people grow up and live in relative safety. Perhaps the trust that people have for each other is directly proportional to that safety? It makes me so envious that there are places where strangers smile at each other (which is different from the leering we're familiar with). The highlight of my week in Geneva was that every time I would stop at a street corner and open my massive map, someone would stop and ask if they could help. And they did it for everyone. I got a lump in my throat the first time it happened. I envy them this naivete even more than the utter beauty they live in. How wonderful must it feel, to live in a place, where you can roll down your car window and ask - Can I help you?

Side Effects of being Indian, Part 2

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