Grey matter

The night is not safe, come back soon. The streets are not safe, don’t drive around alone. Public transport is not safe, stay in the ladies section. These are things people tell you and warn you about. Pepper spray, an open safety pin, my backpack strapped across my chest, these are all the defense mechanisms we arm ourselves with and get on with life. And what about the unseen, unheard defense mechanisms so many of us just imbibe unknowingly? Remember the time I had second thoughts about those pants I wanted to wear? There was also the time before I got all cozy and comfortable staying alone while the husband was away, when I was a wee bit afraid of going out at night, because you know, I don’t have a boy accompanying me. There have been a few times when I have changed out of something, because maybe people would think it’s too bold for the occasion. There have also been times when I have heard stories of girlfriends braving eve teasers at odd times of the night, coming out safe to tell me the story, and my first reaction is what were you doing there all alone?! It’s shameful, but these thoughts creep in, even when we don’t notice they have. No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than I realised how there are so many little things, and years and lifetimes of conditioning have made us slightly weak, always suspicious, always protecting ourselves, defending ourselves (sometimes unsuccessfully) against predators. How much of it is practical and required? Because you know what they all say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. *Yawn* And if we’re always going to reinforce these defense mechanisms aren’t we just accepting harassment as a part of our lives that we have it just accept and deal with one way or another? How does one pin-point such behaviour, weed it out of the grey areas and call it out, begin to correct?

My mother always instilled in us the idea of standing up and fighting back. She tried hard to get me to join a self-defense class. She told us stories of how she when she was once standing at a bus stop, a man had grabbed her chest, and tried to make a run for it. Broad day light, at a publicly-public place, yet it happened. She told us how enraged she was, but how she had the presence of mind to chase him down, was lucky to catch up with him and give him a resounding slap or two, before some folks around her came to rescue. It’s true, sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, before help comes your way. But what about those of us who are inherently meek? Despite hearing stories like this right through my childhood, and having thoughts of never letting anyone take your for granted, dinned into my head for as long as I can remember, I somehow seem to be missing that gene altogether. It’s probably why I collapsed into a shivering pile of tears and fear, after I was badly groped in a public bus on my way to college. It’s probably why I didn’t quite know what to make of a colleagues vaguely flirtatious advances that always gently see-sawed the grey area between friendly banter and something that was just inappropriate to say to a colleague. It’s probably why even at the ripe age of 25, despite being to so many gynaecologists and knowing a good touch from a pad one, I tumbled out of the little clinic in Goa, shaking with fear because I was just not sure if what the doctor had just done to me was medically appropriate or not. My gut said, no, but my head gave him the benefit of doubt and told me to shut up and let it slide. It was only when he made repeated comments to me about my paranoia about getting pregnant, and suggested that maybe I was being “naughty” and “immoral” did I realise he had actually crossed that line. I might never fully understand the grey area between what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I have learned to let my gut guide me more.

Remember the Rose Chasm story that went viral a while ago? And then this NY Times post? I was equally mad and worked up on reading them both. Because I mean, why does it take some Western polarised and extreme reading of our people, society and culture for us to sit up and notice? Haven’t we all experienced in some form or the other, what Rose and Lavanya have talked about? Why then, is it so hard for us to accept these facts about ourselves? I was also mad about how it is made to seem again and again, that the Indian man is either a potential rapist or Mr. Nice guy of the please-wear-a-dupatta-before-you-go-out kind. Nothing in between. Do none of us know any normal, good men around? Do none of them belong to that vast grey area between that feral, hormonal and altogether vicious state of being that Rose speaks about and the other extreme — the Common Indian Male that Lavanya so eloquently describes?

When I saw Anurag Kashyap’s latest offering on the subject, I was uncomfortable. A short film that presumably makes the bold stand we all want to believe and feel in our hearts — if it happens to you, fight it with all you’ve got. But what about those women, like me, who have a track record of turning completely blank when eve-teased? What if all we’ve got is a numb mind and a tied tongue? I was uncomfortable with the blatant statement about taakat, and its rightful place, in one’s mind. I’m sorry, some of us are just not that strong. The world is filled with women like me who may not always be able to react with force, and that certainly doesn’t go to show that I am asking for it. Or that I deserve what happened to me because I couldn’t speak up. What about women like me, who aren’t entirely submissive, but in certain situations find it hard to speak up or react in time? Aren’t we in that dodgy grey area nobody talks about?

The night is not safe, come back soon. The streets are not safe, don’t drive around alone. Public transport is not safe, stay in the ladies section. These are things people tell you and warn you about. What they don’t tell you about is that if someone has to touch you, pinch your butt, eve tease you, it could happen in places you least expect it. In a doctor’s chair. In your office. In a goddamn elevator. And the person capable of it, is sometimes people you would least expect, including people you trust — your doctor, your boss, the Common Indian Male. People will tell you about the extremes, the expected, the stereotypes. But rarely does anybody talk about the grey areas that lie in between.

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21 thoughts on “Grey matter

  1. Oh, I so totally agree! I takes things sometimes because I need time to react and by then, the harm is done. :( Especially when it someone you know (like a doctor or a friend) you’re also afraid of taking their gestures the wrong way and you would not want to hurt their feelings. I really want to trust my gut more but frankly, I do not know how. So I only tell the nice men in my life not to touch in certain ways because sometimes, the girl might not have found a voice to object (even if their touch is innocent). That’s the only thing I do to prevent this from going around. I really would love to know more ways of defending myself, but like you said, who’s talking to us?

  2. Yes, reacting to the reports of crimes against women, we sway between polarized reactions: ‘better safe than sorry’ and ‘ stand up for yourself’.

    The fact is, we all, get immobilized when assaults happen, I am sure it happens to men too. How many of us would rush and slap the guy? Not many. I am not sure it is weakness, it is normal reaction when some shitbrained pervert decides to take liberties. We are not conditioned to slap or report back, period. Most of the times, our interaction with people is that of mutual agreement based on more or less civilized behaviour. We can be violent with words, but most of the humankind does not raise their fists at provocation, it is not the first reaction.

  3. God, that doctor! Doctors must have a nurse present when examining parts of the body that require you to undress. Both in India and in Hong Kong, all the male docs I’ve seen have abided by this on their own …if they don’t, demand it.

    And yeah, not all of us have the capacity to be ninjas, nor should be have to be.

    • Errr it happened in the presence of a nurse. Who handed him his gloves and was witness to the whole examination. That is probably what confused me to some extent and stopped me from reacting instinctively.

        • Also the fact that it such a fine line between what is medically required and what is not. Even his conversation and small talk, over three to four appointments bordered on flirtation. On that particular day, i assumed it was a part of his battery of questions to diagnose what i had (it ended up being UTI) but everything seemed inappropriate in retrospect. By then the violation had happened i was back home and visibly shaken up and was never goig back. Too late to do much. My biggest regret is not saying anything to him right there, to his face. I feel like i let him get away with it because i was not quick to grasp what was happening.

  4. Because it is the easy way out, people ask women to be more careful, dress modestly and so on.. Frankly speaking, it is so deeply ingrained into us that at first men are given the benefit of doubt in most of the gray cases and many of the clear ones.

    I do confess that I have asked some one of the friends I care about to either carry pepper spray, or a nail file or something of that order and join a defense class.

    • I do it all the time too. Thats precisely the point: that enduring some form of abuse on an every day basis, whether its being leched at, hooted at, groped or worse, at some level girls in India just tend to “live with it”.

      I carried a pin in my bag right through college. When I felt insecure, I’d open it up and hold it in my hand. Each one of us has these safety measures.

  5. Wonderful analogy. I was in this grey group a couple of years ago. I was repeatedly molested by my uncle (dad’s younger bro) in my teens (now am in late 20s).I was clueless and didn’t know what was happening. My response had been utter shock and confusion as to why a known person/ uncle had slapped my butt when I was alone in the room or that 120kgs of fat mass took the trouble of lying beside me on the floor to put his arms around me when I was innocently reading a book or rub my thigh.I was traumatized when I slowly realized what had happened only when I left home for a job and other girls spoke of their experiences as well. I confronted my parents and was a crying mess for more than a year.Their reaction too was utter shock and helplessness. They only confided in me recently of his notorious behaviour and reputation in the family. My mother especially is nursing a hurt and might explore if this repeats. Now the tables have turned and I was assured her that if he’s even lay a finger on me now he’d pay his price. Fortunately the only ‘good’ that came out of this was my sister was protected. She saw what I went through and this awareness has helped her distance herself whenever he’s around or she’s alone.

    Many other ‘smaller’ incidents have happened since then but I have handled it better than I did in my teens. But as you say when a doctor or a friend does it, it can be traumatizing and our reactions are slower. Very recently though, my friend’s husband tried his hand at this. They are in a long distance marriage and she has just given birth. So you can imagine how limited their interactions are at the moment. When her daughter was born I had been to her place to meet the child and I also met him. I exchanged a few pleasantries with him and that was all. He had the gall of harassing me with constant messages on FB either through comments or personal msgs. I ignored him initially but that did not stop him. My instinct was screaming red alert and I chose to listen to it. I sent him a strong worded msg telling him I was not comfy ‘chatting’ like this in the absence of his wife.He immediately reiterated his word telling me he didn’t mean anything else and he would never ping me again! Like I was desperately pining for his attention. But it liberated me.I felt more in control for confronting him. I still haven’t spoken to my friend about this but something is broken. Thanks to him, I don’t feel like going near that family now.

    We can start off by talking back or make that person realise that we are aware of his intentions even if we are not used to hitting back or scream.

  6. Incidents like this.. esp. a doctor misbehaving just makes my blood boil. My aunt had taken my sister and me to an Ayurvedic doc. I was just around 18 and my sis 13 or so. And it was just severe chest congestion. I went in first and he told me to take off my shirt. I immediately asked him why he needed me to take off my shirt and refused. (Am an asthamatic and know the routine very well) Taken aback, he behaved, did not as much as lay a finger on me, only asked questions and wa sdone with me. it was my sister’s turn. It didn’t occur to me then to warn her or tell my aunt about what happened. And the ***** , he repeated it with the kid and got his way. She was terrified. And we figured only several days later when she refused to take the meds or go back to the doc and she would start crying everytime my aunt tried to take her to the doc.

    Only recently, we found out that the doctor was a regular offender and was even beaten up by a group of people on one occasion. He still runs a successful practice and has his own centre for panchakarma and other Ayurvedic treatments.

    I wonder how they dare to take such liberties with complete strangers who have placed their trust in them. And how they just go on and on almost like its part of a routine. It just makes me sick in the stomach.

    And now..its time to send my kid to a big school. The thought of a helpless 4 year old in empty corridors/toilets/school bus is giving me sleepless nights. I just don’t know what to do. !

    • Thats sick! And what infuriates me is how they can take advantage of their position of power. Being the medical expert, its easy to camouflage their actions as part of routine measures.

      I would be frantic if I had a child to send out in to the world today. Like I keep saying, our surroundings are fast turning into horrible places to bring up children, and its frankly very discouraging.

  7. I am still very confused by whether or not I should react in a situation – my dad believes bravado should be exercised with restraint and I agree. What if the offender has a knife? Or worse, a bottle of acid that he might fling in your face? I am all for fighting for our cause and if I am in an otherwise safe place, I notice my need to fight back increases. In a new, unknown environment, I’ve been taught to get to a safer place first – everything else can wait. What I do know is that being 30 and still being asked to ‘stay safe’ is just tiring me and I wish we didn’t have to look over our backs, every time we are out.

    • Also, that constantly looking over your backs is getting tiring! It seems trouble can brew in the most unexpected places, so really where are we safe? You’re right about restraint and playing safe. I am all for reacting immediately and violently if required, but most times I dont have the presence of mind in that split second to assess the situation and choose how to react :-/

  8. Wow, that was a hard movie to watch. Thank you for sharing it.
    I have fought back in some instances but not sure if I will be able to do so in all- its all situational.
    That doctor instance is sickening. Sadly it is rather rampant-I know of others who have had similar experiences with their OBGYN.

    • It *is* situational, also directly related to personality I think. I find myself mostly paralyzed, and I am not exactly “meek” otherwise..
      As for the pervy ObGyns out there, there ought to be some sort of health authority/board to report them :@

  9. The good in us is always giving others the benefit of doubt. Not too different from how I react too in such situations. I froth but I internalize (not an ideal thing to do), my mind always arguing that may be I am reading too much between the lines. Time we stand up, I know. But in that moment, your brain just freezes. You are helpless. You are unsure. You don’t want to create a scene probably. Many reasons to not speak up.

    The husband pointed out that article in New York times the other day and when I read it, I was nodding all along. Opinions about India are often polarized. Living in a foreign country, I hear ppl say that they either hate it or love it. They are all too fast to draw conclusions. But for every foul, rotten man in India, we have many more decent, educated, civilized, gentle, caring and nurturing men too.

    Rarely are the good men in our lives, who support us, encourage us, look after us, love us, who are our backbones, recognized.

    Your husband, my husband, your father, my father…no one talks about them…coz they fall in the grey area.

  10. Pingback: In which I detail the many kinds of assholery I’ve dealt with recently | hAAthi Time

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