Strangers in the city
I have returned to ‘live’ in Calcutta, now Kolkata, the city of my birth, after a decade. As it happens, all of one’s childhood and adolescent memories come floating by with all the gentleness and pink gaiety of fluffy cotton candies, and one looks for old associations—with people, places, institutions, streets, cafes, canteens et al.—to go back to, both with the wonder of having known them and with the renewed vigour of re-acquaintanceship. With such good intentions my road to hell was paved, when I happened to stop in my tracks and rethink the relationship between nostalgia and the city space alongside the crude reality of being a woman on the streets of Kolkata.
One of my favourite haunts in the city, College Street, or Boipara as it is fondly referred to, because it is thronged with book stalls and second hand stores on both sides, was the site of an event which bears some significance with regard to how I shall forthwith conduct myself on the roads. As I walked down the darkening street (it was past 8.45pm), chattering happily with two old friends and one new, two little boys, aged somewhere between 8 to ten years, sitting at some distance on a stone slab caught my attention. They were sitting in front of a cigarette store, with a crowd of Muslim men in their prayer caps talking to themselves, with no one in particular noticing the boys. One of the boys had the strangest expression on his face. I found myself wondering why I felt the expression so terribly difficult to comprehend or register. I was still about fifty yards away from them, walking their direction. And then it hit me. It’s because I am not used to seeing such a leer on the face of a child.
I was stunned, but decided to ignore him. By this time I had reached within earshot, and some rapid catcalls invaded my senses. This was rapidly followed by some choicest anatomical words in Hindi, with the boy expressing a desire to touch my feminine parts.
I whirled around. He looked at me with wide-eyed innocence, as though he had spoken some alien tongue that I could have misinterpreted. And partially surprised at my having understood rather abusive Hindi words as though women were allowed no knowledge of this sacred language.
I glared at him. In a matter of moments, a wisp of a kid who is barely old enough to have reached day school had turned into a sexual predator in m y eyes. I beheld the offender. He seemed indifferent, but a little awkward, as though he expected me to get away as fast as possible. As though there was a dirty secret between us.
‘Kya bole tum?’ (‘What did you just say?’) I thundered at him. He visibly flinched. ‘Kuchh nahi bola’—nothing, he replied. My companions had by then stopped dead in their tracks. Sensing trouble, the men around me started muttering. One of my companions, abashed that I was interrogating the offender in the ‘Rashtra bhasha’, said less to defend me but more to prove his point that everyone in Bengal should know Bangla, ‘Ki bolechho bhai?’ (‘What have you said, brother?’) He has, since then, suggested that the boy said what he said because a) I didn’t ‘look’ married and that married women are less harassed; b) I was wearing a sleeveless top as opposed to the girl walking beside me who was wearing a full sleeve salwar kurta; and c) I was walking ahead of the group, alone. I am hopeful that he will make a wonderful Indian politician someday.
By now, the aforementioned ‘bhai’ was fidgeting under my nastiest stare. ‘Maine bola apne raste jaiye’ (‘I told her to go her way’), he countered in a hushed tone, tactfully asking me to go away.
‘Umar kitna hain?’ (What’s your age?) I was still thundering. Spluttering, rather. And then, quite remarkably, I launched into an offensive more dire than anyone could have expected. ‘Have your milk teeth fallen out? Should I slap you in front of all these people so that they come out without much pain? Do you know my age? (As if my age mattered!) How much older do you think I am than you are? (As if how much older or younger a woman is to a sexual offender mattered!) What the hell did you just say to me?’
I was fuming. ‘Arey chhor dijiye madam, bachcha hain’—‘Let him go, he is just a kid’, someone said. I did let him go. After I uttered the most hideous expletive I know. The boy, by now shrivelled into a stick, walked away with his head bowed.
I had just verbally abused a ten year old minor. I had threatened to hit him. I had given him the wrong impression that my age and his minor status made it inappropriate for him to pass the remark whereas it would have been as inappropriate at any age from or towards anyone. I had treated a ten year old like a potential rapist. Because at that moment, I strongly believed he was going to be one.
In case you are wondering, yes, he was a Muslim. But that has nothing to do with what he did. Boys in this nation are fast becoming, before they become Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, men. And they are becoming the wrong sort of men.
People like me add to the problem of course. My raging roadside feminism completely precluded the possibility of admitting that in such scenarios the crime and the criminal are not always the same. He perhaps has nothing better to do than watch adult films or listen to lewd conversations being carried out around him, so his social behaviour is conditioned at large by the attitude that people around him take towards women.
Also added to this is my own consciousness of my gender identity and the fierceness with which I treated him warrants reproof if only on grounds of the fact that it no longer, at that point of time, a ten year old I was dealing with: in my mind loomed the headlines of newspapers, and the sleaziness on his face at this tender age defeated my sympathy and incited my rage. But could I have done the same thing to a full grown male, who could have physically assaulted me in retaliation? Perhaps not. The subaltern can only helplessly turn their wrath upon another subaltern.
I mean to go back, hunt him down, and give him a chocolate and a book. And gently try to reason with him. To match my being-a-woman-ness to his being-a-poor-little-boy-ness, and to tell him that sometimes, helplessness and rage and brutalisation are not always possibly the best ways of dealing with the ‘other’. To say, we are both strangers in this city.
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