Yesterday I watched a bunch of Malayalam movie personalities expressing wonder and stupefaction at the attempted abduction/compromising photographing/blackmailing of a noted Malayali actress. They seemed to think that such a thing was not heard of in God's Own Country at all - and it set me thinking of my life journey as a woman in Kerala.
I think I was 7 years old when my Mummy asked to me to stop sitting in the laps of the "uncles" who came to visit us in Saudi Arabia. She refused to tell me why even though I pestered her for an explanation. But the warning was enough to awaken a sense of self-preservation in me when barely a year later, I found myself being tightly hugged from behind by an "uncle" who had wandered into the kitchen while I was mixing Tang for our visitors as my Mum had asked me. I made a fuss about not being sure if I had added enough sugar even though he insisted that I had. I yelled aloud for my mother and was instantly freed from his arms. I ran to my mother and refused to budge from her side until she accompanied me to the kitchen.
At 15, my sister, cousin and I used to roll our eyes and grumble to each other about my "over-protective" father who glared down any boy who happened to even accidentally glance in our direction while we were out in public. A few years before that he had stopped taking us to any movie theater in Kottayam town saying that he alone could not protect us all and we could go to movies as we pleased once we were married! Fortunately, the really good ones came to my uncle's theater in our area, and we got our fix of movies albeit a little late and a little stale.
In the USA, they teach you the art of defensive driving. By the age of 17, I had mastered the art of defensive walking through Kottayam town. Without having once stepped into a kalari, I became adept at the kalari principle "Mey kannaakanam" (the body has to become the eye). I could discern a potential grabber at a radius of 2 m on all sides of my body as I walked down the streets on my way to or back from college or on shopping trips. All it took was a 1-second glance at a male coming my way to assess a potential threat and make a side-step at the exact moment and turn my torso away to protect myself from his farthest reach. I could do this without breaking my stride or appearing conscious about it. If the foot traffic was heavy, I weaseled my way in and out always in "constant vigilance" mode recommended by Professor Alastor Moody.
At 25, I became bold enough to stand up and holler at perverts who followed me muttering obscenities or tried to paw me in crowded buses. I still avoided confrontation as much as possible and perfected my defensive walking skills.
At 32, life as a married woman and in places as varied as Bangalore, Houston, Hyderabad and Minneapolis had made me soft and relax my vigilance. Then I came and settled in the capital city of God's Own Country and within a year, I was molested twice. Both times I reacted with my fists - it felt pretty satisfying. I could get to hit only their retreating backs, though. The first man walked a bit out of my reach in the crowded movie theater and turned back with a leer. His pustule and sore-filled face looked like that of a syphilis victim, so I just shook my fist at him although I would have loved to punch him in the face. I followed the next man and rained punches on him as he walked away on the street. Not once did he pause and all the reaction he showed was to bunch up his shoulders so as to present a smaller target for my blows. I hit him till I felt he would think twice before he tried to touch another woman without her permission.
A year later, I was 5 months pregnant and was expecting guests. I huffed and puffed my way up the steep incline to the bakery, chatting with my 3-year-old son hanging on to my left hand. A scrawny boy who could have been 12 years old at the most was coming down the road. I happened to notice him because he was coming at such a rapid pace with long steps that he seemed in imminent danger of falling. I was so concerned for his well-being!!! As he came near me, he put out a bony hand and squeezed my right breast hard and ran helter-skelter down the road. As I stood shocked, he shot back a look at the turn of the road before disappearing. A small whimper made me aware of a tiny hand that I had been crushing in mine. In the blind rage I felt at that moment I wondered if I would be doing all women a service if I got rid of one little life that was clinging to my hand and another that was growing inside me. Then Kunju called me "Amma" and I came back to my senses.
Now, my defensive walking skills are as good as ever. I am so good that even at home, my kids cannot sneak upon me to startle me as they are so fond of doing. My husband knows not to touch me suddenly without warning. There is no saying how I might react! Men who jostle for the fun of it in temple- and wedding-feast queues get a good tongue-lashing. I never scruple to use the male members of my family as body-shields, sometimes directly requesting them to do so. I also keep a look out for timid-looking girls who are in need for a strong woman to support them against public harassment. I applaud the feisty ones and don't forget to congratulate them.
Yes, I consider my body my own. Yes, I demand that people touch it only with my permission. Perverts can ogle and mutter obscenities to their hearts' content, I will pretend to be blind and deaf. But I reserve the right to protect myself as I see fit.
To those girls/women who have been persuaded into feeling guilty/ for having "asked for it" due to their attractiveness/dress/"bold look"/"timid look"/whatever, let me tell you a little story. I did my post-graduate course staying at a hostel run by nuns. A demented homeless woman was a frequent visitor there. To this day I have not come across a dirtier or uglier specimen of human kind. She was a bag of bones, but draped in a sari. She had rotten teeth, rheumy eyes and a stench that would spread to meters around her till some kind soul took pity and got her to bathe and get her hair cropped. She slept wherever she could, mostly on the verandah of a chapel nearby. By the time I finished my course, that woman was carrying around a baby that she had given birth to by the wayside. From that time on, no one has been able to persuade me that I am in ANY WAY responsible for unwanted attentions.
I am not misandristic. Neither do I believe that all women are angels. I love the men in my life absolutely and acknowledge that it is their vigilance and care too that has brought me thus far without any really traumatic incidents. But recently when a male friend of mine suggested solitary travel as the best and extolled its virtues and persuaded me to do it, I could not but laugh. Travel alone, in India? Hmm, may be, after I get myself at least a 5th dan black belt in karate? Oh, what the heck, I love traveling with my family anyway!
As regards what happened to the actress, I hope that her support system and her unbreakable spirit will help her to see the legal battle to the end. By publicizing the harm done to her, she has already jeopardized the plan of the criminals to keep bleeding her using blackmail. That in itself is a very bold step. And I will say that by doing so, she has made the transition from being a victim to a heroine. I will say this to all women. Shout back, strike back, stick to your rights!!! Above all stick to your sisters and raise a collective voice when you see them being harmed. Do not keep quiet!