Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blank Noise

This post was meant to be part of the Blank Noise Project blogathon. With my usual inability to give deadlines their due respect, I am late.

This was not the worst incident of street harassment ever to happen to me, it wasn't the first, or the last. But somehow, it sticks in my mind because I was very young and very scared and it made me grow up in some way. No dramatic loss of innocence or anything like that -- it just made me feel I needed to be careful, cautious, that boys were not always nice guys. But anyway, here it is.

When I was young, we used to cycle to school almost every day. A few of us, mostly girls from the same colony, would get together and form a group, and each day, we would ride from friend’s house to friend’s house, reaching almost halfway to school. It was an interesting arrangement, one that led to a lot of gossip, back-biting and bitchiness, even. Group dynamics was not a term I was familiar with at that time, but this particular group definitely was very dynamic. People would feel left out and start falling behind, the more popular members of the group would surge ahead discussing ‘with it’ school stuff and the juniors would be relegated to the last row. Obviously, Jamshedpur’s roads were no highway, and we could ride barely two abreast. I think it was during these rides that I first discovered that I was a terribly indecisive kind of creature, lacking the guts to stand up to the dominant personality in the group who would be mildly snooty to the others and subtly demand all my attention, yet I wasn’t case- hardened enough not to feel a bit uncomfortable about the ones who didn’t quite make the mark.

Anyway, so this was the arrangement through most of the year. I did this from class 5th onwards till almost the end of my school years – changing a lot of groups and friends in between. Since class 8 or so, the boys ‘discovered’ us and would try to hang on and cycle back from school with us, but I remember we were not very encouraging about this.

Along with these boys from our school, who we could of course handle with ease, we soon realised that we had been discovered by other groups of young Lotharios. These were boys from colonies near our school and mostly ‘not our types’. They would start with following us on bikes and scooters, giving marked attention to one particular girl, then graduate to driving beside us and asking names etc. Occasionally, they also tried to pass on ‘love letters’. Not having accepted any, I still don’t know what they said (the one time a guy tried to pass me one, my fingers itched to take it if just to see what it said, I didn’t even know the guy’s name, but what the heck, I was 16 years old, but I didn’t take it because my cautious friend was watching and I knew she would strongly disapprove if I did it).

We found these episodes wildly hilarious. And quite exciting, though we would never admit that. We had the strength of numbers, and we knew nothing could really go wrong. Plus, we were quite wise to the ways of boys by then.

The afternoon I am talking about was a couple of years before this. It made me realise how much more intelligent it was to be with other people around you as far as possible, that you were asking for trouble if you were stupid enough to be on your own on lonely roads.

I was in the 7th that time, around 13 years old. This was during exams, so everybody left school at different times, and some people were picked up by parents. One afternoon, I was cycling along after a Hindi exam. Suddenly, this guy who seemed vaguely familiar emerged from behind a house and started following me on a bicycle. I realised with a sudden shock that I had seen him loitering around my house, and knew he lived somewhere there, and not close to school. Some sixth sense had already warned me that he had marked me out – I think he had tried to talk to me once at a puja pandal. Also, that he was slightly more dangerous than the ‘passing chits’ type.
I cycled as hard as I could, but he caught up with me soon. I can still feel the terror of that moment, when I knew that if I looked sideways, I would see him riding along next to me.

Soon, he started talking to me. I was ready to weep. I just didn’t know what to do. I thought of riding to a friend’s house nearby, but shrunk from creating a scene. I just wanted the ordeal to be over. For a good 3 kilometres, this guy followed me, constantly badgering me, asking inane questions, not seeming to notice how shit scared I was. No, I guess he liked seeing how scared I was.

Once, I stopped by the side of the road and tried to scream at him, but it was completely useless. He was a 20 year old lout, I was barely 14. I rode on, he right next to me. I kept hoping I would see someone from school, anyone I could latch on to, but amazingly, and I don’t know why, there wasn’t a soul around wearing the familiar uniform or any kind of uniform. A while later, I saw a man riding a cycle just up ahead, and I remember calling out to him, saying something silly like ‘please, dekhiye, yeh mujhe tang kar raha hai’. I swear, I can still remember the startled look on the middle-aged man’s face as he looked back once and rode on faster than ever. Then I felt scared, what if this guy did something because I had called for help?

But no, I guess he decided he’d had enough fun and it was not worth taking a risk for and rode on. Or maybe he went away because I was pretty close to home by then. I got back home sweating and terrified, and cried like crazy.

From the next day till the end of the exams, my father dropped me to school and I came back in an auto. He never asked me why, though I’d told my mother, of course. After the exams were over, everybody had the same timings and we resumed our normal cycling trip. I would feel so safe with all these girls with me, safe enough to laugh at the Romeos. In the next four years, though I must have cycled back alone from school a few times, I could never do it without panicking at least once or twice, especially on that particular stretch of the road. In fact, I think I started taking a different route if I knew I would be alone.

I feel so sorry for that 13-year-old me now, so protective. And strangely, today I can easily joke about far more important -- and at the time more devastating -- incidents from school, but the fear of that afternoon has not quite left me.