I sat in the far end of the café at the end of the world, trying to ignore time and let my thoughts coil and uncoil in the dungeons of my mind. At eight in the evening on a Monday, the world, for all I cared, could march straight to apocalypse now and I would have strewn flowers in its way and smashed a bottle of champagne on its back. There is something manic about Mondays (as the song goes) that calls for a certain morbidity and snap-at-life-ness. However, here, in the sanctum of coffee fumes engulfed, in a snuck corner with nothing but a sheer wall behind me and the rest of the world stretching away from my toes, I felt the self sinking into a comfortable inertia.
On the table next to mine, gelled and calvin klined, sat five men – specimen of what globalised consumption, rich parents and good education can do to people – talking at the top of their voices, showering hi-fives to each other, laughing, roaring, making jokes, having a ball of a time wrapped in their indifference to therestoftheworld. It was the mobile brigade, their phones always on the beep and their hands punching keys even as they talked under the neon hued tree-scape. I smiled at them, over the rising vapours of my cup, with benign amusement – old age comes with tolerance for that which reminds one of one’s own younger days, when one sat on the roads, around an old wizened man strewing cups of tea served in thick glasses, and felt disconnected from the traffic that passed us by; the hours, the days, the years.
Time tiptoed around me, knowing quite well that one false step and I would have killed it with a flat note. And just when I was feeling divinely alone – like god in his heaven, flipping over pages in an old, old book – she walked in. I am not particularly sure how to describe her but if Byron were alive, he would have stirred out of his hashish induced stupor and poked me in my ribs with a familiarity that the Romantics had perfected, and issued a small whistle and said, ‘Now that’s what I meant when I said, ‘Walks in beauty like the night’ ’ before sliding back into his hallucinogenic world.
With quick unhurried steps, she climbed the stairs and made the entire room gasp – a thing of beauty joy forever – and with a smile that would have lit a couple of African nations for a year and a tilt of the head that could have changed seasons, she walked in. Her stride was unconcerned, her hands, covered in many bangles tinkled as they swayed. She punctuated her walk with a comma, perched, as if in mid-air, to sweep the room with her eyes and then traipsed along to the far corner of the triangular room that we were all entombed in. You could see that she was happy. She smiled at strangers – something you generally don’t do in big cities unless you are begging or waiting to be picked up, she irradiated a certain all’s-well-with-the-worldness around her that was infectious. The room felt a better place, now that she was there. In her eyes, one could see traces of a secret joy that she was fostering – nothing in specific, just the joy of somebody who was happy to be alive.
People smiled back at her; momentarily taken aback, but caught in the wave of happiness that she was riding, but eventually giving in. The waiters all watched with their breaths held up, to see which table she descended on. And as she walked certain steps towards where I was sitting, there was a sudden lull in her stride. A chance word or comment from the GAP Group, as I called them in my mind, stopped her in midair as if she was frozen in time. As she stopped, there was a huge roar of laughter and the more courageous man – one shall call him that for lack of a better word – stood up and walked quickly to where she was standing. On the pretext of going nowhere he brushed against her and let his hand hover over her back, closer to the legs than you would have liked to imagine. And then with a look of a hyena that had found its prey, sauntered back to his table, his head held high and his pants tenting in the traces of a power erection.
It happened so fast that the only spectator to this whole thing was me and the bastids who were flocked at the table, their faces split in indecent glee and their eyes covered with a sheen of machismo, now that they had collectively conspired against a single woman in a public place. Her face was registering shock, like somebody had suddenly slapped her with a wet sponge. Her eyes were wide with the unexpected and quivering in anger. Her nostrils were dilating and her body was erect, caught in a rage that had no defining. I looked in horror back at her, wondering what to do next. What does one do next? Does one get up and preach to the bastids – the sons of bachelors, the gutter rats? Does one avenge the woman’s ‘honour’? Does one get up and shrug shoulders and leave it at that because that’s how the world functions? Does one join in, showing camaraderie to the macho men that they are? Does one pretend that it never happened? Does one make a mental note in the mind, only to quickly pile it up with something else? Does one naturalise it because come on, it happens every day to everybody, right?
Questions, at the speed of hemp fumes, rushed in my mind as I half sat and half stood, unable to reach a decision. Our eyes met and silently I offered her any help that she might have needed. But before I could stand up and offer any help of any sort, she turned. Taking slow and calculated steps she reached the roadside romeo who had just violated her, swung her hand in a style that would have made Sania Mirza gasp in envy and gave one tight resounding slap on his cheek. Swearing in styles that would have immediately made the censor board issue an A certificate, calling upon their mothers and sisters to the oldest professions in the world, she emptied a cup of hot coffee on a gelled head and then quietly walked back towards where I was sitting.
The silence in the room was palpable. The entire populace was staring between the two tables, from her to them, as if it was a tennis match. The rug rats had visibly shrunk, their eyes wide in horror. The Slapped sod was on the verge of tears and the others were doing a fine imitation of a rabbit caught in headlights. One slap and an overturned cup was all that was required to deflate their hormone fed masculinity. In two minutes, they had disappeared, their lesson learnt, hopefully thinking twice before ever engaging in casual eve teasing…
It needs people like her to remind at least half of MAN kind that even Adam, when he had walked up to Eve and made a pass, had a red cheek and a kick in his balls for the action. Eve teasing is a crime and to let it pass of as a joke, perhaps even bigger. Sexual harassment is an act of violation and violence and deserves to be punished – sometimes informally and sometimes through the law, depending upon the nature of it. It needs people like her to fight it. And it needs everybody who agrees with it, to support the fight. This is not a battle of the sexes – men versus women; it is the battle between people who care and people who don’t. Whether man or woman, if you see an act of sexual harassment, no matter how miniscule it might be, no matter who it is targeted at, do not ignore it or detach yourself from it. What happened to her could happen to anybody we know – men or women. And sometimes just your presence or solidarity gives the victim enough courage to right things up.
It is women’s day today and as a part of the Blank Noise Blogathon, I endorse the need to fight actively against sexual harassment in public spaces around us.