- Posted November 13, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
The Chicken-Breast-Deprived Men
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
We celebrated even the smallest success, sometimes as small as a race between whose hands got to our breasts first: a stranger’s hand to grope, touch or squeeze us; or our hands to defend ourselves. Whether in buses, trains or public places we protected ourselves, our bodies the way a woman would guard her gold chain, purse or other valuables.
But we never blamed those guys because we never thought of them as guys, men, or our male counterpart. They were rickshawallahs, bus-drivers or conductors, coolies at train stations, sweepers, masons, vegetable vendors. In short, humans unequal to us from their birth till maybe their death.
My high school sociology teacher, a catholic nun, called them the chicken-breast-deprived men.
“How do you expect these uneducated and under-educated boys and men to control their lust for a woman’s breasts when even chicken breasts have been denied to them?” The Sister had a way of spicing sociology, if only to drive home the social inequalities. She came from that part of India where most become Christian Missionaries to fight-off poverty and to escape going to the Middle-East as house maids or low-paid abused workers.
“But, Sister, why mine…you see, when I am a vegetarian?” I joked.
“That’s because you have the choice, which the man out on the street doesn’t have and never had. He knows nothing but lust.”
“So are we, to an extent, responsible for our own groping and touching, Sister?”
Maybe. I learned it the night I boarded the train for my hometown travelling alone.
My college had closed for summer, and I had decided to take an overnight train to go to my hometown. As it was already dark when I started for the station, I opted for a rickshaw over a three-wheeler auto.
My rickshaw chugged along the side of river Gomti, on what was an insignificant back road, dark and murky. It being summer, I wore T-Shirt and loose jeans. Western attire in general and jeans in particular was always on the fault line of modesty in India.
And when I saw two men riding a scooter from the opposite direction, I just knew it…The riders were trying to inch closer to my rickshaw as they drew near. I hugged myself and crouched slightly. And when the pillion rider hit me chest, my forearm took the bulk of the blow, a bad blow. But more than the pain or the humiliation it was the fear, a child-like fear of being reprimanded again, of being slapped again, or something much worse, because in some ways I was at fault, too. Most people would tell me that if not these two then some other guy would have put me in my place for going out alone that late.
As it turned out, that night, many men did.
The station was still a long way away, and between catcalls and whistles, a cyclist rode alongside my rickshaw asking me, “What in your blouse, baby?" in English. Another man, with fingers pointed at me, asked, “Darling (with a special purr on r so that it sounded like dar-r-ling), wait a second, Darling."
At last, I arrived at the train station.
Train journeys have a dubious distinction in India, and overnight journeys can quite literally cause nervous breakdowns to a woman without a male companion. But my biggest worry was about travelling without proper overnight reservation: with a day ticket for a second class compartment I was travelling overnight.
I pulled out Sydney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Midnight” as a way to avoid probing eyes, to stay up, but mostly to define the boundary between me and those around me. English, back when I lived in India, was much more than a language; it was, what we believed, divided us, the class, from the mass.
Once the train pulled out of the Lucknow station a man in my peripheral vision made me nervous in the same way the pillion rider earlier that evening.
He was a slight man. Short and thin and dark-skinned. His overgrown hair made his face look a bit too large for his body. We saw such men everywhere in India. They always made us defensive, guarded. But mostly they didn’t dwell to long on a prey. If not the first prey then they rushed to the second, if not second then third. But this man was deliberate, far from rushed. His fingers were on the crotch of his dirty white pants. Sometime they moved around that area as though he were scratching himself other times he squeezed himself there like he was in pain.
Not that I expected him to be a physical threat – or not any more than I had experienced already; but then I didn’t know what to expect. He scratched himself just as purposefully as he stared at me. Not just my face but each body-part for minutes on end. Sometimes at my face, sometimes at my breasts, at my crotch, at my legs. When he stood up, he stared down at me. When I stood up, he stared at me from top to bottom. When I looked at him, he stared straight at me. Not for a moment he stopped staring and not for a moment his hand moved away from his crotch.
I wanted to stare back to embarrass him, to make him look away. But I was not ready to deal with a man who was touching himself ‘there”. Rather foolishly, I started looking at him furtively. That’s didn’t help things for me.
I could see him stare at me even with my eyes closed, or with my head down, or when I tried reading the novel. I started pulling my T-shirt away from my body to keep it from clinging. The back of my neck ached. I turned my head right and left to avoid pain. But any movement from me drew his attention back on me. As though he knew that I could not stop him, and could not scream at him.
What could I scream about? That this man was staring at my breasts, at my crotch! In a place where most hide far worse ordeals, how could I have told people what most would consider some make-believe story. Where were the physical marks? Or any proof? No, I could not scream.
Hours later, the sun light broke through. But long before that the man had dozed off. His back was towards me. Even then I could not keep myself from looking at him furtively.
The train stopped frequently. Daily commuters were getting in. Tea sellers were making rounds. Some looked at me. In all likelihood, it was to sell their tea and biscuit.
But what if they were staring at the same body parts as the man had been…?
The woman whose berth I shared had gotten up and took her place by the window. That left too much room between me and her, enough for one person to come and sit between us.
What if some man who sat between us started to stare the same way, or poke his finger?
Every man in that train was staring, staring at my breasts, between my legs, I was convinced.
The train finally arrived at my home station. And I gathered my hand bag and directed a coolie to carry my suitcase. As I got-off the train my jaws felt tight and head hurt with the pressure of holding too much. Just that I could not tell what is was that I was holding.
Was it fear? Was it physical pain from stiff neck and fatigue? Was it anger at my helplessness?
It was the man’s eyes the way it bore into me time and again, sometimes for minutes on end. I was unable to shake it off. Whether I paid to the coolie, or talked to my driver…those expressions clung to me.
It was a mental assault, an emotional assault not meant to leave any physical marks on me, and therefore any sympathizers for me.