By Sharanya Deepak
I left home a few days ago, sandwich in mouth, Google maps on go and 10 minutes late for everything I had to do. I had a meeting in Safdarjung, one more in Mehrauli and hopefully some hours of mindless caffeine consumption in which I would pretend to write. I was having a good start, better than most days. Traffic wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t hate what I was wearing. After I got to Safdarjung, my car, a borrowed one that I usually don’t drive, stopped abruptly. I switched to second gear and revved, asked someone to push it, but it didn’t work.
In the middle of messing with my gears and starting my car, I brushed across a scooter behind me, causing a minor dent. It was small, there was one scratch and I got out with money and pre-planned apologies, wanting to make-up to whomever I had caused a nuisance on a very hot day.
What followed was a man younger and smaller than me screaming at me, walking up to me and threatening to hit me. He said I had caused major damage, and he wanted money. I refused to pay him the amount he asked for, and he asked me to go with him on his scooter to a mechanic. To this also, I refused. I had a broken down car and a boot full of stuff. The man who had been helping me start the car had disappeared. The one here kept yelling, and when I finally screamed back, he pushed me on to my car door, came close to my face and threatened that things could be worse if I kept talking. I looked to better judgment and not anger when he started calling his friends on his phone, telling them to come to where we were, telling them to hurry, he was in the middle of a mess. It was not a mess, I said. It was a small dent, I could give him his money, he could lower his voice, and we could be on our way.
“Ladka hota toh mud tod deta, par tera bhi kuch tod sakte hai” (I would break your face if you were a man, but since you’re a woman we can break something else), he said to me, looking up as he spoke, expecting me to cower in fear. This only made me angrier, and I told him, (calmly, I think?) to stop screaming, take the money and leave. Again, he threatened to break my face, I stood there, dumbfounded, hating myself for not being able to summon all the outspokenness I am often known for.
Ten minutes later, I was surrounded by 20 men, and I couldn’t pick which ones were around to help and which ones weren’t. I just knew I had to get out of there, it was Tuesday afternoon and I had work to do. I realised my phone’s battery was nearly drained and called the police, sitting locked in the car till they arrived. When they did, I got out, and they looked at what I was wearing (a dress that reaches my ankles), smirked at each other and took note.
“Madam, aap bhi na, ladkon se muh kyun lagte ho?” Why do you have to stand up to boys?
“Shukar hai din ka time hai [Thank god it’s daylight]” one of them said as he smiled at me, expecting me to be comforted. I couldn’t take it anymore, I got in the car, cried for what seemed like 40 minutes, threw some money out the window, revved my car and left. I remembered that the man had taken photos of my car, maybe even of me, and thought about what he might do with them. I drove around madly, wishing I had listened to friends about getting credit on my phone, and to my disgust, double checking myself. “Maybe it was my fault,” I thought. “Had I made him angry?” I started calling friends in a frenzy, desperate to avoid blaming myself and overthinking everything that I could have done to cause this.
I went to the nearest police station and reported the man, aware that no action would follow because this wasn’t a case of violation as defined by the law. No clothes taken off, no organs destroyed. When I walked in, saying I wanted to report a man for assault, they asked me if I had bruises. “Not that kind”, I said helplessly. “Phir kya problem hai?” they asked.
This is not a complaint about a bad day, but a note on the culture of intimidation that we live in. A tradition of power that allows a man, any man, to put a woman back into her place. It is a culture that allows a man a position of power, of that to intimidate, to scare, to create fear. It is a system that gives an angry man license to use any woman as an outlet. One that gives him the power to strip a woman of clothes, dignity or courage, and sometimes all of them at once.
Many years ago, during the Nirbhaya rape case, my friend wrote an insightful article that noted how rape wasn’t about sex. It didn’t matter how much sex a man had, a violator would violate. In this culture of intimidation, entitlement and power are normalised for a man, allowing him summoning friends into a public parking to show a woman her place on a Tuesday afternoon. What began as a young man screaming threats at me, ended with an old one telling me I shouldn’t drive or work too much. “Aaram se ghar pe baitho, kuch nahin hoga [Stay at home. You’ll be safe there].”
For years, when everyone asked me if it was difficult to be a woman in Delhi, I brushed them off, saying you needed to know the way, the rules, be brave, stand up, speak loud, and you’ll be fine. All of it still holds true, and my life is easier than 90 percent of the women in the country, but on some days, unexpectedly, Delhi will strip you of all determination. When I call friends, I get brief lectures about charging my phone, but mostly everyone, like me, sounds devoid of hope. It is these times that we don’t pride Delhi, when we discard it, distance it, and all affection is replaced with anger. A man at an ATM sees me crying, tells everyone to get out so I can use it first, and my anger is again fleetingly replaced with affection.
People will tell me to always keep my phone on. Others will tell me that what happened to me was normal. Others will tell me that I should’ve smiled, shut up, and given the angry man what he wanted. But it is absurd, to say the least, than an assault on everyday liberties is considered normal. It is bizarre that my options in this situation involved smiling at perpetrators to release myself of conflict or standing up to them and consequently being manhandled. Both are not choices, and require sacrificing parts of myself I shouldn’t ever be asked to.
Sharanya Deepak is a writer and journalist currently in New Delhi. Her work has previously appeared in Tehelka Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. She has also written one book for children.