By Ila Ananya
Exactly a week ago, a relative I hardly ever spoke to dropped me a text. “Now you know why I kept saying living alone isn’t a good option for you,” he said. “I only meant well,” he told me sweetly, “You must always take precautions, no?”
My relative was referring to a fight we had had almost four years ago. I had just moved to Bangalore and wanted to live alone, but this uncle had overheard the conversation I had been having with my aunt (who I was living with), and felt like he must give his opinion on my wanting to move out of the house. Smiling smugly, he held forth about safety and “freedom within limits” for half an hour. This time around, the well-meaning relative texted me the link to a report on Shivaram Reddy—the man arrested only a week ago for serially sexually assaulting women at various PGs in Bangalore since 2013—with a smiley emoji to convey his good intentions.
Perhaps this relative hadn’t read the whole story. Maybe he hadn’t read that the woman who Reddy assaulted on 4th March lived in a PG in Kundanahalli where the owners refused to give women the keys to their own rooms. This wasn’t all—the woman has also reportedly said that CCTV footage showed that Reddy didn’t barge into her room while she slept. He had the keys.
The police, who have always been known to make reporting sexual violence difficult, strangely asked to meet her at a coffee shop to discuss the case. This came after she wrote down everything that happened on a sheet of paper on 5th March, when she first complained. The station house officer later requested her to meet him and the investigation team at a coffee shop, where they showed her photos of suspects. When she identified the man, the police offered her tickets to the India-Australia test matches happening in the city instead of filing the FIR. Finally, they filed the FIR only for extortion, with no mention of sexual assault.
The woman had woken up to Reddy standing over her with a knife. She says he assaulted her, threatening her with rape. He mentioned five other men in the next room who would take turns to assault her—something he has admitted to threaten all women with in all the PGs he has forcefully entered.
This is by no means the only case: in January this year, a 21-year-old woman was almost abducted from her PG, and late last year, a 20-year-old was raped at knifepoint in Parappana Agrahara. And what about the two women who were beaten up by their landlord over a parking issue? It’s no wonder that on 12th March, a voluntary association of IT employees started a signature campaign demanding a legal framework to regulate PG accommodations in Bangalore (despite an obviously unsuccessful Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike [BBMP] drive to identify illegal PGs that began in September 2016).
In the middle of all the conversations about PGs being unsafe because of lack of CCTV cameras and security guards, what about the fact that women weren’t given the keys to their own rooms? And how did a random man have the keys? To my uncle, these were unimportant questions. But they show how PGs often end up encouraging, not discouraging sexual assault and violence – because their frame of reference is moral policing not safety.
For instance, 26-year-old Aashna M*, who used to live in a PG near Richmond Town, was once smoking a cigarette with two friends outside the gates of her PG. She had just come back from her office in Koramangala, when suddenly, four men, one of whom her friends recognised as their neighbour’s cousin, started yelling at her. Aashna, was first accused of “spoiling” the other girls with her behaviour. When the women told the men to mind their own business, they began to grab and beat them. The PG owner, Aashna says, didn’t come out of his house to help.
Horrifyingly, that wasn’t all. After work the next day, Aashna came to her room and found a dildo on her bed. “Bahut ladti hai na, dekh lenge” (You fight a lot right, we’ll see), the note next to it said. She doesn’t know who put it there. “I wasn’t given the keys to my room, so I’d latch the door when I left. It was a big house with no guards, so anybody could enter and leave and nobody would know,” she says.
Aashna never went to the police. She didn’t want to, because it had taken a lot to convince her parents to let her move to Bangalore from Manipur. “They’d get worried. The idea of a PG made them think I’d be safer. If they heard this, they’d make me come home,” she says, “But I want to work.” So she simply changed PGs and told her parents the rent in her old PG was too high (it was, she paid Rs 6,000 a month for a room she shared with four girls and which was obviously unsafe).
In her PG in Koramangala, Nikita Raj says she fought with the owner because he would latch their rooms from the outside at night. She realised this one day when she tried to get out of her room at 8 pm to give some class notes to a friend who was waiting just outside the gate. Nikita thought she had been locked in by mistake. “It’s for your own safety,” the owner of the PG later told her furiously, “You girls don’t realise how dangerous it is out there at night.” On the other hand, Neha Menon, who rented a PG near Electronic city, says that she had a 7 pm curfew. When she reached 15 minutes late one day, she wasn’t allowed in. Standing in the dark outside her PG she had to make a round of phone calls, until she spoke to a colleague who lived nearby and who let her spend the night in her house.
Nikita talks about a case in Delhi from September 2016, when a college-going woman’s post on Pinjra Tod went viral. Nikita, who says the post scared her, knows every detail of the story. The woman had been cooking when a man suddenly put down a beer can on the kitchen counter next to her. A drunk man had walked into the house. His pants were unbuttoned and his penis was in his hand. The woman rushed into an adjacent room and locked the door. The man kept knocking until he went into another room and began to masturbate there.
“What if the same thing happened to me? What if this man had been hiding in my room because we don’t have keys to our rooms, and when I tried to run, I found that my door was latched from the outside? Or what if there was a fire?” Nikita asks. These are all very real fears.
Which is why it interests me that my relative is concern-trolling me now. His message is less horrific that this happened to a young woman somewhere in Bangalore and more satisfied that this is the perfect cautionary tale to frighten me with. A story with a moral.
Co-published with Firstpost.