Mid-day has a report - cabbie asks tourist for kiss - which, while it is all rather pathetic, brings back scary memories from four years ago.
The time when I worked for Mid-day and took my turn at the shifts - early morning, afternoon or late-night (the newsroom referred to them as 'mourning', 'bakra' and 'graveyard' shifts respectively). The times when I set out of the house at 3.45 in the morning. Or took the last train home, at about 1 o'clock at night. The time when I began to see that Bombay is only as safe as its crowds. Give it a moment of alone-ness, give it a deserted stretch of road, and it can turn into as much of a male beast as Delhi was rumoured to be.
Four years ago, I took an auto-rickshaw home, from Andheri station to the east where we lived, near Mahakali.
I forget whether I was on the graveyard shift, or not. The details are rather fuzzy in my head, but I remember working late, and it was nearly midnight, or way past. I remember being exhausted and taking the first auto that agreed to take me.
I remember being calm until we hit the flyover and two men started giving chase, on a bike. They were shouting - I couldn't hear what, but I remember the fear. They ordered the rickshaw-driver to stop. They tried blocking his way, driving him almost off the bridge.
To my horror, the driver slowed down. He turned round in his seat, leered and said, "Shall I stop? Shall we wait for them?"
For a fraction of a second, I was tongue-tied. But not long enough. I told him, "If you stop now, I will kill you. I really will."
It is an entirely different matter that I wouldn't have known how to begin carrying out my threat, or whether I made any sense at all, but the driver turned his attention to the accelerator. Which was not a good idea either, because he was clearly drunk. But he seemed to be the lesser of two evils.
The men on the bike were riding parallel to us, now. They cursed, kept trying to get the auto to stop, but when the flyover met a junction of the road that was slightly busier, with a little more traffic, they gave up and left.
I couldn't breathe yet, though. Now, I had the driver to contend with. I wanted him to stop and get into another auto, but he would not slow down, not even at traffic lights. So, I held my silence and prayed.
Then, this man began to talk. "So, what are you?"
I did not want to antagonize him right now, so I decided to talk to him as long as he kept getting me closer to home. "What do you mean?"
"What do you do?"
"I write for a paper. I'm a journalist."
He laughed outright. "You're lying!"
"What?" I was surprised at his disbelief. "Why should I lie?"
"You don't look like a journalist."
"Why? What do you think a journalist looks like?"
"I don't know.... Not like you."
"What do I look like then?"
"You look like a bar dancer," he turned to look at me and almost drove off the road, in his drunk grinning.
I swallowed this with mixed reactions. Did he mean to compliment me or was he suggesting something? "A bar dancer, hunh? What do bar dancers look like?"
"They look like you."
"Oh!" I didn't know what else to say. I looked down at myself - long checked kurta, loosely clasped vagrant hair, loose salwar, flat kolhapuris, no jewelry, no make-up. Bar dancer?
He drove for a while longer, then began again. "So, which bar do you dance in?"
"I told you - I'm not a dancer. I work for a paper."
He laughed again. "You're lying. Come, tell me the truth."
"But I did tell the truth."
"Really? Which paper do you write for?"
He looked into the mirror, unsure now, of whether I was kidding him or not. Besides, we were nearly home. My relief was giving me courage.
So I said, "Why did you say I look like a dancer? You know quite well that I don't."
He grinned again. "I know. I just wanted to say it."
My building's gates loomed large and so did two sleepy watchmen.
I began to take out money to pay him, but the driver said, "Give me one kiss, before you go."
I just stared at him, stupefied. "Why?"
"One kiss. You don't need to pay me, if you like."
I refused and tried to thrust money into his hands but hut he was not listening. "You must give me one kiss before you go."
"Are you out of your mind? Take your money and leave, before I call the watchmen."
The man tried to start up the auto-rickshaw and begin moving again. So, I stepped out quickly, flung money into the passenger-seat and ran, not stopping until I stepped inside the gates.
I didn't say anything at home. Once safe at home, food, sleep and exhaustion took care of the fear. (If you ever read this, mom, it was all a long time ago. No point getting upset about it, now).
I did not mention this because it would serve no purpose. I did not know the auto's number, and wasn't sure if I even wanted the driver arrested. He was drunk; and he did save me from the bike-riders....
If I had mentioned it, it would either have been translated into diktats, like "No more coming home late/No more going out alone". Or, I would have been forced to ask the chief/ editor to excuse me from the mourning and graveyard shifts. Which, I refuse to do. I never have asked for gender-based concessions when it comes to work; don't intend to.
Why am I bringing it up, now?
Because I am thinking of bar dancers and auto-drivers who ask for kisses.
Because a lot of times in Bombay, taking the last train home, I have felt safe only because there were dozens of confident, loud, bar dancers in the ladies' compartment, who would not stand by and watch - I am reasonably certain - if there was trouble.
Because Bombay's 'safe-for-women' tag is not a universal deal; to a lot of women, it is a myth. Because Bombay's sex ratio is also quite skewed. Because I have data that suggests a direct link between the lack of women and the growing cases of violence against women.
Because it is far enough in the past for me to laugh about it, a little. Because the world is so crazy, that I'm even a little sorry for poor auto-drivers who must be so desperate for kisses that they ask complete strangers, and I wonder if they ever get kissed, at all? Are bar dancers the only ones who agree to kiss them?
Or just... because.