For a minute there, I felt powerful. For a minute, I thought, it would get sorted now.
Now that I am involved, have learnt to speak up, and have discovered a few tools that can out-intimidate the intimidators, I thought I was just about done with street sexual harassment.
I should have known better... All it takes is five seconds of letting your guard down.
Five seconds, when I step inside the kirane ki dukaan near my house, to buy milk. A man follows me into the shop, and pretends to be just another customer, looking for Archies' greeting cards (in a kirana shop!). I leave, and as I open the gate to my place, the man stops me. Offers to 'make friendship'.
I have heard this so many times, and have responded to it in so many ways that I would have laughed outright. If it was not for the fact that I was suddenly frightened. By the knowledge that the man had probably been following me for some time without my noticing, that he now knew where I lived and that I was alone at home.
I say 'no thank you'.
He does not leave. He says 'don't misunderstand... genuine friendship, I promise'.
I tell him that I have many genuine friends and don't want any more. I ask him to leave. I say 'please'.
He does not leave.
I am reluctant to climb the stairs and open the lock until he has left.
He tries to give me a phone number.
I do not take it. He does not leave.
Finally, I have to turn away, run upstairs and lock all three doors behind me until I reach the top and can peer down to ensure that he has left.
Five seconds on the bus, when I am on the phone with my mother, and thus, have forgotten to stay alert and look aggressive.
The man sitting next to me has placed his hand on my thigh. At first, so lightly that I don't notice. When I do, I turn to look at him, aghast. I am so surprised, that for a full five seconds, I cannot find my voice.
And then, all I can think of saying is - "Ye kya kar rahe ho?" (What are you doing?)
He withdraws his hand with a sudden, quick movement and looks out of the window.
The rage is slow to arrive, for some reason. But while I get steadily angrier by the fractioned second, I notice what a pitiful picture the man cuts - he is a mouse of a man; a trapped rat of a man... if I wanted to, this minute, I could beat him up. Not because I am stronger, but because he is such a coward and I am so angry. All I can feel is contempt.
I say "Get up and get out. Right now!"
He gets up immediately, mumbles something about having to get off anyway, and gets off at the next stop.
The humiliation is his, but minutes afterwards, I continue to simmer. Others have noticed this little exchange of words and some men are turning to stare at me. I stare back at them and they quickly look away.
When I get home, I catch myself wanting to take a bath... And yet, something has changed. This time, my reaction is different from what it would have been two years ago. I did not hit the man. I did not scream. I did not panic. I did not feel the need to create a big scene. I was surprised, felt contempt and anger - I did not feel fear.
This, I realise now, is because of blank noise, partly. I have gotten used to dealing with the problem, talking about it, taking it to the very streets where we endure it... So used to it, that it seems incredible that somebody should actually dare to go on harassing me. A corner of my brain was wondering - 'What? Don't they know?'
And that is why getting involved was good for me.
Blank Noise is not just about getting men to lay off. It is also about empowering women to deal with men who will not keep their unwelcome hands off you. It is as much about dealing with women's fear of public spaces and strangers, as it is about dealing with sexually abusive/intimidating strangers.
Which is why I encourage every woman I meet, especially college girls and young professionals, to get involved.
It is hard to get involved, I know. It is hard to make time for a battle that's everybody's battle; there are too many personal ones to fight. But hard though it is, it makes sense. For my own sake, for my sisters and for the women we will bring up, some day.
To show up, to do something - anything! - against sexual harassment in public spaces. Because these are my spaces too; and I can't let somebody alienate me from my own spaces simply because intimidating shit happens out there.