Sunday, October 02, 2005

When cabbies ask for kisses (auto-maton-6)

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."
"You what?"
"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.


Anonymous said...

That is scary indeed. As a college student in Bombay, I always felt pretty safe travelling around, but the fear would creep back on those rare late nights.

I'm glad you didn't allow this incident to change your life.

neha vish said...


Reading your post was like a rush of blood to the head. I did my undergrad in Delhi, and college life in Delhi was difficult when it came to the bus routes. The men standing right behind you, so close that their paan-breath would bounce on your neck. I used to carry one big folder that used to be a shielf for the frontal part of the body, and a bag that would be swung to the back, so no one got too close.

It was an angry time. I remember the continuous frown on my face. Because one of the give-aways of vulnerability (PUKE) was to look relaxed or even happy. You had to look constantly angry, and never make eye contact.

I went for my postgrad to Bombay and was brainwashed my the hourglasses of stories people had given me about how Bombay was safe. And the only difference that I found was that in Bombay, the spaces exclusive to women were more. In that sense, in the train - even if hellishly crowded, you were among other women.

But after 10, when some of the coaches lost them women-only status, things were no different. The auto drivers were lechy, and you felt safe as long as there was enough traffic on the road. And even then there were the auto-drivers who would try and touch your hand while handing you back the change.

If people like Sumanth have their way, the law will then punish us for NOT being able to defend ourselves against a violation. In that sense, pepetrators will attack anyway and that it is somehow coded into them, and that women are responsible for the safety of their bodies and beings. Again the onus of responisbility will be on women! Wow! Why didn't I think of that!

Annie Zaidi said...

ash, i could not afford to let it change my life... the option is a cop-out and a betrayal of everything you want.
neha, you're right on. can't agree more.
and sumanth... why do I even bother?
but for the record, no. I don't 'expect' police/boyfriend/brother/male relative to 'protect' me. But I don't think it is too much to ask that I not be assaulted.

Aditya Bidikar said...

I echo Ash's comment. God, this is scary.

As for Sumanth, I'm surprised to see he's still around. Last I saw him was months ago, and he was berating my friend and me for being feminists, and he was talking about how feminists have ruined India. I wish we could ignore him, but he just seems to keep cropping up. His kind of skewed mentality just makes me shudder.

gawker said...

This post reinforces the point you make in one of your previous posts, basically why would anyone want to bring up a girl child in an India where such things can happen? It would be tantamount to cruelty.

david raphael israel said...

Well. The question of unmanifest possibilities aside, in the real situation, happily, Annie did have (and well weilded) the requisite weapon: her sharp tongue.

I told him, "If you stop now, I will kill you. I really will."

Those words proved a necessary & sufficient "knife" in the actual instance, no?

This recalls the maxim Ramakrishna Paramahamsa liked putting in the mouth of the teacher admonishing the non-violent snake: "you are prohibited from biting, but not from hissing."

R. said...

Its a tough situation, not much that the cops can do except patrol the road, which they do, what can change though is how companies treat a staffer who leaves work late. Anyone working late should be able to get an official vehicle to drop them off home.

Infact when the third shift in for women factories was allowed recently, it was specified that the companies were responsible for ensuring that the workers reach their doorstep safe. So even the law makers are thinking on these lines. So in short, I feel that companies do have a large role in ensuring that an employee, male or female, reaches home safe after a late shift or a late day at office.

david raphael israel said...

anecdotally, when I worked a 3rd shift (word processor in a large law firm) in Manhattan (some 15 years ago), we were routinely given a sedan ride home (to any of Manhattan's 5 boroughs) -- the firm had a deal with a car service. This arrangement (using one regular company, rather than having workers hail a taxi) was no doubt based on convenience & an economy of volume plus an overall monthly billing process; but perhaps on some level, a factor of safety/reliability played into its origins as well. (A thought I'd never considered -- I was generally unaware of much sense of threat in that city in those days.) The vulnerability of the given time, place and mode of transport in Annie's recollection is worrisome. As the idle imagination of a clueless outsider, taking some hint from Sumanth's notions and turning them differently, one wonders if some clever Sikh entrepreneur couldn't establish a kind of "affordable transport plus personal security" service. If such a service gets preference in a marketplace of established deals with some large 3rd-shift-some companies . . . ;-)

R. said...

David, that sounds like a good business model. Perhaps a smart individual like Sumanth should indeed explore this opportunity

Sumanth, I don't think David would insist on a royalty for the idea.


david raphael israel said...

Right you are, R.

I renounce all royalties and intellectual-property claims. But I retain the right to write verses while ensconsed in such a Sardarji Mobile, someday.

cheers, d.i.

Vijayeta said...

I agree with u abt Bombay beinf safe only as long as there are crowds. Delhi, maybe 'cos i'm more comfortable there and have driven to Noida post midnight just for a lark... But this was scary. Auto-wallah asking for a kiss!
But i'm glad we can all move on. Stronger and wiser!

Quizman said...

I had an experience that was quite bizarre. Five years ago, my wife and I were going from a friend's place in Juhu to Powai at 1.30 a.m. The autorickshaw driver drove confidently for a while. When he came to a street in Mahakali, he stopped. My wife and I were perturbed for a brief moment until the driver said, "I don't want to go on this road. I'm scared." So he took well lit large streets, reached Powai safely and charged us by the meter!

Must've be some sort of karmic good I did in the past.

Vijayeta said...

Hey Annie...need yr opinion on my Metrosexual Rabbits and Rude Shocks Post! Quick! Apparently, ppl want this one developed first cos of the current-ness of the topic!

Annie Zaidi said...

david, good idea.
r, third shifts are a dicey business... placing the onus on the firms is not really fair. it will just lead to fewer women being hired. the right thing is just to change the environment of danger, and thus reduce the risks involeed
V, please to be taking care... you do, I know, but even so. and you have your feedback in your inbox

1conoclast said...

Since I work for a call centre & work in all kinds of shifts, I know a little about the logistics of sending people home at odd hours.
There are hordes of enterprising people who run Transport services and most of them are managed well. Despite our sending a security guard with women, despite stringent guidelines around acceptable driver behaviour, there is still the odd incident of a driver leering or standing too close. We terminate the services of such drivers immediately & that seems to be the last incident for a while to come.
Incidents like this happen everywhere. The key is to protect yourself, by staying aware & not taking too many chances.
That is something every woman & every man (if you live in a New York for example) must remember.
In this particular case, it seems to be that the guys on the bike were chasing the rickshaw fellow more than the lady. If he was drunk he may have been driving rash & the bikers may have wanted to hit him to teach him a lesson. My years in Bombay tell me that could've been the case. Nevertheless, it pays to take extra care.
I am really amused that Sumanth is still around. This is akin to web-stalking.
Sincere, Humble Request Sumanth. Please take your campaign to where people appreciate it.

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