Saturday, October 08, 2011

Gallantry in the Versovic Veerana: A midnight frame

I was pretty spaced out during the ride back to the station. While hailing the auto-rickshaw, I hadn't even looked at the driver's face properly. We never do, do we? All I remember was that he was aggressively bearded. And that his auto gave me the full benefit of the city. No distracting music. No cricket commentary or news. No conversation on the phone. No horns.

Midnight Andheri vroomed past - engines, hammering on construction sites, yellow headlights that always seem to me more like a loud sound than a painful sight. And hooting. That unmistakable hooting sound of men trying to get a woman's attention.

I was too spaced out to notice at first. The blinding yellow, the shadows of men curled up at roundabouts, the loopy daydreams had been distracting me. But when the cat-calling continued, I looked up and saw them. About eight of them, sitting-standing on the back of a truck. They sat with their legs dangling out of the lowered 'gate' at the back. Semi-bare legs. One of them wore short shorts - a crimson red. Another wore a red t-shirt. With the light in my eyes, I couldn't see much more.

Workers, perhaps, packers and movers. Or friends of the driver, hitching a ride to somewhere after a hard day at work. I looked at them for a minute and then looked away again. A traffic light. Both vehicles stalling, engines working hard.

The whoops and hoots grew louder. They had noticed me looking. They wanted me to look again.

It gets tiring. Them wanting to be looked at. I could look. Then they would hoot louder. Then they would nudge each other and say, "Look, she's looking." Then they would make a gesture, perhaps it would be obscene. Perhaps, it would amuse me. Then I would feel insulted.

I wasn't yet feeling insulted. But now it was impossible to slide back into that trance induced by screaming yellow midnight traffic. I looked away, shifted so that my face was in the shadows.

As if that mattered. They weren't hooting at my face or my clothes. I was covered neck to wrist to ankle. They were faceless men themselves, tired working men, but they saw a woman and wanted her attention. And   I didn't want to give it to them.

I couldn't. You never can. How can any woman in this city - any city - give a group of random men the attention they obviously want, and hope that the situation will not worsen?

I did the predictable thing. Lowered my eyes, shrank somehow, counted down to when the light would turn green. The light turned green.

But even a small truck is a large thing. On a road reduced to a ribbon by massive infrastructure projects, it is hard to ignore. And so we travelled that way for a while - me in the auto, behind the truck, and the men calling out - not words, just sounds. Looking at me.

There is something awful about being looked at in this way. It seems preposterous even when there is no danger. You want the looking faces to go away. You do not want their eyes on any part of you - not your hands, not your feet, not your shadow.

And then my auto-driver began to weave impossibly. First right, then left, then right, swerving sharply. He was going as fast as he could. Hooting sounds still floated in, but somehow, they seemed to have been deflected. Somehow, I felt less helpless.

As soon as he could, the auto-driver squeezed through a gap on the left, hit the accelerator hard and overtook. From the wrong side, yes. But finally, I was rid of them - the hooting, the looking.

Once we'd left the truck behind, the auto-driver slowed down. The night swung back into pools of yellow-grey and the hum of a hundred engines. I relaxed. I began to space out again. In a few minutes, we reached the station. I paid him. He found other passengers. I said, 'Thank you'.

I didn't really say thank you, though. How do you say 'thank you' for such things? For guessing that I'd feel bad about the hooting; for wanting to do something about it; for doing what he could without me having to suggest it.

I still couldn't see much of him as I alighted. All I saw was his beard. There was the slightest touch of grey in it. Or perhaps not. There was something about him that suggested greyness, as if he was on the far side of youth. Perhaps it was his silence, his wisdom. Perhaps, it was my silence, my wisdom. Who can say?


Unknown said...

nicely written..
i must say that it is quite impossible some times for men to avoid doing such things..
it stems from the necessity for distraction from life's routine when the right thing to do would be introspection..

Anonymous said...

I love strawhanger's comment, defending the right of men to behave like rabid dogs. Oh, how I love Indian male attitudes. They wd make rabid dogs feel quite calm and serene.

dipali said...

Chivalry exists in the most unexpected places!

Jai_C said...

The part where you dont thank the driver jarred a bit.

Maybe the reading of this piece suggests more risk than there actually was, in the swerving and impossible weaving.

Maybe you expressed your relief and gratitude non verbally but it seems unlikely he could even have recognized any such given that you could hardly see anything about him but his beard.

Maybe you paid him more though its hardly clear from this article.

I cant really second guess from my armchair safety your actions or words but the bit where you compliment yourself on your silence and wisdom didnt sit too well with the rest of the piece.


Unknown said...

Annie, like the new format!

SUEB0B said...

Perfectly captured.

delhidreams said...

the men on the truck and the man driving the autorickshaw...both are from the same society, but we tend to put the spotlight on the previous species more...annie, he didn't need thanks, but you should have thanked him :) in some sense, you did, and you've by writing this. i thank you for sharing this.

Tweets by @anniezaidi