It was probably around now, the season, classes had thin attendance and the New Year had not yet guilt-kicked-in with its resolutions. We were 20 and quite drunk. It was the middle of the day, the four of us girls had bunked college and gone to Leopold’s in Colaba. We didn’t notice the table next to us. Four men, probably in their thirties, leery, not talking to each other. Some of us were smoking those thin, menthol cigarettes like newbies, being very cool. One of the men at the next table leaned towards us and asked if they could borrow our lighter. We thought nothing of it, but at that instant, a waiter was at our side, standing between our table and their’s, handing the man a matchbox.
After that, we began to notice. Whether late at night, or during the day, whether we were drunk on beer or club sandwiches, the staff at our Leo’s was always on the lookout for us. Waiting till we piled into a cab, watching, hawkeyed for any unnecessary enthusiasm from young men in groups without women while we danced or sat at the table in paroxysms of laughter.
We took it for granted.
I lived alone in my parents’ flat from the time I was 17. I biked to work for my first job at the Asian Age, in a little hellhole area of Mumbai, in lower-Lower Parel. We worked insane hours. I’d ride back to Bandra, at 1 in the morning, no helmet, very obviously a girl. I never felt unsafe.
Taking a cab late at night from near Haji Ali, the cabbie was uncharacteristically young. My mother had a litany of ‘safe practices’. One was, “choose an older cabbie if you can” (her concern was mostly about the speed at which young men drove, such was the time) but that night, there was only this young one. At Worli, the streets were deserted and out of nowhere a white van packed with screaming, drunk, men in their early twenties, began to drive alongside. They spied me, alone in the cab and began to make lewd gestures. They opened the door of the van at the signal. I saw the cabbie look at them and thought, ‘that’s it, this is how it’s going to end’. And then my cabbie hit the gas, broke the signal and sped off like his life depended on it. Like our lives depended on it. The van gave chase but eventually trailed off. I paid him outside my house and said ‘thank you’. He just nodded. We both knew what had happened and what had been averted.
On a bus, with my friend R, from whom I learned “there’s always a stone on the road to throw at a creep”, we watched a young girl being harassed by a man for ten minutes. Finally, it was too much. R, 5’8” and with our monsoon de-rigeur, a large black umbrella, tapped the man on the shoulder and said she’d get the conductor to throw him off the bus. He turned around and said, “but what am I doing?” So she looked at the girl, who surprised us all, (the entire bus was now staring at R) by saying “He wasn’t doing anything.” It was super embarrassing and weird. The girl, head bent, shuffled to the back of the bus but the conductor stared the man down and R and I shook our fists at him. He got off at the next stop in a hurry.
In a crowded bus, coming home, I finally got a seat next to a scrawny, unkempt looking young chap. Instinctively, I edged away from him only to find that one of the men standing in the aisle was using my shoulder to grind himself against. I fought back tears. I had no energy to get into an argument that day. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was staring at me. I turned on him in hatred, eyes wide with rage and he just said quietly, ‘Sister, let me sit on the outside.’ So we traded places. And as I looked out of the window, safe from harm, I let myself cry.
For every hideous incident of molestation, most women here will have a story that is heartening. In scruffy bars, stranded on highways because of a wrong turn, in an auto at 4 am, in the middle of Kamathipura, Nagpada, Bombay Central, Dadar… there is always a counter to the story of monstrous men. Stories of brave, kind strangers and the men and women you know.
Things have changed, yes, but nothing is irrevocable.
There’s creepy, awful, evil, misogynistic, opportunistic, cowardly, hateful, potential rapists in every city, in every place. What I have loved about Bombay, is that the good guys (and girls) still seem to outnumber the assholes. And that is why there’s hope for us yet.