If I look back and try to summarize my life in one word – the word would be ‘ordinary’. And this would be true, for the large majority of us. A relatively care free childhood, thoroughly middle class (as defined in the early post-independence years) upbringing, the protective environment of college and the workplace in the security of parents, friends, husband, friends, colleagues etc…. A personal life graph of events and achievements of note would show a few spikes (not very large spikes as those who know me would understand), which would become small blips in the macro-environment I have occupied (Academia mostly) and would not even ruffle the surface on any larger regional/national scale. But even in a life so ordinary – any honest recap involves some episodes of ‘misogyny
The earliest episode – when I was probably just 6-7, is hazy – must have happened, as it floats into my consciousness every time I read of assaults on children. But I cannot put it into words as the memories are indeed hazy and non-specific…. Later, in the safe environs of Satya Marg Government Colony of the late 50s and early 60s, where everyone knew everyone else, girls were warned not to go into the service lanes alone (that is where the ‘other’ lives – namely the ‘servants’), and anyway girls were never allowed to be out alone after dark. The daily trips to school and to college on the U special were incident free – as was the norm for the times, I guess. But then, we were on familiar territory with friends and neighbors and classmates and others like ‘us’.
My first unpleasant encounter that I recall, was in that very colony, when we had moved out from there and I had just started college at the other end of town. I used to go back to catch up with friends and one blazing summer afternoon, as I walked through the deserted main street from the bus stop, there was this guy on a cycle circling round and round and exposing himself!! A medical student, the anatomy did not surprise or disgust me, and the man himself looked most non-menacing – and as I hastened my steps and turned into one of the nearby houses, he raced off. I was not frightened and probably did not even make a big confession, as I would have been more embarrassed with the fuss that the incident would generate. But, it was the first such intrusion into my sanitized world.
The female representation in medical colleges had grown over the years – it was >40% in my own class. And like most of the Institutions of the time, co-education had only limited connotations. The dress code for girls was still sarees/salwar-kameez (they had not acquired the universal terminology of ‘suit’) only, the opportunities for inter-mingling between the sexes beyond college hours was limited and girls did not question the 8 o’clock gate closing time imposed by the hostel warden (which did not, of course, exist for the boys!) Boys did not use ‘objectionable’ language as they usually came from ‘good’ homes and the teachers behaved with seriousness and solemn decorum. Even, laughing and joking with students, or taking them out for a cup of tea after the OPD, by a younger teacher was frowned upon by the seniors staff. The slightly, leery smiles of the elderly Professor of Surgery around the young female student was a butt of many jokes, and as was his alleged admonition to young lady undergraduates appearing for the Surgery Finals of “I will pass you if you promise not to apply for post-graduation in Surgery” (he did not say it to me!).
But a few years later, as an older married I had an encounter of a more serious nature. It involved a Senior Teacher in the Department where I was a junior member. On making a verbal complaint to the Head of the Department, who was also my mentor, I was asked to submit a complaint in writing. And, this was used by the Administration to persecute the person concerned, and then I became a pawn in a larger political game. The various enquiries etc dragged on for many months – and during that period we certainly came to know who were our friends. The final top level enquiry was conducted by a lady IAS officer of the Haryana Cadre (who later held many senior position at Delhi), and I can remember her stiff, superior “I am being so sympathetic” tone, the nature of her questions and the inherent bias against a ‘chit of a girl’ having the audacity to report on a senior colleague. Soon after this I left for the US on a fellowship and so was no longer around when the report exonerated the assailant and re-instated him. (An unfortunate after tale is the acid attack by the same person on another young lady doctor and spoiled her life permanently – an episode that may have been prevented if there was fairness in dealing with such complaints)
Although I rejoined the same Department after I came back from US and interacted, albeit very purfunctorily with the same person, the episode must have influenced the decision to resign and move out a short while later. The years passed and fortunately I did not have to face any such incident again, although I would have been better prepared for it. There is always some leering male in the train when you travel alone, someone trying to push against you in a bus, a smart colleague making jokes with innuendos – but as you mature, you learn to deal with it, keep perspectives and even reprimand when indicated. There was a senior colleague, a good friend of my husband, with whom I did not speak for many years, because he had a large repertoire of sleazy jokes with which he gathered a crowd (of men, of course) in every party. But life moves on, perspectives change as do priorities.
And as you grow older, the targets move on to the younger ones. But when I thought I was well past the age for this kind of harassment, could relax and not be bothered – it happened again. A contemporary, who I had known for many years joined the Institution I was then working at. He started to stalk me – which finally led to an unpleasant face to face show down. And then I realized that, it can happen anytime to anyone – I think Banwari Devi was in her 60s!!
So, misogyny as a term has moved into the center stage of the English speaking media – and more people are coming out in support of the victims. But the media and the law can only do so much…. if it is so much a part of even the most ‘ordinary’ life, we ordinary folks will have to refocus our every day ‘ordinary’ lives lives and eradicate all forms of discrimination in all our ‘ordinary’ actions, talk and attitudes. And like the political change over we are now watching, make gender equality the AAM attitude.
PS: The larger part of this blog was written many months ago, during the heat of the post-Delhi rape period. It was lying in my ‘Drafts’ folder, being hesitant about exposing such a private part of one self. But, then after bringing in 2014, in the warm and happy company of family and friends, I woke up yesterday morning to see on the front page of the paper that “gang rape victim died of burns” in Kolkota. In each case, it is either totally ignored with nil news value – or so politicized that the truth gets blurred. So I dug this up……. it can happen to anyone! So, I start this year with a serious post….