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The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines eve-teasing as “the making of unwanted sexual remarks or advances by a man to a woman in a public place.” It dates from the sixties and is a word of Indian origin.
Twenty years after I had left the town of C, I looked for it again on google maps. I had had no idea till then that the town of C was actually very small, and remained so, even after I zoomed in several times on my screen. A sliver of land between two rivers and located, I remember, about two hours from the sea.
At the time I lived there, I knew the town differently. To me, the town was shaped by the roads I took every morning and afternoon traveling in a cycle rickshaw to school and back. As did my other schoolmates who attended the only girls’ school offering English medium instruction in that town.
It’s a journey I remember vividly. A few minutes after leaving home, I would pass government bungalows with their gravel driveways, impressive porticos, and beautiful gardens, and my heart would slowly fill with terror. For that route was lined with danger, marked by spots excruciatingly tormenting. These were areas claimed by the eve-teasing gangs of my early adolescence and made of varied groups: of rickshaw pullers, college students, idling men and schoolboys bunking school, all out looking for fun.
They occupied key strategic spots in this first early map I drew up in my mind, and can still see clearly: the tea stalls, the shaded copse of trees where the Cantonment Road branched off into the Old Fort area, and then the gates of the “only boys” Christ College. Sometimes the eve teasers appeared on the road itself, on their cycles. They were never alone, there was always someone seated on the horizontal top tube, and many a time there was more than one cycle.
We learnt early to recognize the whistles, the comments—for though one didn’t understand the words, the meaning and intent was clear—exchanged between cyclists as they weaved in and out, keeping pace with a rickshaw with a girl in it. One had to be aware, yet pretend ignorance, even blindness. The whizz of bicycle wheels would fill one’s ears, yet one had to learn not to turn around, to look them in the eye. One sat hunched forward in a protective gesture, One desperately hoped for invisibility.
It was a pose cultivated in identical measure by every girl I knew then; those headed to school, or other young women out in the streets. We learnt to perfect a near identical gait, a universally acquired demeanor, a way of thinking that told us how to dress properly and behave like decent girls. Defiance never helped. And in the same manner as blinkers condition a horse’s behavior, the ways, and habits we picked up these adolescent years, seeped into our thinking, our very being.
The longer I lived in the town of C, I soon had my own list of eve-teaser identifiers. For, as I realized soon enough, every small town was like every small town, and eve-teasers appeared everywhere.
- Eve teasers wore bellbottoms then in fashion. These pants with flares around the ankles remained popular in that town long into the eighties.
- They wore vividly colored shirts, with floral patterns or stripes, and flashy hooked belts.
- The men who eve-teased also did their hair in a particular way. The hair was flattened in front and parted neatly to the side. It flared out behind each ear, curly twisty tendrils waving out in a metaphor of warning. When you saw anyone with this hairdo, alarm bells in your mind would go off: be very alert and behave.
We learnt to ignore the comments. If one did that, one was lucky. The eve teasers would then veer away, contented, and bored, looking for other prey. Sometimes when eve-teasers broke into a vulgar song, and Hindi films were full of these, we pretended to be deaf, or not understand. But it was hard, for some Hindi film songs became very popular.
For instance, for some years, the local radio station played a popular Hindi song almost every day. Picturized on the biggest Indian film star of the day, the song detailed the special qualities of wives of every shape and look, and this song became the eve-teasing anthem of the town of C. Whenever that song broke out around us, aimed specifically at one of us, we knew, instinctively and instantaneously, just for whom it was meant.
To the eve-teasers, we were just a pair of breasts. For they stared specifically at those parts. Even a driver who worked for my father once positioned his rearview mirror in such a way that I, seated at the back, knew just what it was focused on. And I hunched forward in the way I had learnt.
Now, years later, when I detail these observations to friends I knew then, we laugh at our remembered ordeals. We laughed then too, in a different way, after we had found ourselves a safe, and secure place, usually in our homes, away from the eve teasers. We giggled furtively and in embarrassment. We knew that by keeping quiet and ignoring the eve teasers, we had been “good girls,” and saved ourselves from any harm.
We had swallowed the insults, the harassment. And some of this could be downright strange. Sometimes gangs of rickshaw pullers raced against one lone rickshaw and then having passed it in triumph, yelled slights at its lone girl occupant. But there was always that one consolation: we were not harmed. Nothing happened to us. No acid was thrown as did happen to a girl who had dared spurn a boy’s attention. She died days later in a hospital. For us, in our half-guilty, half-ashamed laughter, there was relief: At least there was no rape. It was a word we were just beginning to understand.
We just had to watch out, take precautions well in time. For indeed, there were predators who did draw very close. For some months, in the town of C, a different kind of eve-teaser appeared on the roads. Whispers about him had grown, and giggles too had turned nervous. He rode alone on his motorcycle, along the lines of rickshaws carrying girls – including my schoolmates on their everyday journey to school, and back. Having picked his victim well, he would swiftly ride up alongside and squeeze a breast before revving up and rushing away. You’d never get to see his face, only squeals of alarm, and the sound of a motorcycle zooming away. A sound like a growl, even a menacing roar, over and above the drowsy, gentler sounds of bicycle and rickshaw bells.
It took time for the police to sit up and act. A friend of my father’s, who was in the police, hit on a novel idea. Girls, he announced before the local pressmen, would tie ‘rakhis’ on boys and young men, who by this special thread tied on their wrists, a symbol of sibling affection, would now become their protectors. And thus, he concluded with a swing of his baton, the streets in the town of C would be forever free of eve-teasers.
The event was well-planned. Eve-teasers were rounded up, as well as several girls from college and the senior classes, and after the symbolic ‘rakhis’ were tied, everyone was allowed to go. The eve-teasers smirked, the girls looked abashed, and most giggled as if they had just done something shameful. It was enough for many people that the town of C was finally in the news, even though this news item took up only a paragraph of space in the important magazines published in the bigger cities of Calcutta and Bombay.
I remember the gatherings and social meetups between adults that followed soon. My father’s friend, the police officer was teased, but not unkindly. It was so innovative, everyone told him. A traditional idea adapted for modern use.
The next morning it was back to business. That morning, I did see him again: The motorcycle predator. He rode up opposite the line of rickshaws making their quiet way to school. It was clear it was him, the way he moved on his motorcycle, his eyes darting sideways, despite his dark glasses, looking for a seizable, graspable chance. But by now, I had learnt to read things, and how to behave. I knew how to erase myself totally from someone’s gaze. Becoming invisible was simply a matter of practice.