Life isn’t a television series which will run on one theme. I might retell the events of the past in a humorous way, but life isn’t a sitcom where tragedy doesn’t strike in a grave manner. There are certain incidents which cannot be taken lightly even if one tries to. The recent happenings in the country are no secret. Be it an 80 years old grandmother or a 4 years old kindergartner or a 2 months old infant; no one is safe. Women of all age are being molested, assaulted, and stalked. Women are not safe today.
This got me thinking, and thinking hard. Women have never been safe. Girls were molested before too… Women have been treated as a commodity since the beginning of mankind. Draupadi was used as a bet by Yudhishtir. Her five husbands, who incidentally became so without her consent or say, sat quietly while Dusyashan stripped her in front of the court.
Today we are aware of the atrocities against women and children because the victims and their families are raising their voices. They have the courage to stand in public and demand justice. But these courageous people are just the tip of an iceberg. Hundreds of incidents are swept under the rug in the name of reputation- log kya kahenge… ladki se shaadi kaun karega… khandaan ka naam badnaam ho jayega… ladkon ke saath bhi aisa kabhi hota hai? Naak kat jaayegi… These sound clichés but are still the reason for the silence.
When I was 5 years old, the only things my mother taught me were alphabets and rhymes. Today I teach my 5 year old about good touch and bad touch. I teach my daughter to scream her lungs out if someone tries to touch her privates. Instead of teaching her hopscotch, I am teaching her self-defense techniques… I am teaching her to speak up, to tell me about anything, no matter what happens, no matter how scary because today even the schools are not safe. But then again, there have been predators in schools before as well. I know that because I have seen one. I didn’t speak up then. But I will today. Because this is the right thing to do. Because I want to practice before I preach to my child.
I was just a couple of days away from my sixteenth birthday, studying in a co-ed school in 10th std. I was like any other kid, enjoying school in my own little ways. One day, the principal informed me that I was to represent the school in an international meet in Lucknow along with six other kids. These six other kids happened to be boys. But that didn’t matter to me nor to my parents and neither to the school authorities. Maybe because I was a tomboy whom every guy in the school considered as a brother or maybe because it simply didn’t matter, either ways, I was all set to attend this week long meet in a different city with a bunch of boys and a male teacher. All seven of us were super excited. We could not wait to reach Lucknow and soak in a new experience. We boarded the train and I called dibs on one of the top bunks. Our teacher, whom I remember only as Suman Sir, (don’t know his last name) put his belongings on the one opposite to mine. After some games and Antakshari, I retired to my bunk with a book while the boys continued their fun. Suman Sir went up to his bunk as well and extended his hand and touched my arm and said, “good night Rinkini.” “Good night Sir,” I replied respectfully and went back to my book. The boys had planned to stay awake the entire night. Their laughter and cheers became a background din as I lost myself in my book. Once in a while I heard one of them asking Suman Sir to go to sleep. Of course they wanted the teacher asleep, I thought. How else would they put their plan of staying up the whole night and explore the train into action.
After an hour or so, a face popped up beside me. It was Shrikant, one of the guys from my group. He was perched on the lower berth to reach me. Shrikant signaled me to be quiet and asked me to come down. I looked at him questioningly and showed him my book, trying to convey I was content reading. He just shook his head and again signaled me to join them. I abandoned my book and climbed down quietly. One of the guys got up and gave me his seat on the side berth and Shrikant sat with me. “What?” I asked. What he said next was something I could not believe. He told me that ever since I went up to my bunk, Suman Sir had been glancing towards me constantly. I laughed, what else was I supposed to do?! I mean he was a teacher, not a crushing teenage boy! The air around me had changed by then. A couple of others joined us and warned me too. They didn’t like the way Sir looked at me and touched me at every possible chance. Maybe he was just being paternal? No, the guys disagreed and asked me to stay alert and away from him. The rest of the night went uneventful as we played some games and gossiped in whispers. In the wee hours we all decided to retire and Shrikant gave me his berth which was in the adjacent cubicle, and went up to mine to sleep.
The next morning one of the guys woke me up and we joined the others. Sir greeted me and patted the seat beside him asking me to sit and I greeted him back with utmost respect and sat down away from him. We were a hungry bunch and the breakfast we had didn’t suffice. Seven hungry teenagers can be very persuasive especially when they insist on getting down at the next station to buy snacks. Suman Sir left us and headed for the pantry car to buy us some more food. As soon as he left, Shrikant piped, “I told you he is a creep!” Since Shrikant and I had switched seats while Sir was asleep, he assumed it was I who was sleeping under the covers and he caressed Shrikant’s hand asking him, i.e. me, to wake up. The guys couldn’t stop laughing while Shrikant described the shocked look when Sir found him instead of me. Before Sir could make a beeline to my location, one of the guys had already woken me up.
I was alarmed but I didn’t see the bigger picture then. I couldn’t imagine what these things meant and what could happen if things escalated. How could I? I was always treated as an equal by the boys in school. While they crushed on and paid attention to other girls, I was excluded from this male attention, in fact I was on the other side of the table with the guys, sometimes acting like a messenger, a brother in arms. But the boys understood and they made it their mission to keep me away from Suman Sir. In couple of hours we touched Lucknow and reached the school the meet was supposed to take place in. The boys and Sir were given a dormitory while I was shown to a two-bed room in the guest-house building which I was to share with another girl from a different school of our city. The room was like a three-star hotel room complete with plush twin beds, wardrobes, attached bath, TV and AC. After a quick shower, I went to the dining hall where we all had decided to meet. Suman Sir was already waiting there. He put his arms around my waist and guided me to a seat. I froze. I knew this was no paternal or friendly gesture. This touch made my skin crawl. My heart was racing and not in a good way. I had never experienced anything like this before, nor had I ever heard of something similar. As I was trying to wrap my head around what had just happened, Shrikant and another guy came hurrying, “Let’s go see your room!” and before Sir could say anything they whisked me away, “I’m sorry,” Shrikant apologized, “he just quietly slipped away, I was in the shower. As soon as I realized he wasn’t in the room, we came running… did he do something?” My face must have given away my shocking experience because the guys looked at me worried and took me to their dormitory. As soon as we reached the dorm room, they locked the door from inside. Surrounded by my friends who were determined to take care of me, I relaxed and normalized soon. After a while there was a knock on the door. It was Suman Sir, looking for Shrikant, the other guy and me. We ducked out of sight as the others told him we were not there and unceremoniously turned him away from the door saying they were changing and needed some privacy. We had managed to send Sir off on a wild goose chase while we sat down to figure out what to do with him. There were no individual cell phones back in 2001, at least in the hands of school students; so there was no way we could communicate with each other. After musing over silly ideas like drowning him in the swimming pool and leaving him behind at the market place, we came up with a strategy. The plan was simple, I was not to be left alone at any time and Suman Sir was to be kept in sight. We also coined a code name for Sir- Handa, so that he didn’t know who we were referring to.
From that moment onwards, I was always surrounded by my friends. The boys tried to keep me safe from the creepy hands. Every time Sir would make his way towards me, someone would say “Handa” and would either engage Sir in a fake conversation or I would go away in another direction. Shrikant and one of the boys were always by my side like guards during meals and in the auditorium during the events. But no matter how hard we tried, he managed to put his hands on me at every chance. It looked innocent enough. We were always in public. A teacher putting a reassuring arm around a student… giving an affectionate pat on the cheek… guiding a girl with a hand on the back. But I knew what those touches meant. I felt his hand linger a bit longer on my shoulder, caress my cheek slyly disguised as a pat, the hand on my back, waist drifting slightly, feeling me up… it made me nauseous… he made me cringe every time he managed to get near me despite of the un-exhaustive efforts of my friends.
The day of my event arrived. It was divided into two rounds. In the first round we were to compete in our school uniforms and the second round was a dance performance for which we had to change for. There was a green room provided for the participants in the back stage. I guess it was the teacher’s duty to inform the students about it because the organizers didn’t tell me and neither did my teacher. So I was the only participant who didn’t carry her costume and accessories to the auditorium. I just assumed that I would go back to my room with my roommate and her teacher and change. By the time I came to know, it was too late to go back and get my stuff. I was confined backstage with the other participants. I couldn’t inform my friends who were in the auditorium. I mentally devised a plan to ditch Suman Sir and went for the first part of the event. I knew Sir would come to escort me to my room. I had only a small window- the time it would take him to get to the backstage from the auditorium seats. As soon as I finished, I ran towards the building housing the guest rooms. The structure was empty, all the rooms locked, not a soul in sight as I ran through the corridor towards my room. Everyone was at the event. I didn’t stop, till I reached my door, unlocked it and got inside. I bolted the door behind me and sighed in relief. I didn’t know what was I running away from and didn’t try to visualize it. There wasn’t much time before the next round. I started getting dressed in haste. Half way through, I heard the deadbolt protest as someone tried to open the door. My heart skipped a beat… “Rinkini…” it was him! He didn’t knock! He tried to open the door to my room knowing well what I would be doing inside! “Rinkini open the door. Do you need help to get ready?” For the first time in my life I was scared. For the first time since the trip started I realized what stood outside the door! There was no one around in the entire building leave alone the floor except the two people on either side of that locked door. I had to go out eventually. I gathered my wits and mentally went through all the self-defense techniques the boys had taught me in the last few days. “No thank you Sir.” I replied politely. “I’m fine. You go back. I’ll come soon.” I replied trying hard to keep my voice normal. “I’ll wait,” was the reply I got. I finished putting on my costume and jewelry, took a deep breath and opened the door, stepped out, quickly before he could move from the opposite wall where he was leaning and locked the door. I was wearing a Gujarati Ghagra-Choli complete with a dupatta according to the theme of my folk-dance. But I felt naked as he looked at me from head to toe. “You look beautiful!” My teacher started towards me. I didn’t wait to find out whether he intended to lead me out of the building to the auditorium or whether his intensions were more sinister. I threw a “Let’s go Sir! We are getting late!” line at him and ran… out of the corridor… out of the building… across the empty ground all the way to the green room… my lungs were burning… gasping for air, I doubled over trying to catch my breath as relief flooded me. I was in the green room, surrounded by students and teachers. I was safe. But I wasn’t safe enough as moments later a hand glided down my back and rested on my waist. I didn’t have to look around to see who it was. I knew that dirty touch came from my teacher. “All set?” he smiled at me. To the others we looked like a nervous student and an encouraging teacher duo. But in reality, behind my brave face was a scared teenage girl and what, yes what and not who- stood with me, was a predator in disguise. I maneuvered myself away from him and plastered a smile on my face, “Yes Sir. I’m ready…” Before he could try to put his hands on me again, I excused myself under the pretext of checking on my song CD. Once away from him, I made myself focus on my performance and went onstage and gave my best when my turn came.
We were supposed to join our school groups in the auditorium after our performances. As I made my way towards the row reserved for my school, I noticed an empty seat beside Sir, who sat at the very end. He signaled me to sit next to him. I didn’t have to think of a way to get away from him this time. One of the boys vacated his seat, right in the middle of the gang and sat on the seat next to Sir. I felt safe sitting smack in the middle, surrounded by my friends, silently guarding me.
Later I told the gang what had happened… we sat silent, guessing but not saying aloud what could have happened… they were angry, I was angry… we needed to put an end to this! But what could we do? The very person our school entrusted to protect us had turned out to be the offender. We had to take matters in our own hands without making a show. We devised a plan and headed for lunch. The boys deliberately left me alone at our table. As expected, Sir came and sat beside me. “Good job!” he patted my thigh, his hand lingering. This time, I was ready. I quickly caught his hand and twisted his little finger all the way back. It hurt him, and he snatched his hand away looking startled. I dropped my politeness and respect and said in Hindi, “phir se haath lagaya toh haath tod ke gale mein latka dungi!” (if you touch me again, I’ll break your arms). The boys came back with their food and I left to get mine. The tables we sat at were round. They sat around Sir and left a seat on the opposite side for me. The air had changed at our table. We always spoke in English in front of our teachers, including Suman Sir. We all dropped our courtesies that afternoon. It looked like we were chatting in Hindi. But what the guys were actually doing was subtly letting him know that his misdeeds were no secret and they were there beside me. The boys didn’t address Suman Sir directly, but through our conversation they let him know that they would together punish anyone who tried to misbehave with me. Anyone could trip on the stairs and fall; maybe even break their bones in the accident… or someone who slept near the cooler in the dorm room (Sir’s bed was next to the huge cooler in the dorm) might get hurt while sleeping if the cooler fell on him accidentally, etc., etc. … a wise man would maintain his distance from a group where accidents could happen anytime… The message of threat and silent rebellion was sent and received clearly. Suman Sir got up and left the table and sat with some other teachers.
We, especially I, spent the remaining three days of our stay and the train ride back home in peace. Sir maintained his distance not only from me, but our entire group. We all gave him the silent treatment hence forth. He didn’t dare come near me or speak to me. Even the boys refused to reply back when spoken to. We took a lesson out of our history books and fused the doctrines of the rebels of our country and the non-violent protesters and made our own rules to scare away a predator in disguise.
Today when I look back, the incident amazes and scares me at the same time. I was safe even when locked inside a room with a bunch of hormonal, 15-16 years old boys. It’s not like they were saints. They were normal teenagers. They would check out girls, have crushes on them and even give them marks on beauty and hotness. But these boys never looked at a girl in a wrong way. They never made any girl uncomfortable or harbor wayward thoughts. I have gotten into fist fights and rolled on the floor with some of the boys in school. But I have never felt one single hand at a wrong place, never encountered a single wrong touch. These boys were gentlemen, the real men. On the other hand was a man who was a teacher, a person who was supposed to protect me on that trip; was actually a monster in disguise. I shudder at the thought of what could have happened if I hadn’t locked the door or if I hadn’t run away from that empty corridor. I cannot imagine the horrors I had to endure if the boys didn’t stand beside me then. Knowing myself, I would have found a way to thaw his dirty attempts, but after how many encounters?!
We didn’t report Suman Sir to the school authorities once we were back. It didn’t occur to any of us to do so as we had taught him a lesson. We all went back to our routine life and graduated 10th std. I left the school to join a different one in 11th std. Once I was visiting my old school and I bumped into my old principal. We got talking and I told Principal Ma’am about Suman Sir. She was shocked. She asked me why we didn’t report him. They would have taken action against him. Nothing could be done now since he had left the school and some of the students from that group including me had left as well. That day I learnt it wasn’t enough just to stand up, but we have to speak up as well… not just thaw the offence but report the offender as well.
In a society where there are predators in disguise like Suman Sir, praying on unsuspecting innocent little girls and even boys; there are boys or rather men like Shrikant and my friends who respect women and stand with them when time comes.
It is the duty of our generation to not only teach our daughters to be strong, but also to teach our sons to be Real Men. Today, if we teach our children the difference between right and wrong, to see a person as a fellow human being first, to speak up against injustice, we will be leaving behind not just a good generation but a better world.