Thursday, September 23, 2010

Where Angels Fear to Tread


One day, when I was fed up of calling and asking people if they wanted to go for a movie, trying to schedule my time around theirs, and being the one who has to book tickets and text everyone the information, I decided I'd go for a movie by myself.

This wasn't such a big deal, of course. There are no crocodiles under the seats in Satyam. But I knew my parents would say no and point out about fifty instances of young women who did this and paid for it dearly. So I told them I was going with friends.

I enjoyed myself hugely.Part of it was because I was doing this 'in secret'. But a large part of it was because I suddenly realized I could be by myself and have fun (note to Amma: I don't mean 'inner peace' here). I didn't have to wait around. I just had to make a plan for myself and do it. Zero coordination, the zen of a movie plan. After this, I went for several movies by myself. Nothing happened to me. I wasn't groped. Nobody murdered me in the toilet. No one followed me home.

I also used to go and sit on the beach by myself. My mum thought (and I'm sure still thinks) this was an 'I'm a feminist' statement. I have no problems being called a feminist. I am one. But by sitting on the beach alone, I wasn't playing out my politics. I was simply doing something I felt like doing without putting in the effort of inviting other people there. The joy of one-person plans is immeasurable.

Almost every girl I know has parents who're worrying to death about her. Either it's to do with their safety or the fact that they are not married yet. These two are often linked. Because once you get married, then worrying about you becomes somebody else's primary responsibility. Worrying about someone is a sign that you care about them. I get that. I also understand that when parents read about horrible incidents and terrifying statistics in the newspaper, they see their children in those numbers. It shakes them up. I still get emails from my mum telling me not to drink Dabur honey because it has too many antibiotics.

But when this worrying becomes gendered, when it begins to control your life, your thoughts, your movement, your future- it's time to take a look at it. The world is an evil place, more so if you are female. There's no refuting that. There's probably not a single woman alive today who hasn't been groped at least once.

Girls grow up all too soon. We learn the world is not an easy place much before boys wake up to the fact. We learn to walk with our jaws set and our chests caved in when we're in our pinafores. A stern expression every time we get into a bus. Keeping our eyes averted and gazing at a distance. Using umbrellas and schoolbags as body shields. Not sitting next to a man even though it's a General Seat and not a Gents' Seat. Believing in safety in numbers. Checking for cameras in dressing rooms. Quickening our steps on an empty street. Rage bursting inside our heads. Shrinking our smiles when we step out of the house.Who taught us these lessons?

Many of them come from our mothers. What they've gone through, they don't want you to undergo. Many come from our sisters and friends. Many come from experience. All these stories don't come with the comforting notion that they are, after all, fiction. Each is true. Each has happened. Each is real and alive in the memory of someone you know. How can you forget them? How can you ignore them and believe you will be unharmed? It would be foolish to do so. Better safe than scarred.

All these stories get even worse when it's about a single woman. If pre-school, school-going, college-going, working/married women have it bad, the single woman gets the worst deal of the lot. Because she's laid herself open to attack by not signing up for the most favored insurance policy for women.

Not all women are single by choice, some are single because their horoscope has denied them this safety. Some are single because the right boy never came along and so now, they are grey and half-dead at the age of 30. Some are single because of family circumstances.There's no bigger tragedy than a spinster, it would seem. And so, if you're a choosy daughter who's not willing to 'compromise', you are frequently reminded that spinsterhood is no joke. Not only is society unforgiving, you will find it impossible to live. No landlord will rent out a place to you. Better to marry someone, even if the person doesn't seem half worth the trouble. If you get bashed up and cheated and later divorced or abandoned, you'll at least know you tried.

With all these warning bells ringing in your head from the time you are old enough to understand language, it's very difficult to believe that you will not be a victim. It's very difficult to have the belief that you can live or do things by yourself, in spite of being a woman. It cannot be done. we give up without even trying?

Do we stay safe and lead half-lives? Because it is a half-life when so many of our decisions are colored by the question: will we be safe? Professionally, when I've had to travel by myself, my parents have been worried sick about my safety. My mum would advise me not to eat in restaurants because then everyone would know I was alone. So I'd tell her I'd order room service. But then, that would mean opening the door to a room boy. I'd have to ensure I wasn't arriving or departing from anywhere at a too late or too early hour. I could never just go and focus on what I was supposed to do. It drove me insane. This constant worrying. I understood why they were worried, but that didn't make me feel any better about it. I did not want to be an any-moment victim.

The more I alienated myself from this victim status hovering around my head, the more I began to enjoy myself. I stayed in this tiny lodge in Cuddalore when I had to go there for some development program. I noticed the extra courtesy and helpfulness of the staff. I ate in a motel nearby where the waiter, an old man, gave me a table all for myself though (or because) I was alone. I went walking down the streets by myself and nothing happened to me. I sat in a park where there was nobody. I felt exhilarated. The weight of considering every strange man to be a dangerous animal fell off my shoulders.

I taught myself to be unafraid and I savoured every trip I took since then. I genuinely believed the world wasn't such a bad place after all. I refused to make my decisions with Safety as No.1 on my list. I wasn't going to strike it off the list; it would be stupid to do so, but it wasn't my No.1 any more.

I think it's important that we do this if we're to lead lives that allow us the freedom to think. To be normal. To stop being so crazed with worry. To believe we're able and capable. To know that we're not infants who need to be under someone's supervision. To make one-person plans. To put yourself as the person in command. Instead of just telling your daughters horror stories (that they inevitably end up experiencing despite your best efforts), infuse them with self-belief, the agency to be in control, the courage to face the world. Alone. Because let's face it, in that lonely toilet on a solitary hill, when the monster crashes out of the two-way mirror to swallow you, you will only have yourself to depend upon. And as women, we all know this is the case too on a crowded bus in the middle of everywhere.

There's a slow python inside all of us that eats our self worth day after day if we let it. This python whispers that only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. This python coils around our limbs, keeping us frozen with fear. Recognize it. Grow unafraid of it. Peel its skin away. Let its flesh fall off its bones. And then, when it's dying, kiss it goodbye. It was an old friend, after all.


vishesh said...

*clap, clap, clap* well written. ha! why aren't there more feminists like you around?

Uncle Srini said...

"Instead of just telling your daughters horror stories (that they inevitably end up experiencing despite your best efforts), infuse them with self-belief, the agency to be in control, the courage to face the world." - the line of the post for me! :)

Telling post, strong words and ideas and of course very well written! :) I have always believed that fear needs to be met head to head to be surmounted and I agree with everything you have had to say here! :)

On the lighter side, I enjoyed the initial part of the post as well :) I think just having a plan for relaxation all by oneself without depending on anybody else is blissful indeed! I do it all the time. :D

Good evening!

Broom said...

What a beautiful post! Made me delurk.

Thanks for putting this out there. I'm sending it to my mother! :)

M S said...

Nicely written. And the title and the last paragraph deserves a special mention. :)

Munimma said...

Very well written, and excellent thoughts. I am reading eat, pray, love (mainly because of Julia Roberts), and Ms. Gilbert writes about Italian men. When she was in Italy at 19 years of age, she was gawked at, hooted at, pawed and what not, so very similar to India. And she said, that this time around, she was mostly ignored. Not because of her age, but apparently because Italian men have "improved". I was so envious.

Anonymous said...

Hello - I loved this last post of yours. Related to every bit of it. Some sections are poetry. I wish I was gifted with writing skills like that. :)

vatras said...

Kudos girl ! The whole focus on the idea of, changing the very psyche of a girl as she grows up is indeed a point parents need to work on. A cheap pervert will be more scared of a girl, who'd as much as stay n talk back wen harassed than the one who walks away in disgust.

Shankari said...

Very well written. I hope I have the strength to steel myself when my girls are ready to go out on their own. I get worried, and this worry is more after I had my girls! Before them, I was quite the daredevil, ready to take on the world and always questioning :)

-- Shankari

Chandrima said...

Excellent read, worth the long wait for a new blog!

Anonymous said...

GB has become MB and my has the writing changed! Enjoyed thoroughly nevertheless.

I don't think its only girls going alone even guys going alone for movies, even a walk on the beach are called "losers" with no "life"...

Going alone for movies is a lot of fun. I've watched unadulterated trash like Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, first day, first show without ANY moral support!

And, tell me something. When do you see yourself (being married not coming into the picture)walking into a pub in a broad minded city like Pune and drinking alone?? When the majority of the women in our country CAN do that can we truly call ourselves a super power of any kind.

As always, I say, keep writing and we refuse to go away. ;-)


Vidya Jayram said...

Superb post again! Cant agree more on the things that girls do to stay away from the trouble causing idlers. We become watchful to such an extent that "arandavan kannuku irunthellam pei" unfolds right before us.
Been following your blog for a scared i will run out of posts to read soon as this has become my favorite pastime :-)

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post!! Related to every word of it.

Minka said...

well said , GB! I myself believe that self confidence and not looking and feeling like a victim is half the battle won. Having travelled and lived alone all over the world ( Finland, Thailand, China) , I am apalled when I am asked to be home by 8 PM in Delhi ( by well meaning relatives ) - where , if not in my own country, should I feel safe ?

Jay said...

Way to go, girl!

The Visitor said...

I refused to make my decisions with Safety as No.1 on my list. I wasn't going to strike it off the list; it would be stupid to do so, but it wasn't my No.1 any more.

As long as it is still on your list, fine.

PS: If you aren't careful, soon there'll be a Mata GB cult. :)
PPS: Will Visitor be considered for the post of Senior devotee? :)

Vini said...

Brilliant read!

The Bride said...

There's probably not a single woman alive today who hasn't been groped at least once." I would amend that to "Indian woman alive". My greatest pleasure in living in Hong Kong is the absolute safety as a woman. Women being groped in public places is very very rare. If I had a daugther, this would be my biggest deterrant to returning to India. The freedom to walk the streets in any clothes at any time of day or night without fear would be my gift to her. When I found out I was having a son, I said: 'Oh well, at least I don't have to worry about him being molested if we return to India' (not to say little boys aren't, just that it's not a given). Either way, I had resolved that my child would learn to hit back hard if threatened, but especially if I had a daughter.

But you are right about not letting fear become a prison. And that the cycle will only be broken when we women break it.

I still don't know if I would go for a movie or eat alone in India. Not because of fear, more because of awkwardness. Or maybe it's fear disguised as awkwardness.

soin said...

also married and "commited" guys tend to be generally over protective of their wives/gf. bugging as it is , biggest admission a woman might

Raj said...

A well conceived post. I believe it's a different case when it comes to a women, trying stuff alone

To me, this is one of the toughest task to do - Watching a movie alone. I have never done it in my life

Mandakini said...

amazing. kudos to you for overcoming the python.
beautifully written.

"Almost every girl I know has parents who're worrying to death about her. Either it's to do with their safety or the fact that they are not married yet. These two are often linked. Because once you get married, then worrying about you becomes somebody else's primary responsibility. "

Wonderfully astute observation.

Cheers to your one-person plans. Feminist or not, liberating it is for sure!

Anonymous said...

need a GB for President button on the site somewhere we can click. great bit of perspective!


Anonymous said...

One has the freedom to choose actions,well, more or less.But no one has the freedom to choose the consequences of one's actions.
That is why parents, especially mothers warn of consequences,horror stories as you put it.That is not to chain daughters' minds or to enslave them, just to ensure that in case one falls into water, one has to get out and learn better swimming. Many stay there and get drowned.
Any sane person, man or woman will prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery.We all know freedom is priceless, never dear at any price and all those cliched big words, but freedom is not free.One cannot pass it to children in the blood stream.It has to be achieved through one's own hard work,for freedom is nothing but responsibility of a joyful type.It cannot be bestowed.
" freedom would be meaningless without security in the home and in the streets" said Mandela one who fought freedom all his life, laws and amendments alone will not bring security and freedom, for the Indian president and a beggar have same 'rights' on paper.I think the president enjoys more freedom though she is a woman, than the male beggar.
Going to beaches, cinemas etc are perfectly fine if one is assured of basic security, but it can never be a complete joyful experience especially in feudal societies like us for the simple reason one has to be on guard most of the time , and it sure kills the very purpose of going to those places.To make a statement yes, but growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.Cast off the chains by all means, just take care you don't get hurt too much in the process.
Suvar irundaal thaan chithiram.

Kookaburra said...

Just two funny experiences from my life. Hopefully not many are comign to this comment box to read this ...

Being a catholic convent student I didnt go for movies for a long time! Then I saw a few in undergrad, the final year when we were in Nagercoil, I pumped up a bunch of girls into watching Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones - no women in sight - refused first class seats - were forced to sit in Rs.1 women only area - nevertheless the liberal bunch had a crazy hell of a time, blowing the whistles that we bought and had a merry time - had a weird feeling why all men came in kailies in nagercoil to watch movie - a few months later realized thats a theater where they screen bittu padamns in nagercoil!!! :))) ... Never go to English movies alone! :) No,they didnt grace us with any show that day - we were about 10 girls at about the age of 21! :))) ...

A few years later, bored at home in Lima, I drove to a theatre and randomly saw this name "Pedro Almodavar" and thought that sounded familiar and I thought he should be a great director and just bought the ticket and watched "Mala educacion" ... Dont even ask me how I felt :))) ...

Ofcourse when mortals tread in places where angels fear, there can be some really funny experiences to recollect much later! I do believe it was worth going for both the movies :)))

and ... ofcourse now after reading your Enthiran comment I am sitting at midnight and hatching a stealthy plan to watch it soon! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi GB, What happened to your BA Engils blogs? Could you please pload your old posts?

Anonymous said...

Swit. Swit. :)


GB said...

@Everyone- Thanks for reading through. I've been disgustingly late in responding, but I'm truly happy that it touched a chord with many of you.

indianhomemaker said...

This post should be emailed to Gupta Jee, the Delhi Police Commissioner who asked women not to travel alone after dark.

indianhomemaker said...

Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of 'Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards - 2011' (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).

perspectivesandprejudices said...

LOVED LOVED LOVED this post. Please keep writing!

Malyaj said...

Great Post ! I loved the way you write.
I am no stranger to the bliss of solitude, it's indeed exhilarating. I am a man and perhaps will not comprehend the constant threat of being a woman fully but you are right that we can't stop living due to fear.