Priyanka’s story — A Land full of Lolitas: Pre-teen Sexual Harassment in Metropolitan India

This was originally written for the Blank Noise Project’s Recall series [link:http://blog.blanknoise.org/2012/07/recall.html]. The folks running the show wanted to know about the contributors’ first memory of sexual harassment in a public place, even if the contributor was a relatively uninvolved witness.

My earliest memory of sexual harassment in a public space is on a footpath outside my school, but also in a bus. It was between seven thirty and forty on a weekday morning. The streets were packed with cars, parents, attendants, chartered schoolbuses, and chattering students. ’97 was rolling slowly into the middle months.

A classmate and I were at the door of a very crowded, very slow public bus, headed towards the stop a few metres ahead. The footpath that ran along the street was less than two feet from the door, and my chief concern was resisting shoves from eager slow-speed footboard-jumpers behind me.

A man, shabbily dressed — especially when compared to the smartly turned out girls in crisp uniforms — was on the footpath, ambling towards the school gates. He was not accompanying a student. Suddenly, one of the girls the man was drifting past gasped.

Then, she giggled uncertainly.

It was an odd thing to do, and it caught both my classmate’s and my attention. We were barely fifteen feet away from the girl and naturally nosy, so we leaned out to get a closer look. And we realised, with a jolt, that the shabby man was lifting his floppy shirt as he approached suitable girls — the ones in white pinafores, between four and seven years of age — and quickly dropping it back as he crossed them. From the girls’ reactions, although I’d never encountered this sort of situation before, I instinctively knew his fly was unzipped. And then, as our bus trundled past him and stopped at the bus-stand, we looked back and got a live demo. Not only was his fly unzipped, it was neatly folded along the zipper line, and tucked away in his thighs to give a better view.

It was at this point that I nearly fell out of the bus, because, taking advantage of our distraction and of the almost unbelievably tightly-packed school crowd surging towards the gate, a man had pressed himself, raging erection et al, against my back, and with his free hand he was stroking my right waist, right where my thick poplin skirt ended and my thin cotton blouse began.

I don’t think my classmate noticed. She was both confused and furious about the junior school girls’ little morning surprise, and having dashed off the bus ahead of me, practically raced towards the zipper-free man. I followed on her heels. On reaching him, however, we realised we didn’t quite know what to say. At twelve or thirteen, we didn’t know words that could adequately describe what we saw, and why it felt so awful, apart from the obvious fact that *everybody* knew you kept your skirts and trousers zipped in public and always decorously drew emphasis away from the crotch region. (And also from the chest region, as we were just beginning to realise.) The man, I now realise, must have quite enjoyed two fulminating girls glaring at him, then slowly melting in their own embarrassment and confusion, and finally calling him the worst name they knew (“Stupid idiot!”) before scuttling into the safety of the school gates.

As for the darling man on the bus who caressed me with such affection — I didn’t even get his face. He could have been any of the many men who scrambled down at my stop — fathers with daughters, office-folks, commuters taking the bus from A to B. Or he could have been one of the many who stayed in the bus, as it trundled off. But I suspect this wasn’t my first first-hand encounter with sexual assault/harassment, because I took the discomfort, disgust and annoyance quite in my stride, and focused my fury on the man who was exposing his filthy jewels to the junior school children.

But then I was twelve. Later, when I could see twelve in perspective of thirteen, fifteen and twenty, and not merely in the context of eight, nine, and ten, the fact that the fondling of my pre-puberty posterior was ‘normal’ really, really tried my nerves.

Not so much the actual instance of violation, although that was filthy enough, but the air of icky inevitability about it — the assurance that whenever I stepped into a bus (and I had to do it at least twice every day) or an auto or a train, someone would step up to fulfil the requirements of our culture of abuse.

Twelve was a little too early — although, to be fair, so is sixty — to learn that for the rest of one’s life, one will be fair game.

This post has been written by Priyanka for the #SAAM. If you have something to share, write in to rashiv@gmail.com