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"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

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"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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21 August 2013

Living with it

Last night, against better judgement, I took a cycle rickshaw to a party. It was after 9 pm, the only auto I could flag down had a driver whose eyes didn't quite meet mine, who had an after stench of alcohol emanating from him, and so I got into a cycle rickshaw to go walking distance. Why couldn't I walk? It was after 9 pm. On the road, as he cycled, people looked at me. MEN looked at me. I was acutely aware of my vulnerability, first to the outside world, and then, as the rickshaw drive turned off into the unlit street the party was on, to him. I chalked out my escape routes, tried to figure out how I could run if he tried something. I apologised to him in my head as we disembarked, but not after a moment of extreme panic, when I paid him and he blocked my way out with some pleasantry.

Last night, we had an intense conversation about this story. My friends argued that it was just "some" India not "all" India. They argued that in that case, we should all be walking around with PTSD.

Aren't we?

A month ago, at the Nizamuddin West market, two men in a beat up Maruti 800 began to follow me home. I noticed, because it was after dark, and the car that had slowed down seeing me, rolled ahead and then began to reverse. I tried to avoid them by ducking down the road to a shortcut, but they reversed the car and began to follow me again. I tried another diversion, but no matter where I went, the car would always adamantly reverse and follow me. In the end, I went back to the shop I had been coming from, I took out my phone, my old phone that takes two hours to load the home screen, and I pretended to film them. They scooted.

I was wearing a checkered romper that day, enjoying the feel of the rare summer breeze on my legs. I haven't gone for a walk in the neighbourhood without pants again. Here too, I created a survival tactic. What the girl who wrote the post perhaps tried and couldn't do. I have a list of things to keep me safe in India, a list that I update every so often, crossing off things that don't work anymore, adding tweaks to the ones that do.

Note to self: potential rapists might flee if you pretend like you're taking their picture.

I am not white. I don't know what it's like to be a white woman in India, I imagine it's hard. But because, despite my very brown skin, I don't fit the exact mould of "Indian looking" people accost me on the street all the time. Walking through Connaught Place, where some blocks are full of ghosts and even the middle of the day doesn't feel safe enough, a man tailed me and tailed me. Finally, I waited for him to pass (old trick. Cross off.) and he stopped me at an angle where I couldn't have run even if I wanted to. His shoulders right angles to mine, crowding me into a closed door. "Where you from?" he asked, hopefully. I replied in Hindi and he backed off. A week later, again in Nizamuddin, a man walked me around the houses. I was running an errand and smoking a cigarette. "Where you from?" he asked. I tried responding in Hindi (cross off list) but it didn't work. Instead, he asked me to be his friend. "I don't want to be your friend," I said, finding my resources. I was on a street, I could run. "Why?" he asked. "Because you're a stranger," I said. "I look like a stranger to you?" he said and when I said, "Yes" he looked hurt and walked off, leaving me with relief and guilt. Did I know him? Was I being elitist?  Is this something else I have to bear in mind: be safe and be politically correct?

A few months ago, my cat got out on the terrace. This is a story you already know, but what you don't know is that he started to make a practice of it, and the landlord, being a douchebag, refused to let me on the terrace after. I got a key guy to make me a clandestine copy, and while he was there, asked him to give me a leg-up to the terrace next door, so I could retrieve the stupid animal. This leg-up obviously led to some physical intimacy, and he followed me down the stairs, into the house asking to be my "friend". I was horrified by my own bad judgement (Touching a man you do not know! Rule number one in the Do Not Do list!) and scared that he was in my flat blocking the front door. He also noticed my skittish eyes and my "I have to go now" face and apologised profusely before he left. It made me feel bad. It made me feel mad.

I don't want to be your goddamn friend. What do you possibly think we could have in common? Do you really believe from a forced conversation on the road that it will lead to some kind of physical intimacy?

"Randi.." whispered the voice in my cellphone. "Randi," almost savouring it now, "Chus le.." A crank caller. Men who dial various numbers till they hit upon a female voice. Calling over and over, whenever I hung up. I called the cops, and he disconnected his phone. Not so random, the year before. The man who came to install my cooler had a young assistant. I had left my phone number in the shop for him to call when he arrived. Crank calls began arriving that night. "Meeeeeenakshi," giggled the voice, delighted in my horror, perhaps masturbating to my panic. I realised his number matched the one that the shop had called me from and called to complain. Perhaps he got fired. I feel guilty for that as well--after all, the calls weren't hurting me.

We are driven to do the right thing at all times as women in India. Be safe. Be brave. Cover your head. Be kind. Be polite. Think of the poor. Think only of yourself. Carry pepper spray. Don't carry pepper spray, someone might use it on you. Don't walk at night. Walk only at night to reclaim the streets. Don't use public transport. Don't drive home alone.





  1. Yep, every move we make when we step out of the house is a judgement call. Sadly for some, it's the same at home too. I don't even want to think what homeless folks have to face.

  2. " I am not white. I don't know what it's like to be a white woman in India, I imagine it's hard. But because, despite my very brown skin, I don't fit the exact mould of "Indian looking" people accost me on the street all the time."

    I don't think it matters whether you are white or brown or black. Women of all races get harassed. I particularly detest it when white women complain in a way that they are victims only because they are white, and noone else faces that problem. That's not true. Women all over the world, and of different races face harassment. Also, it does NOT only happen in India. I am an Indian woman who lives in the UK and repeatedly get told to not walk back alone after 7 PM because it is not a safe city. I was followed by someone from the metro in London, and have encountered perverts several times. My friend who is English has had three stalkers and has suffered PTSD because of that. Whilst recognising there is a problem in Delhi, we need to stop making this an India problem. Also, the work environment in the UK can be quite sexist. Sexual harassment and sexism are global problems that need to be addressed, and in my opinion we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot to paint an uglier picture of India than required. Let us be more balanced in our analysis , and I agree with your friend that it is "some India" not all of India, exactly as it is "some of all the countries" where this happens.

  3. thanks for writing this minna. i've had too many people write enraged defesinve indian bakwaas to me in response to the u chicago student's experience. i thought her prhase "being taken eye after eye" was absolutely succinct and evocative and i am baffled by people who say "oh this happens in new york too". yes, random men do take the liberty to masturbate in the subway. random men can harass you in new york - you do get catcalls. women face the threat of, and are raped everywhere. in paris. in cairo. in mexico city. in shanghai. in bombay. as women we're never really exempt from the unkindness of men. but none of it is like india (well maybe egypt from what we hear from tahrir square).

    in india (dilli) it starts from the moment you awaken where you have to be aware of how you're dressed in your own goddamned home. at least in nyc i can turn to a cop, the hell does one do in dilli? there is the succour of a fairly responsive justice system (yes, despite the low conviction rate) to turn to; not in india, no way, in india. how many men a day am i supposed to report anyway? besides what self-righteous indians forget is that in dilli (and in cairo) this abhorrent treatment is what you expect as your Default Experience. in nyc it's not what i expect when i step out of my house - i do in delhi. i am not surprised if it happens in nyc, because fuck, everything happens in nyc. but i do not feel like stalked prey the moment i awaken in nyc. no way.

    on an aside, i just had a slight disagreement with my boyfriend about who amongst white or black or us brownies gets harassed more in india. i find that kind of talk demeaning because it to me reads as tantamount to saying oh you little indian girls will never know the horror of being white in india. well we'll never know the horror of being dalit in india. they'll never know the horror of being us in india. who knows what the other experiences. i hate this competitive victimhood olympics that needlessly pits us in a meaningless battle of us versus them. we're all harassed and whether it's because i'm white or black or brown or dalit or urban or adventurous or whathaveyou, it is wrong. it is harrowing. and it leaves deep and lasting emotional scars.

  4. They can't understand you, you're a threat to their world. Just like you cannot understand them, they are a threat to yours.

  5. A friend of mine has to travel frequently for work, often to places in the interiors of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu etc. Most of these places are best connected only by Intercity buses. She has now resorted to traveling with a knife in her bag and never allowing herself a moment of drowsiness during travel.
    It is not just Delhi or 'some' of India. And it is a shame.

  6. I thought for some time before writing this comment. I wanted to write empathize with you, to tell you that these guys are shame and deserves punishment. But you know what, I can't believe how many times I read/listen to the same story from my female friends over and over...and how many times I tell/write the same thing! The problems have long got out of control and all I am (and I believe everyone else is) looking for is some solution. But I can't find any. I can't find the basic mentality that makes rapists do what they do. And I see my friends become weaker, more suspicious and little less believing day by day... This, I think, is the greatest problem of this country at this moment...bigger than rupee-slide and more important than illiteracy. But I guess we are helpless...

  7. The title of this post itself speaks volumes. I am living in the US for the past few years but can never forget those horrible experiences on India's streets during growing-up years that we just learn to live with :(
    As another comment here mentioned, what happens in India (and maybe Cairo from what we know about an incident related to a reporter at Tahrir Square), seems or feels like the problem is more pronounced, more common, more probable to happen frequently due to high population or lawlessness or any other reason there although it happens the world over.
    I really wish there was something we could do together to counter or lessen this epidemic and I hope movements like the Zero Tolerance Campaign ( achieve some success.

  8. I have lived for eight years in the US (and currently live in not so pretty-and-not-so-white NM) and still I will never move back to India again simply because of how safe I feel here rather than back home. And how sad is that?

    I never have to think twice about what I am wearing or if I might have to walk a short distance home from the bus stop. Sure, I worry about having my property stolen (such a purse or a laptop) but not once have I ever feared for myself, such as a personal assault.

    Those who keep insisting that this stuff keeps happening everywhere: you are deluding yourself and are perhaps a touch defensive. There might be some instances but this kind of emotional violence (and sometimes even physical) against women -- women being perceived as only sex objects, this random wanting to be "friends", the looks, the catcalls, the following women around, the street sexual harassment, women constantly having to be on alert and running through their options and having a DO NOT list -- all of this -- it certainly isn't a de rigeur default lifestyle habit here.

    You are out of your mind if you think NYC is ANYTHING like Dilli. I have fallen asleep on fucking Greyhound buses without any fear. But on a domestic flight from Bombay to Calcutta, I make sure that I never fall asleep simply because of the lecherous pervert in the next seat who seem to salivate when I pull out a chap stick to hydrate my lips.

    Fuck them all.

  9. Seriously eM, it doesn't matter what your skin color is, how you look, what you are wearing or anything for that matter. To the people on street all it matters is that you are a girl who is alone at the moment and they would not hesitate to corner you. What ever lists of Do's and Dont's we make are incapable of guaranteeing our safety on streets.

  10. It's so horrible. And what I hate the most is people saying oh its not that bad or oh it happens all around the world, stop making this an Indian problem. Cos you know what? It ISan Indian problem. I have lived in both Indonesia and Malaysia-musim countries-and I can wear what I want and walk on the roads without fear. I don not get so much as a second glance. The problem is that we make excuses for the rapists. We say oh the victim was wearing shorts, the harasser was provoked. And the police and the public listen to those excuses!! Say something like that in Malaysia and the police will look at you incredulously and say that if you are so easily provoked you should stay inside.

  11. I really loved this post.

    I was furious after I read the CNN post. What made me even angrier was the comments. People said things like people are raped in the US too you know, or that these are just stray incidents and aren't the complete picture of India. They said India's daughters don't go out on the roads at night, so why did you? You were asking for it.

    Then CNN printed that counter-view. I think it's great that someone had a positive experience, but the implications in the comments was that the original blogger was just another hysterical American woman.

    I like what you said about all women living with PTSD. I have my own checklist of what to do and what not to, and the second list is derived from hosts of unpleasant, frightening experiences. And these are experiences that most people would shrug off, because if you're a woman in India, you're expected to live with it.

  12. Thank you for this post! It saddens me that we, as women, learn to live with this sort of behaviour.

    Glad you brought up PTSD. Past incidences on buses and autos has made me avoid using public transport. I might sound paranoid. But this is the impact of the bad experiences many of us face.

  13. Pepper Spray that I got for my wife on our return to India in 2006, has never been used & she is a working woman with a fiercely independent mind. This only means that the streets in India are actually as safe as they could be anywhere in the world. However, when incidents like Delhi or Mumbai rapes happen, we just go into an exaggerated form of self critic & see dangers where there exists none, and conveniently forget that similar incidents have happened (& unfortunately, will keep on happening) elsewhere in the world too, including the "cultured" west. Also, please do not tell me that prior to Delhi incident there were no couples taking buses & autos at night, or that the driver & conductor of the bus were driving it for the first time ever. Majority of sex crimes in India are essentially breach of trust from family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and as the unused spray of my wife bears witness, very few sex crimes are committed by ordinary men sitting idle & staring at women. Also, wanted to add that origin of roofies is not India before we start saying that we should not trust any of our Indian male relatives, friends, family etc. I was surprised (& admit that I actually agree with it despite sounding very sexist) by the response of my wife in our early days in Delhi about the staring men - she said that if these guys only had guts, they would actually be sitting with a girl rather than their male friends. I think, like anywhere, it is only a question of luck. But as I say, one should not tempt one's luck too often as even an identical percentage of potential rapists in the population being same as in Europe, the 1Bn factor increases the chance of bad luck happening by a factor of say, 15 times to say, it happening in France.

  14. Dear RationalorOptimistYourCall, your wife is an exceptionally lucky woman, and you are a very lucky man. I wish with all my heart that that remains true for both of you always. For every one story such as yours, I alone can give you 10 that reflect the exact opposite of what you're saying.

    For the others like Meenakshi, me and practically every single woman I have ever known (and men who have witnessed all this happening, sometimes failed to help even though you've tried really hard), I'm left with such bereavement. More than anger.

    This is not about the west and the east. I love my country. I want to see it at it's best. I want to believe it is the best. 'What's happening to its women - babies, girls, mothers, daughters, friends, grandmothers, sisters - saddens me to a terrifying speechlessness. Horrible things happen everywhere. Western cultures have never denied this. But you have to be an Indian woman in a western country to really understand the sense of freedom and security that some here are talking about. Please don't shout them down. Listen. Really listen. And try to understand. That might help more.

  15. Thumbs up to this previous Anonymous' comment!

  16. I find that its the same in many other countries as well, usually religious, conservative type places.. sadly its still a tough world to be a girl in.

  17. Your post inspired me to write about the horrors I experienced as a single woman in Delhi. Thank you! It is a battle we fight or at least I fought every signal day. I became aggressive because of it, always in a fighting/warrior mode. Its only later I realized how exhausting it used to be. Stay safe!

  18. Living in the west has now made me aware of how better things are here. I got used to so much worse in Delhi that i had stopped realising how the situation was. And yet I see patriotic (otherwise sane) Indians pushing content on Facebook about the one girl who had a good experience in India calling the tons others 'generalisations'.


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