A Land Full of Lolitas: Pre-teen Sexual Harassment in India

The Blank Noise Project — ironically acronymed BNP — is hosting a contributors’ weekend called Recall this 14th and 15th. The folks running the show want to know about your first experience of sexual harassment that you can remember, even if you were a relatively uninvolved witness. So if you have a story you want to, as they say these days, ‘share’, then please head over to ‘Recall’.

My participation has been commissioned by Sue, who instructed me to choose my “earliest and funniest”. (My reputation as a clown an unparalled humorist preceds me). I tried, but while I have enough amusing tales of wandering fingers and attempted aggressive seduction, ‘earliest’ couldn’t be married to ‘funniest’ in this instance, and picking alphabetically, I decided to go with the former.

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 in the morning, the streets were packed with cars, parents, attendants, chartered schoolbuses, and chattering students.  ’97 was rolling slowly into the middle months.

A man, shabbily dressed, especially when compared to the smartly turned out girls in crisp uniforms, was dragging his feet approaching the school gates. He wasn’t accompanying a student. My eyes picked him out because he was a plodding island of brown in a bubbling brook of green and white, but they didn’t linger. A classmate and I were at the door of a very crowded, very slow public bus headed towards the stop a few metres down, and my chief concern was resisting shoves from eager slow-speed bus-jumpers.

Suddenly, one of the girls the man was difting past gasped. Then, she giggled uncertainly.

It was this odd combination that caught our attention. We were barely fifteen feet away from the footpath and naturally nosy, so we leaned out and focused on the stretch. 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 we’d never encountered this before, I instinctively knew his fly was unzipped. And then, as our bus trundled past him and stopped at the bus-stand, we got a live demo. Not only was his fly unzipped, it was neatly folded along the zipper line, and tucked away in his thighs for 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, where my thick skirt ended, and my thin blouse began.

I don’t think my classmate noticed. She was confused and furious about the junior school girls’ little morning surprise, and practically ran towards the Man 1. I followed on her heels. On reaching him, however, we realised we didn’t quite know what to say. We hadn’t words to really articulate what happened, and why that was awful, apart from the fact that *everybody* knew you kept your skirts and trousers zipped in public and always decorously drew emphasis away from the crotch region (and the chest region, we were just beginning to realise). The man, I now realise, must have quite enjoyed two fulimating girls glaring at him, then slowly melting into 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.

And the man on the bus, well, 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 encounter with sexual assault/harassment, merely the first I remember. Because I took the discomfort, disgust and annoyance quite in my stride, and went about my day. The normalisation of violation, of course, is a part of a culture of abuse.

But 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, it rankled. Not so much the violation, although that was filthy enough, but the air of icky inevitability about it. 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.

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24 Responses to A Land Full of Lolitas: Pre-teen Sexual Harassment in India

  1. rumachak says:

    I cannot walk past this post without saying I admire your courage and honesty in coming out with this…I just hope this comes to an end and becomes an aberration rather than a normal hazard of being on public transport…:(

  2. Anindya Sarkar says:

    I have seen enough of these creeps trying to disturb my then girlfriend when we were in JU. Especially on public transport. And the absolute denial on their part when confronted with the charge. In fact what surprised me more was the general attitude of the fellow passengers that the girl (and his friend) are raising unncessary hue and cry about a routine affair. The culture of impunity is so deeply ingrained in this country (engendered by the need to control and exploit) that I do not see any fundamental changes coming our way.

  3. Pandit says:

    1.Bullying should be punishable by law.
    2. Nobody should have to negotiate from a position of weakness.
    3. Attention or contact given unsought is bullying.
    4. Groping, grabbing etc etc do not feature in the penal code. Cannot punish anyone for sartorial or other sort of misbehaviour in that way.
    5. Taking it in your stride is right thing to do because you are not at fault. I was kissed twice and hard by a padre by the time i was eight or nine. I was uncomfortable with the weirdness and the smoky smell then. I realized the import of it all much much later (being a closet prude, i was late in learning about most of these things) and to my own surprise i wasn’t scarred or anything. I was just very concerned about the power structure.

    • Priyanka says:

      “i wasn’t scarred or anything. I was just very concerned about the power structure” — Pathikritda, we share more than a birthday.

      Apart from the slimy feeling of disgust (and even that became less palpable as the years wore on), I was mostly very concerned at the social structure, which, as Anindya says, takes the assault as a given and blames the victim for making a ruckus. Once, while on my way home from school, a now-faceless senior told a man off sharply for trying to paw her, the man vehemently denied charges, and as the argument progressed, the woman sitting in front of me, holding was bag, shifted uncomfortably in her seat and said, “Tchah. Chup kore gelei toh paare. Bus e uthle… abar jor-e jor-e bolar ki holo?”

    • Priyanka says:

      And Pathikritda, what Manjari said below. Patriarchal masculinity can be a bitch to men. It forces them to shut up about stuff that’s confusing and stuff which hurts, because weal men are never confused, never hurt, never oppressed (except probably by feminists. And supervillians, whom they overcome in stye). I admire you being so casual about the clerical kisses. That hallowed Park Street school, was it?

  4. Manjari Chakravarti says:

    My daughter is nearly thirteen. reading this, it brought freshly to my mind the fear that every mother has- of her daughetr going through an experience like this or worse. Makes me want to vomit. Thank you for sharing Rimi. Sue sent me an invite – i posted my first mauling on the Blank Noise page. That was repeated on a daily basis until i stopped stepping out of the house for a long time. This was in U.P.

    • Priyanka says:

      “My daughter is nearly thirteen. reading this, it brought freshly to my mind the fear that every mother has- of her daughetr going through an experience like this or worse”.

      I understand completely. Hopefully, your daughter’s been hardened by this changed, more sexual, more aggressive world into giving back as good as she got. If she hasn’t, I hope you and all the grown-ups who love her teach that soon. She’ll need it. But hopefully not just yet. All the best to her.

  5. Manjari Chakravarti says:

    Its not every day a man comes out with his story of sexual harrassment, although everyone knows that boys are as vulnerable as girls – thank you Pathikrit for sharing.

  6. Tegan says:

    And yet, learning about it earlier perhaps can give one a better response? I have to say that speaking as someone from a different culture than that, my only sexual harassment has been at work. And I have had no response. The first time (at age 21) I duly reported it to my boss, who, flabbergasted, merely responded “Well, let me know if it happens again!”

    Any time beyond that has just involved a strained smile as thankfully there was always a counter between myself and the man in question (and it was only verbal).

    In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, her mother tells her to carry her hat pin in her hand, to deter wandering hands. Perhaps more of us should!

    • Priyanka says:

      I doubt a hat pin will help. It’ll probably be wrenched away from you and thrown away, or stuck into you. There was a time when a hard look or a sharp word would make these fine men scatter, but now, outright shouting just makes them laugh. They get off as much on the feelings of helplessness, disgust and fear they cause, as the actual physical groping. If not more.

      The world’s a pretty funny place, what?

  7. Pandit says:

    The less hallowed ballygunge circular road school. St. Lawrence. And Manjari is right, i do not talk about this usually. This must be only the third or fourth time in my life that i have mentioned this.

    • Priyanka says:

      I don’t know your reasons for silence, but I think one of the pitfalls of greater awareness — although we need greater awareness despite the pitfalls — is that everyone with a certain kind of experience is slotted into a particular unnuanced stereotype constructed from generalities, that completely divorces their own personalities from their experience.

      An annoyance with the shallow and generic “Hugs! You’re a hero!” reaction is why I’ve haven’t spoken about this particular incident before. We’re not heroes. Our society didn’t allow for a lifestyle sans threat, so we took the threat in our stride.

  8. Kiran Manral says:

    Never fails to make me boil with rage. No matter how many times I hear these stories or relive the childhood bus stop/street incidents I’ve experienced. We live in a land of perverts.

  9. Lali Chattoraj Sengupta says:

    Rimi, I had, like most girls faced all of what you wrote and more. From folks I knew AND did not know. A childhood in Binary meant staying in the car while ma went shopping because Jharia food market had hordes of gropers and ma thought it was safer in the car. Only, one had to sit in the car with the windows closed because open windows would mean any, just any man could extend their grimy slimy hands and grope you. And then there were folks one knew, sometimes closely, who would try the same things, albeit more subtly and deceitfully. That went on much after I stopped going shopping with my mom- these were people in our everyday lives. For the longest time I thought there was something wring with me and these happened only to me. I found out much later that almost everyone of my friends had similar experiences, the differences were only in degrees. And by then I had equipped myself to deal with it. When I told my mother about it much later in life, she said I should have told her but something in the child lali must have understood her inability to help me or was just plain not confident that she would be believed. Its a wonder we all did not end up more screwed up, pun intended but I cant say I came through all of that unscathed. We have, most of us, just tried to weave our lives by pushing these to the backgrounds of our minds.

  10. Lali Chattoraj Sengupta says:

    Bihar- not binary – smartphones getting too smart. And btw, my bhalo ma’am is Lolita. Go figure!

  11. Lali Chattoraj Sengupta says:

    Well, I too used to be called that because these were pr3 birth certificate days and the keralite nuns preferred lalita. I had to put my foot down during form fill up for ICSE and insist on the o.

  12. Priyanka says:

    Speaking of Bihar, I had a recent job offer from Patna, a very good offer, and the two people from Patna that I know fell over themselves warning me off the city. More particularly, from living alone in it. I was rather taken aback by their vehemence.

    Lali, if your family didn’t have a car, ki hoto? Would life have been infinitely more intolerable?

  13. Lali Chattoraj Sengupta says:

    Oh absolutely. Although I have never been to Patna, when I lived in Chasnala, almost all the places in binary were pretty awful. I am told things are a lot better now after Nitish kumar came on but there is a part of me which cant believe things could have improved that much, so no, I would not advise living there. With the spate of incidents here in Cal, I guess I should just shut up and realize things are much the same everywhere here, but there is something about those badlands which I still have trouble believing have changed so much.

    Its ironic, I think, that I, an Indian in phirang land had no fear driving from London or Liverpool or wherever in the Uk at 1 or 2 inn the night, alone, for hours. The only fear was of a car breakdown but one never really thought of rapists or mobs coming and attacking me, but here, in my own country, I cannot think of doing that, even in Calcutta, leave alone elsewhere

  14. Lali Chattoraj Sengupta says:

    Binary again. God, this thing is way too intuitive. Realizes I use it like a moron and is probably trying to give me some lessons on computers

  15. Priyanka says:

    I agree completely. I never drove in the US, but when I felt the cabin fever of dorm-rooms descend on me, I would go for walks at 3AM. Sometimes in lightly falling snow. I can’t dream of such freedom here.

  16. Mirna Guha says:

    Such a powerful piece. I wish I could write about my memories of sexual abuse and harassment with such fluidity and ease. Respect, Rimi.

  17. Trinayana Roy says:

    Am Sue’s cousin. A couple of days back I posted at the site about a similar ‘flashing of genitals’ experience I had while returning from school..on a regular basis for a few days till I was forced to change mode of commute. I am reading your experience now and am amazed at the similarity of the incidents. Only you have written it in a more engrossing manner. Also here you were with your friend and I was alone..There are so many perverts out there..:( :(

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