On harassment, ‘eve teasing’ and suicide

Reading about Madhu and Nikita’s suicides, the first thing that came to mind was something from when I was 18. It was the year I started travelling by bus in Delhi (the unforgettable Patel Chests that took us day scholars to college). One day, on my way back home, I picked a fight. I made a man who was sitting on the seat reserved for the disabled and was patently not disabled in any way, get up when a boy on crutches got on the bus and had nowhere to sit. The man didn’t get up because I asked him to, but because the conductor joined in when I turned to him for support. The conductor, however, had nothing to say when the man got up and threatened me, violently. I don’t remember what I’d said, but it was something like “I’d like to see you try” in very bad Hindi that totally revealed my Bengali ethnicity.

He got off the bus at my stop, he followed me. I didn’t walk home because I didn’t want him to know where I lived. I thought of walking to the nearby thana and decided that was pointless. They probably wouldn’t do anything unless I started dropping names of my father’s friends or something like that. So I walked to Khan Market. He was still behind me. I walked into Bahrisons and when I emerged 45 minutes later, the man wasn’t there. (Which just goes to show bookstores really can save your life.) The man was there at my bus stop the next day. I got off at the next stop. It went on for a few days (can’t remember how long; college was a lifetime ago). I walked a lot.

I came home from Khan Market the day all this had begun and told my mother (my father was at work so he heard later). Honestly, at that point, when I was recounting the whole incident her, it felt a little scary. It hadn’t when I’d been avoiding the man, but the recap suddenly made me see how vulnerable I’d been. I’m guessing it couldn’t have been fun for my mother to hear either. But my mother and father made me feel like I’d scored a winning goal. I could see from the way my mum was beaming, from the drink that my father had with me that evening, that they were proud of me, because I’d fought and I hadn’t been afraid. Years later, my mother confessed that she’d had proper heebiejeebies while listening to me recount my “adventure” and for weeks, she’d had anxiety attacks if I was even a minute late coming home from college. I had no idea. All I knew was that I’d done the feisty genes that run in the family proud.

The reason I’m recounting all this is that reading about the suicide notes left by Madhu and Nikita, my heart broke. If only Madhu and Nikita had been able to find their way out of the ugliness so that 20-odd years later, they could recount this story the way I am today. But they didn’t, so I wrote this. An excerpt:

Tackling gender issues is not simple, but neither is suicide. Why was there nothing around them that made Nikita and Madhu think living would the better way to respond to the problem they were facing? It’s tempting to consider Nikita and Madhu exceptions, but for the statistics that show suicide being the chosen option for so many in the country who face “family problems”.

In his book Raising Girls, child psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote,

Your daughter needs to know she is part of a bigger story; a fight that has been fought on her behalf, long before she was born, and that she needs to keep fighting.

Perhaps we’re just not telling enough stories of strength and survival, or maybe the heroines who inspired earlier generations seem defanged today. Perhaps we need new stories in which heroes and heroines recognize despair but don’t become its prey. Whatever is causing this toxic sadness to well within our daughters, we would be wise to recognise it’s there and find ways to combat it.

The suicide statistics as well as Nikita and Madhu’s deaths show that our daughters don’t feel that they have what it takes to keep fighting. No matter how loudly we may outrage or how many candle marches we organize, that despair is the battle half lost.

Read the whole piece here.

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