I fancy myself as fiercely independent and capable of taking care of myself. But years of being told that as a woman, I need to be more wary than were I a boy has somewhere left its tell-tale marks on my psyche. It isn't debilitating, but there is a niggle when you find yourself in unknown territory - somewhere at the back of my head a feeling of inadequacy I'm not a man.
Maybe it's a sum-total of our lives- my small-city upbringing ( You can't call Kochi small town, can you?) dictated that I was home before 7, dress codes of what could be worn and what shouldn't even be attempted was unspoken ( can you imagine that in the late 90s, very few girls in my class wore sleeveless kurtas while taking the bus to college, and jeans was like an occasional indulgence with oversized shirts borrowed from our brothers), I wasn't seen loitering anywhere near the male-dominated watering holes of the city ( Point to be noted - its only recently that lounges and pubs have appeared, long after I left the city. Till then all that existed where those multi-coloured, garish bars that you wouldn't even turn and look at), went for movies even with family early enough to be back home by 8.30!
So what was the lesson inherent in all this? Its a big bad world out there, you have to take care of yourself when alone and be inconspicuous and part of a group when with family so as to not draw unwarranted attention to yourself. Why? Because you could never trust the intentions of the unseen man out there - he has not been told to fence his thoughts and intentions to women of his circle - just about anyone is fair game. Our ideas of morality and permissibility came circumscribed - there was even an unspoken code on which men from the family qualified as safe escorts on evenings out.
That was about growing up, When I moved out of Kochi, first to study and then due to work, I realised that the big bad world my parents protected my life from was in fact, more sly in unseen ways.
The smiling stranger who was your colleague could turn out to be your stalker as my friend found out - for over sixteen years, she has been at the butt of his stalking - messages, marriage proposals, threats, dirty innuendos - you name it, she has seen it all. The landlord who takes unholy interest in the comings and goings into your apartment by asking neighbours to 'keep an eye out'. The anonymous 'well-wisher' that my cousin has is a compulsive mailer, the spouse, the boss and family and even a few of the family members are on the receiving end of messages that 'reveal' how promotions have been achieved so fast, so high, while leaving hardworking people like the 'wellwisher' on the fringes, unappreciated and unseen.
Every day seems to require you to wear a mantle and a shining armour - the armour shined not your specification but that of the society around you. Why do we have to constantly present certificates of being good and therefore warrant immunity from having to live a life strictly curtailed so as to avoid these kind of harassment? How can others get away with passing random judgements and enjoy the salacious thrill of malicious gossip sticking on to our personas like pesky post-its?
We speak of equality, but mentally we need to be treated as equals - you throw mud, I throw a mountain back at you. Beware! And there are thousands out there. Strangely, I think my generation (in the Indian context) is at the cusp of once-restricted always unsure upbringing and an all-permitted, no holds barred adulthood.
What it leaves in its wake is a duality - of existence, thought and action. I want to rise above it, be able to debate why things are the way they are and how to tackle issues that are not of my creation nor my responsibility. How can I be held culpable?