One Day Unannounced

April 10, 2012

Asia, India

By: Urmila Chanam

I have lived, studied and worked in several towns and cities in my country and trust me, I have been to almost every corner of India. It’s interesting to see the variation in the way people look, dress, eat, live, marry, differ, hold their perspective regarding life in general and towards other communities other than themselves. In India, with every 100 km you will find another community or perhaps you don’t have to even go that far. India is like a vast sea of ethnic communities. So it is but right to believe that discrimination also thrives along with this variety in people. Discrimination which is as old as India and runs as deep as history.

Bangalore is one city in India which I believed was most cosmopolitan than most cities, Delhi being the worst. After having worked in Delhi I was convinced it wasn’t a place where a girl from the north-east could live in dignity. The degree of discrimination by the North-Indians towards north-eastern girls was humiliating, demeaning and alarming. Eve teasing, instances of molestation, public humiliation and rape is a frequent occurrence. I am a Mongoloid by race and hail from the state of Manipur in the North-Eastern region of India. The seven states of the north-east include Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. The people from this part are all from a different race from the main land Indians who are either Caucasoid or Dravidians/ Negroid. This racial distinctness has fuelled a discrimination against us when we migrate to other parts of the country for pursuing studies, work or marriage.

It’s not an exaggeration to see a group of boys in Connaught Place in Delhi tease two girls drinking coffee in a coffee shop and within no time it turns nasty. These girls hail from the north-east where we speak different language and may not be well versed with ‘hindi’ – the language spoken most in North-India. No one comes to their rescue because all the bystanders and onlookers do not relate to the girls who look different form themselves and appear as ‘foreigners’. It’s astounding to note that in the entire country a very discriminatory and demeaning term has been coined for us in India who hail from the north-east- ‘ a chinky’. What happens next is for us to imagine and think about. Had these two girls been from Punjab or Jammu they have been helped by several people around them and the miscreants would have been publicly beaten up or at least the girls would have been rescued.

In this light I felt Bangalore was better. My illusion lasted few months only. The truth came looking for me to look me in the eye one night in the streets of Indiranagar, one of the posh places in the city well-known for high-class shopping, a house for most brands and best restaurants and pubs. My office happened to be here and like most nights when I wrap up work by 7 pm and take a bus to my house, this particular night I was still working till 9:30 pm. My colleague wanted me to assist her in one event we were hosting that day at office. At 10 pm she told me to go before her as she lived nearby and I lived like 15 km away. I took my cardigan, my handbag and walked in the street all alone. Even in my stress and exhaustion I realized I was really ‘alone’ and the only noise in the street was the click-clack of my 5-inches heels. The busy streets at 7:30pm and the traffic jams, the people, the buses, the autos, the flower girls on the road, the chat wala, the scores of shops and showrooms, just about everything was almost frozen at that time of the night. In my naivety I felt momentary happiness at the emptiness and thought how calm it was. I stood at the bus stop for 30 minutes but I guess the buses from BMTC stop their service much earlier. So I dialled for Easy Cabs. The problem with them is that the call is kept on waiting for as long as 15-20 minutes and sometimes even more while all the time the IVR tells you to not hang up and that your call is important!! It so happened that Easy Cabs Customer Service never took my call that night or perhaps they would have eventually had that auto not come and stop right in front of me. “Memsahab, kahan jana hai apko?(Madam, where do you want me to drop you).”

I didn’t notice the auto drivers vermilion (‘sindoor’) smeared forehead and his face which looked haughty and ill-tempered. In my earnestness to get home as soon as possible I just hopped onto the auto and told him, “Banaswadi.” A chill runs down my spine now when I recollect that ride with a stranger, a prospective criminal in the lurch with no clue of what I was in store next. I was busy looking at the texts I had got through out the day from friends and family while at work and which I had failed to reply due to my busy-ness. I began replying to some of them when I noticed the auto driver begin to sing loudly and look at the rear view mirror and throw glances at me.

There is an instinct every woman is born with, you may call it ‘sixth sense’ or an unexplained alert that goes off in our minds when we sense danger of whatever kind. I possess that instinct too and that night it didn’t desert me. It told me I was in danger. What it didn’t tell me was what kind of danger I was in!!! I looked at the certificate of license pasted in front of me which bore the name of the driver, the vehicle number and other details as address. I composed a text in my mobile phone giving all these details to my parents, my elder brother with whom I lived in Bangalore, my best friend and another relative. I wanted to make sure if something happened to me tonight, I would want this man behind bars. All throughout he was smiling and singing and giving me those lewd glances. He took a lane which was really deserted and when I revolted he shouted at me to keep quiet. I was so scared that I didn’t know what to do. At one point, he stopped the auto and took on two more guys to travel with me so that he could earn more from the same ride. Had the co-passengers been women I would have felt relief at not being alone anymore with this man, but they were men and men from the road, of the same class and category as this auto driver. I was sitting in one extreme while the other two add-ons occupied the remaining part of the seat. It was then we began arguing and landed up in a heated discussion. I told the driver that he should not have taken this street at all in the first place and second, he cannot add men to share the ride. Due to our heated argument the two men got off in Aiyappa Temple area which was still not very deserted and I could see several people still around. He was clearly angry for having lost out on money that he could have earned if he had kept the two men till the point they wanted to be dropped to. He started swearing and making angry faces. The only thing on my mind was I was just 4 kilometres away from home. And I would shut the door once I was home to this nightmare.

We rode silently. We reached Banaswadi. We reached my neighborhood. There was a ‘pandal’ being constructed right across the road so the auto couldn’t go further. I was still a 1000 metres from the gate of the gated community I lived in. 1000 metres from the security guards which manned my flats, the best in Bangalore from a security firm called the “Peregrines”. I got off and asked him how much I owed him. I found him standing next to me about one-fourth of a feet away from me and that is an indecent space if you are an Indian girl. I knew it would be around 100 rupees as I took an auto every second night from work to home but I guess, the question was to test the situation I was in. He looked aggressive, indecent, animated, violent, in a rage when he demanded I pay him 500 rupees. I asked him what was the logic in his expecting five times of what I pay every time. He started shouting and in between all the screaming I could make out what he was trying to tell me is he would have made 500 rupees if I had allowed him to bring along the two men who dismounted the auto on my insisting. I told him that it is not correct for him to make me share the ride with unknown men and my expectation was within the parameters of law. The argument was getting out of control so I gave him 200 rupees and told him I was giving him double of what he was entitled thinking that would make peace.

I turned to go and walked some distance and saw two shops near my house still open. The shopkeeper was standing in the front of his shop and from his frightful eyes that looked onto me, I could sense danger right behind me. I turned to look and to my horror I saw the auto driver run in complete possession of extreme rage I had yet to encounter in my entire life, to go pick up the biggest rock boulder from the side of the road and run towards me to crush my head with it. He came running at me while I looked around me in despair to see if I could get help. It was then I saw the hand of racial discrimination. Every one present in that spot looked away, turned away from me and it was then I knew if I died, I would die alone and with no one to bear witness to what became of me.

My aggressor stood next to me, everyone else fled. His face was wrought with a hatred I couldn’t understand, the vermilion spoke loud and clear of his religious belief and his political affinity to a group I call ‘fanatics'(and any individual from secular India would as well), he was speaking abusively in the local Kannada dialect to me, perhaps he had a picture of me tinted with discrimination. I don’t know what happened next when he was about to hit me with the large rock. He just happened to look at my eyes then and his expression changed. I still don’t know why I said softly, “Bhaiya”(Brother). Perhaps it was my upbringing that made me use that word. Born to an army officer I grew up addressing everyone as ‘bhaiya’.Something changed swiftly after that moment. My aggressor snatched the money from my hands, dropped the rock, ran all the way to his auto and started it in an urgency quiet maddening to witness. Later on I found that he had taken 200 rupees.

I stood there for as long as I can imagine, shaking like a leaf. I had survived death at the hands of a perpetrator who was inflicted with racial or gender discrimination and for whom I appeared as someone who deserved his aggression and torment. Five months have passed by since that horrifying day in my life and I thank god for having given me the bridge of communication at the right, crucial moment (when I called him ‘bhaiya’ in hindi). And I learnt the only way to mitigate discrimination in this world of ours and save the thousands of people who die at its hands, is to build these ‘bridges’ and keep building them till we begin to see each other as a person who lives in the same world as us.

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