The experience of Ms. Sunanda Pushkar at Cochin airport might have shocked the nation and triggered a hurricane of discussion on the harassment of the celebrity. But I do not think that most women in Kerala will be startled by the episode, for this is a routine treatment meted out to them in their daily life, especially while commuting by public transport, particularly in private buses. Frustration, anger, fury, repulsion, nausea and a whole parameter of emotions have been expressed by women in Kerala, who are generally known to be intelligent, educated and practical. But no serious action has been taken against the miscreants, for one reason or the other.
The situation was no different 25 years ago, when I joined a college in Kerala for a PG course. The weekend trip home, 28 km away from the hostel, was a nightmare. Thanks to the reduced fare for students, the buses plying on the route will not stop at the designated stop when the crew see students on the wait. And so we have to run for some distance behind the bus. If you are fortunate enough to race and catch the bus, there is another obstacle waiting right on the footboard — the doorkeeper, a being created exclusively for buses in God’s own country. This being has no female equivalent, or at least I have not seen one, and is aptly christened, kili in Malayalam or ‘bird,’ apt for the whistle he blows in anticipation of a stop, or as and when he likes; it can also signify a lot of other stuff that blossoms in his weird imagination at the sight of a skirt, sari or churidhar or even a frock. This being will not get off the footboard but will stand back a wee bit, very reluctantly, and savour the moment as women are forced to brush past him as they board the bus.
No, no that’s not the end. Inside the bus, you encounter another creature, the conductor. This man will not receive the money from your hand: instead, he will take it, nay, squeeze it out of your hand, and return any change in the same way, with a double squeeze. Still not the end. Even if there is not even an inch of space inside the bus, he will scream at every stop, “Get back there. There is enough room to play football.”
If you are the obedient kind and make your way back, you have had it. There are many wolves waiting there hungrily for you. They will pinch you here, there and everywhere, till you scream in pain. Remember, you have to scream in Malayalam, “Aiiiyyyyoooooo” and not in English, “Ouch!” because men in Kerala are proud of their language and culture!
One wonders what pleasure is derived from pinching others. In all probability, these masochists are those who strongly advocate sari. A Malayalam beauty should be wrapped up in the five-and-a-half-yard material. And that is the last outfit you should opt for the Battle in the Bus. In the course of the bus ride, as the vehicle picks up speed, be prepared for when the jarring sudden brakes throw your body forward, the wolves in the back will be on your back, and the sudden release of the brake will boomerang you back.
If you are a novice, by this time you, your sari, bag, footwear, and all other paraphernalia will be in a state of hotchpotch. In brief, for an average Kerala woman, commuting by bus is a painful ordeal.
Voyeurism of all kinds is rampant in literate Kerala. You will be unabashedly ogled and stared at. It is as if scopophilia is the birthright of the male. Use of foul language and abusive remarks are generally swept aside and condoned as comparatively harmless. But what has astounded me the most is the passivity of the average Kerala woman. And if there is somebody who has summoned up the courage to protest, she will find herself a lone diminutive David against Goliath, the sarcastic crowd. Frustration, anger and fury are not going to solve the problem. Passivity amounts to indifference and evasiveness. Ensuring safe use of public transport by women must be a priority of the State. The privacy of complainants should be protected. What is most important is a general change in the attitude of society that should be more supportive and respectful of women.
(The writer’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org)