Posted as part of the Blank Noise Blog-a-thon. Technically, this does not deal with street harassment but I think it is relevant enough.
Circa 1997. Third semester. AF and I are on our way back from the movie theater. We stop by the bajji kadai by the hostel gate and order some molaga bajjis. We see a bunch of our classmates making their way back from the Pillayar(Ganesh) temple. Not surprising given that the Circuits and Machines Lab exam is scheduled for the next day. AF and I decide to have some fun at their expense.
"Hey, did you hear about this experiment that the EEE people got in their exams?" I ask them.
"No, no. What is it?"
AF promptly cooks up some complicated version of a Machines lab problem which is guaranteed to get junta all worked up. Or so we think.
"Machines lab? That will be okay."
What?! That most of us preferred Circuits over Machines was no big secret. Even people like me who weren't really meant to study engineering thought that Circuits were all cool.
"I just hope I don't get anything in Circuits."
"Yeah, that was what I was praying for. No Circuits please."
"But hey, the Circuits ones are real easy. What are you talking about?"
I get all flustered now. Is there some bloody conspiracy going on in Circuits that I wasn't aware of?
"You guys didn't hear? Apparently Machi turns up for these Circuits lab exams."
Machi, as he was known as, is a senior professor at the department. We have heard stories about how he gets all excited around women but he's never taught us anything and he's never turned up for any lab hours until then and so we had no clue as to what to expect. At least AF and I did not.
"So what? I mean how bad can it be?", AF asks.
"So you haven't talked to the seniors. It is really bad."
"What are you talking about?"
"He walks around the lab harassing all the girls."
"What do you mean harassing?"
"Well, he will brush his hand across your body types."
Now, let me make something clear here. Even then, it wasn't surprising to me that a well-educated man, a senior professor at that, could stoop so low. I was never under the impression that education had anything to do with civilization. No girl who's grown up in God's own country will ever make that mistake. Don't get me wrong here, there are so many things about my home state that I am very proud of and yes, that includes their electoral choices but the way they treat their women - in public or otherwise - is not one of them. When I spent a few months in Madras later in my life, I would tell my native friends to stop complaining about their buses and trains - Madras is not half as bad as Trivandrum, not even close. But Coimbatore, that sleepy town across the border with the 1008 universities, now Coimbatore is heaven. My first year at Coimbatore, I was mighty surprised. People are super polite and public harassment just does not happen. Of course, the city had issues but street harassment just wasn't one of them. And so you can see why both AF and I were in complete disbelief hearing about this esteemed professor from this town harassing his students.
"He usually turns up at regular lab sessions. But seniors say we are pretty lucky. That girl S in our class, her dad is a friend of Machi's, so he doesn't bother us usually."
AF and I rush back to the hostel, catch hold of some third year students and demand the whole story. They come out, one by one. Machi brushing against someone's breast, Machi rubbing someone else's back, Machi failing the guy who told him to take his hands off his classmate, Machi getting beaten up in the bus once.
"But why doesn't anyone complain?"
"One, most of us are afraid. We just want to get done with all this nonsense and leave. Two, do you really think that no one ever complained? And that other faculty or senior management know nothing about this?"
"Hang on. You mean people know about this? Not just you and me - the HOD and the Principal and the warden and whoever. And they all don't do anything? But how could they not do anything?"
"Oh, they can and they will. They will only tell you and me to dress modestly and not invite attention. As if that solves anything."
"But we can do something. We can complain and if that doesn't work, we can go on strike or something."
"This is not your Kerala. Strikes don't happen here. We pretty much do as we are told. Or else get screwed."
"Looks to me as if you get screwed anyways." I couldn't resist.
"Can you please get off the high horse and face reality? How is this different from any time you go out? What has Machi done that a million other men did not do? Just because he is a professor doesn't mean anything. Why do you expect higher standards from him? He is just another man alright, just another man. Get that into you head and deal with it."
And so we did. I was lucky - got something in Machines. I didn't do well, the machine wouldn't start for the longest time but I was happy. Some of my other classmates weren't so lucky. A few of them stepped out of the lab crying. People thought that they didn't do well in their exams. But the rest of us knew what must have happened. But we didn't ask them. We didn't do anything. We just dealt with it.
The only one I remember who showed courage that day was AF. She got an easy experiment but Machi come over and started feeling her up. She told him to take his hands off her. She was ready to go complain to anyone willing to listen. But no one else was willing to go with her. No one was willing to take the risk. And finally, I, yeah me, convinced her not to go ahead. I told her to deal with it.
AF passed that exam, but barely. Machi went on to become the head of the department. We hear that he is the Principal in some other college nowadays.