Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Anoopa Anand - Bengaluru molestation: Nothing's changed on the city's busiest grope street

It is 6.45 pm sometime in the year 2000. I am at the top of Brigade Road, outside Cauvery Emporium, making my way to Pecos, a popular pub where my friends are waiting for me. An older man decides to accompany me without my permission, asking, the whole time, “Madam? Dinner? Madam? Dinner?” I ignore him for the entire six minutes it takes me to jostle my way to the little winding staircase that holds the promise of a friendly drink and a bag of popcorn broken over an empty, slightly grimy bowl. Before I enter, I decide to honour his overtures with a response: “No, sir, I have eaten already.” Perhaps relieved that I finally acknowledged his existence by my shoulder, he celebrated by sticking out his right hand and gently squeezing my left breast, as if I was a haphazard auto rickshaw and he had finally found the rubber horn.

This was 17 years ago, I was 18 years old, and Bengaluru had no microbreweries or shopping malls peppering every street corner. To wit, there was no infrastructure that could afford a more equitable distribution of gropers across the city. If you wanted a drink or to hang out at a place where all your friends could make it, you’d go to Brigade Road, with its many pubs, restaurants, and cinema halls. 

As did the gropers. Not MG Road, so much, because it was too wide for dark deeds from which women would not have the physical space to escape. Not Commercial Street, which was too ‘family’, what with so many married breasts being fussed over by children and guarded by husbands, ah! Husbands, the only equal-and-opposite to a groper’s dreams. So Bengaluru came to have – along with Food Street and Jewellers Street and Cottonpet – Gropers Street. Of course, we got groped in other places as well. Other streets, theatres, offices, our own houses. However, statistically, the largest number of gropings per square foot is what earned Brigade Road its affectionate moniker.

Therefore, it follows that what happened on Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve, the mass molestations that led to what the media are now calling ‘Bangalore’s Night of Shame’, is not new. None of this is new. The desire for consent is not new, neither is its denial. The existence of bullies is not new, just like their ability to be high-functioning only in packs. Deep-rooted misogyny squeezing a breast or ten, grabbing an a** here, rubbing a back there, undressing with its eyes everywhere, licking its lips openly at swaying hips…these things are not surprising. 

Our mass-surprise is surprising. The idea that addressing this violence and bullying is the job of only a few hundred men in uniform, is surprising. Urgently hashtagging #NotAllMen in some syrupy we’re-with-you way, instead of being an adult and having a dialogue about violence and patriarchy, is surprising.

Since all this is about mass, where is our mass outrage, where are the mass reports being filed by masses of men and women who saw and heard and felt and have evidence? What of the establishments on Brigade Road that have existed for years and eaten off the very wallets whose owners have been groped and molested on their street? Isn’t there a Brigade Road Shop Owners’ Association that can vow to put to better use, its sad, empty claim from each board that whimpers ‘Right of admission reserved’? And why is no one putting the hashtag to better use and creating a database of #ThatTimeItHappened? So, basically, there is no mass accountability?

I asked 65 women if they’ve ever been groped on Brigade Road 49 said ‘yes’. 16 said ‘no’. 5 of the 16 said not on Brigade Road, but plenty of other places. Each had a story, a weapon of self-defense, the memory of an angry tear, or a fine piece of vigilante justice.

My first experience with public groping was in the 7th standard, outside my school, walking to the photocopy shop in my uniform. A young man sitting on the neighbouring compound wall grabbed me where my breasts didn’t even know they were growing, with his jeans unzipped and his privates airing their musty opinions. I ran crying to the traffic policeman a few hundred yards away and told him what had just happened. He looked at my skirt and told me it was too short and maybe the man was excited. I was asking for it.

Dear Policeman, that year was the first time I failed Algebra. I am still certain that the only thing I was asking for that entire year, was directions to where I could ‘find x’.

And so, a New Year’s Eve mass molestation in the recent past. Some fifteen years ago, a gentle squeeze of a buttock on the steps leading down to Melting Moments. Some other time, a free grope to go with your cheeseburger at the Wimpy’s checkout line. That memorable elbow in the breast outside Rex Theatre. So many stories, so many gropes, one street. 

But I’m not counting. Not till the last parent has stopped saying ‘boys will be boys’; not till the last male friend stops saying, ‘don’t react, just walk’; not till the last report has been filed from the night of 31 December 2016. Not till the last cop stops looking at the length of my skirt when a man shows me all of what he has. Without mass accountability, this is just a piece of gossip that no one wanted to spread, that died at the corner of the coffee machine, that cuddled in the cold and lonely corridor because everybody was too busy hashtagging their armchair outrage.

Brigade Road, you are just a symbol of everything we don’t stand for. So work harder, fight for yourself, fight for others…and carry a safety pin between your knuckles, just in case.

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