It's weird being a woman. Today. It's odd to have to constantly defend what you stand for - to have to play the part - the one that is not necessarily just defined by your sexual delineation. To have to chose between 'freedoms' - of myriad kinds - the one in your kitchen, the one in your cubicle, the one in your bedroom, the one in a movie hall, the one in the mall - the one in your head.
It's confusing to be a woman today. Spoilt for choices - so you can learn kickboxing instead of Kathakali, date a bunch of guys before settling down or chose to remain single, so 30 is mostly a statistic, so you can have a whole of sex, even after marriage, get pissed drunk on Wednesdays, chat up a guy atop a fancy rooftop bar, somewhere. Anywhere...
So you can opt for botox or liposuction, so you can show skin and pierce your navel or flash a tattoo on the nape of your neck, so you can protest in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, show a middle finger to the guy who overtook you as you drove your Chevrolet, bought with your first pay check. So you can act in films, be a chef or a scuba diving instructor. So you can fast unto death or teach street children. So you can be an unwed mother.
You can adopt, admonish, agitate, arouse, assemble, ape, arrest - so you are liberated. You have a license - a whole bunch of rational, real, robust choices, sans, an expiry date.
A dream. In other words.
Some kind of most modernist, mumbo jumbo that days like this - Women's Day asks you to celebrate. To wear on your sleeve. To flash a trump card. Pop open a bottle of expensive sparkling champagne. Buy that solitaire for yourself. Call that hot hunk from your yoga class. Ditch the indecision. The who should call first rulebook. It's outdated anyways you tell yourself. Making the move. Taking a chance on yourself. Tucking your tummy in. Slipping into your sexiest chiffon dress. Parting your lips. Taking a deep breath. And dialing his number. Slowly, repeating the digits to yourself.
It's Women's Day. Go out there. You deserve to be pampered. You smile to yourself. A silly television commercial, you smirk. You reach for the remote.
The call gets connected.
Your heart skips a beat. Maybe more...
I was on my way back from my publisher's office, when my car stopped at a traffic signal. A young girl darted forward. Her ill fitted, faded kurta slipping off her frail shoulders, more than once. Her nubile body taut. Her breasts tense, her hazy, hazel eyes lighting up for a few seconds.
'Women's Day issue,' she spoke in chaste English. My driver shooed her away. Moving the car ahead.
'Eye sexy...aati kya Khandala?' some young boys jeered. Just then. One of them even flashing her a crisp, five hundred rupee note. 'Women's Day issue,' she kept insisting, her delicate arms flapping, showcasing a bunch of magazines, mostly women's. Mostly imported.
'Baby...' one amongst them leered, rolling down his shaded car window. It was an Audi. This was Delhi. National Capital. Where just a few days ago the Nirbhaya episode had shamed scores of Indians - jarred the urban mindset. Raised a lot of questions. Had men - ministers, matinee idols, Managing directors pen heart-felt apology messages. Citing the greatness of our nation - a land of the Mother Goddess - of Parvati, Kali, Amba, Lakshmi... you know the rest. As we. The rest of us on the other hand shunned the archaic legal system...the inept police force...the parochial political anarchy... the way women are portrayed in films, in fashion, in soap operas... blaming it on our lousy, desi mindsets. Hypocritical, hateful, heinous.
Anyway getting back.
'Gari roko Narendra,' I screamed. Scared. Not having enough courage. To watch.
'Arre, aap is sabh lafde mein mat pado... kuch ho jayega Madam... arre wahan pain traffic police bhi nahin hain,' he paused, glancing back nervously. One of the boys was about to grab her arm by then.
'Arre usko utha liya toh, they seem to be drunk...' I tried opening my door.
'Aur aap ko goli mara toh... apko pata bi hain... yeh Delhi hain Madam... yahan pein din dahare goli chalti hain... apne dekha nahin hamare colony mein parking ko le kar kisi ne kaise goli chalayi thi ek baar. Yaad hain? Risk mat lo Madam... waise bhi kya zarurat thi usko aise kapde pehen ne ki... badi aayi Kareena Kapoor!' he resumed, sounding hassled.
Suddenly, I looked outside. The signal had changed. The girl stood by the bus stand. Her hair now fully open. Cascading down to her hips. She was studying her wrist. Her face contorted.
'Come with me... I'm Sreemoyee. Come to the police station... don't worry you are safe,' I whispered. She looked down. Some of the magazines slipping out.
She smiled all of a sudden.
'Madam this happens almost everyday...' she said, turning to go away.
'So... yeh galat hain,' I shouted, chasing her down. Some of the passersby gawked. Awkwardly.
'I know,' she nodded. Stopping suddenly.
Her English chaste. Her accent polluted.
'Tum ko English aati hain?' I couldn't help but pry. As if language is ever a sovereign? Like education? Meant only for girls like us. Privileged. Pretty. Perfect.
'Night school. Here in Saket... first left,' she pointed.
'I have a question,' I walked on with her. Lending her a hand.
'Why are you dressed this way? Why is it that you can't do something else... why beg? Why, why wear such clothes in day time... see through...' I stopped, out of breath.
'I sell magazines. Femina?' she interrupted.
Then before I could say something else. Anything... she added, 'I used to beg before... I don't now. My sister went missing from the streets. I don't remember her though. I am learning English... my father sells flags... you know... on Independence Day... he's good with his hands. I, I don't have a mother. Baba got me into this dhanda. He lost a leg last year in a car accident. Got a lot of money. Some rich Seth. Didn't want any police lafda... he told us. He was God sent...the money helped. We got out the gang...'
'What gang?' I sounded curious again.
'Bhikari wala...we had to pay them a lot of money... but, but we managed. These days I just sell magazines and fake books...' she looked me in the eye.
'Books can never be fake, you mean pirated... cheaper versions of popular novels,' I corrected.
'Not pirated, fake,' she repeated. Her ignorance melting my defenses. The ones I had left.
'So what did you tell those men?' I quizzed, quickly.
'Nothing...I kept trying to sell my saman, I haven't sold any since subah,' she remarked.
'Were you not scared that they may pull you into their car. Did you see how huge it was? And...and there were more than four men...the windows dark...it was a risk. Anyway, go now, here take this. Buy yourself something...a new kurta. It'll be Women's Day soon...' I tried catching her attention.
'Nahin chahiye, aap ne kitab nahin liya tha. Pehle. Yeh mera favorite kurta hain. Kareena Kapoor wali. Baba ne diya tha... yeh aise pehna jata hain,' she stubbornly retorted, pushing the kurta lower.
I remembered Narendra's face. His words. His caution. His caricature.
''kay... tikh hain... it was my fault. Sorry. I panicked. Aaj kal ladkiyan safe nahin hain... I, I just wanted to save you... incase something happened. Anything... you know. Something dangerous,' I patted her back. Unsure of how my concern would be weighed.
She moved away.
The girl without a name. Slithering like a serpentine through a thick maze of traffic. In a hurry to be somewhere. Else.
I returned to the car.
'Kya bola us chori ne?' Narendra questioned.
'Ghar chalo...' I mumbled. Feeling a tad let down. The feeling when someone doesn't reciprocate. When someone is too self sufficient. Emotionally your equal.
Why was I so scared? Just one incident of rape? Newspaper reports, everyday... I questioned myself... all day. The next few days.
'Anything could have happened, you were just being a concerned citizen,' a friend analyzed. Processing second hand information.
'She loved Kareena Kapoor...you think she'll ever be her someday?' I blurted, my eyes moist in remembrance.
My friend laughed.
'God... you're becoming the next Arundhati Roy...writer turned activist... or wait, better that Imom chick...' she gesticulated, ordering ice cream.
I looked around the mall we were in. Surrounded by a bevy of women. Tall and short. Fat and thin. Long hair and short. Sexy and boring. Daring and docile. Married and single. Alone. With someone else. Shopping and staring. Eating and drinking. Buying or selling. Mothers, daughters, children, shop owners, shopkeepers, wives, lovers, girlfriends, ayahs, nannies, floor cleaners, pregnant...
'What's still bothering you so much?' my friend tugged at my bag, adding irately, 'that nothing happened... that you couldn't be a hero to her. Or that you are worried she's still the victim.'
I flopped down.
'No... she's... this is not about her, that girl. It's about me...' my lips quivered.
My friend was at the counter by then, making a payment.
I was alone then.
That's when it came back. The call. The way it had ended. The abuse. The humiliation of being dumped before I was to be engaged. The way I begged. To be heard. To be seen. To be loved again. In my own eyes. In the eyes of a man. In the eyes of my parents. My sisters. My friends.
Maybe it was about scars then. The ones I thought were covered. With time. With success. With the cynicism adulthood brings - the surrendering of a certain form of womanhood to become this other self. The cost of one's strength.
In a sense... she reminded me of myself. Somewhere. The way I wanted to be. On the day I most miserably failed myself. A day or two after my heart was broken. Maybe a month later. Also.
Perhaps it's why I took time to savor defeat this time. Lost to a girl. A one time beggar. A Kareena Kapoor copy. A pirated version.
A young woman. With balls. To look life in the face. To be able to strut her self. Even when no one was looking. In a sense. Spewing broken English. A proud magazine vendor. With the most tumultuous eyes...and a magnetic first impression.
'So... moral of story?' my friend was back.
'Hey... gimme a sec,' I whispered, rushing outside.
It was a bright sunny, post winter Delhi day. My heart fluttered.
But my mind was made up.
And so... here I am. Standing outside. My own fears. And those of numerous other women. Some nameless. Fears of all sizes. Against enemies of varied shapes.
'Tomorrow is another day. And I...'
To a man I have only just met. Like that hot hunk from yoga class.
Remember? The one I wrote about.
At the beginning.
The kinds you read in books and women's magazines...
And Women's Day supplements...
The woman you so want to be. Now and always.