Sheila entered the classroom with puffy eyes, sniffling into a handkerchief. Ankit was alarmed. This was the third time in four days that his girlfriend had come to the college looking distressed. What worried him even more was that she absolutely refused to tell him what the matter was. It was extremely unusual. For the last one month that they had been a couple, not for once did Sheila let anything go by without telling Ankit about it. She even kept him awake late at nights chattering about all the little details of her hours spent away from Ankit’s company.
So, Sheila’s reluctance in confiding the reason of her distress bothered Ankit very much. As he moved aside on the bench to make room for her to sit, Ankit shot Sheila a questioning look. Sheila looked down and sniffed.
All through the drudgery of Professor Bisoi’s direct taxation class, Ankit kept trying to make Sheila talk, at least hint, about what was ailing her. The last two times she had been upset, she had avoided him altogether until lunch break. She had kept to her group of girl friends and they had pressed their heads together, whispering in low voices. The first time Ankit had thought it was all about ‘female-trouble’ and hadn’t pressed the matter. The second time he had tried asking Roopsha, Sheila’s friend, but had been rudely snubbed with a bewildering comment about men’s innate lecherousness. He had pressed Sheila to tell him once she regained her composure by the time of the last class, but had learnt nothing. Just a day later, it was happening all over again. This time, Ankit decided, he would go to the bottom of what kept upsetting his usually cheerful and jolly girlfriend.
As the bell sounding the end of the period rang below, Ankit grabbed Sheila’s hand and dragged her out of the classroom, close at the Professor’s heels, down the corridor to ‘their’ spot near the canteen, ignoring her attempts to wriggle free. Plopping her down on the cement bench beneath the cement umbrella, Ankit shot at Sheila “Why won’t you tell me what has happened?”
At first Sheila kept up her resistance and wouldn’t say anything but “Please, I can’t, please, stop asking”. But Ankit was adamant to get an answer this time. Slowly, through gentle coaxing and the genuine care which he had for her, he managed to learn the cause of Sheila’s misery. And it infuriated him. And it helped him understand what Roopsha had meant when she had said “You men are all lecherous bastards”.
For the last few weeks, Sheila had been constantly molested on her daily two hour journey to the college by bus. And by one particular man. At first she didn’t quite understand, but in the last four days, the regularity of her harassment made her aware that she was being specifically targeted. The man would always choose to sit beside her in the bus even when all the seats were empty and as the bus started so would her torment. Ankit clenched his fists as Sheila broke down, narrating the ways she would be embarrassed, in full glare of the public, all oblivious to her silent abuse.
“Why didn’t you shout and punch him in the face?” But Ankit knew the answer to his own question. It is very difficult for a woman to acknowledge her harassment, a reason that encourages such perverts to carry on their foul deeds undeterred. Sheila said the same thing and confessed that she hadn’t even told her parents. “I am desperately looking for a hostel or mess near the college, Ankit, but it’s so hard to find one in mid-session. I can’t take anymore of this, I can’t, I can’t. I hate it here. I wish we had never moved to this place”.
“Then we wouldn’t have found each other, Sheila”, thought Ankit. But he didn’t tell her that. As he held her trembling hands, Ankit tried hard to think of ways to protect his sweet, innocent girlfriend. His primary instinct was to go bash the pervert’s head. That would stop this one pervert, but what of the scores of other middle aged perverts? “Bastards, the whole lot of them; they get so little action from their wives that girls young enough to be their daughters look like prey-meat”. Ankit fumed inside.
He lifted Sheila’s face and looked into her eyes. “Does this bloke get out at our college stop?” Sheila said no. The man, she said, got out four stops before her stop. That gave Ankit an idea. “Listen, tomorrow, you’ll get out of the bus with the man, at his stop. I’ll wait for you there. You will point him out to me, okay?”
At first Sheila was nervous. “No, what will you do, if I point him out? Will you rough him up? Please Ankit, don’t. I have asked the girls to look for a room immediately; I’ll manage these few days, No, don’t get involved in any unpleasant stuff. I beg of you”.
Ankit wondered how men could be cruel to such wonderful creatures. Her misery didn’t matter much once she thought he would be in danger. He felt proud and ashamed at the same time; proud for having such a great girlfriend, ashamed because he belonged to the same sex as her tormentor. Ankit became even more determined to protect Sheila’s honour. His dad travelled to work by bus too, and boarded the bus from the same stop, as Sheila did. He would ask him to accompany Sheila for the time being, until she found a room in a student’s hostel. He hadn’t told his parents he had a girlfriend, yet, but would have to, now.
Next day, Ankit and his room-mate borrowed a bike and went to the bus stop, where Sheila had said the man got out. He knew the place. His father’s office was nearby. While he waited at the stop, looking at the passing buses, he gathered his courage and rehearsed the threat he had prepared for the man. His room-mate was the brawny type and he kept suggesting beating the man into a pulp. Ankit wanted to do that too, but not before issuing a formal threat. So he kept repeating in his mind, “You filthy son of a………”
A red bus halted at the stop and through the back door Ankit saw Sheila squeezing her way out. She looked miserable as before. “The swine is in there alright. Anytime now; let him get out once, he will wish he hadn’t boarded the bus”. Ankit glanced at his friend and signalled him to be ready. Fists clenched, he walked towards Sheila.
Sheila was staring at the front door of the bus and breathed deeply on seeing Ankit approach. Lifting her trembling right hand, she pointed her index finger in the direction of a dark striped shirt turned back on them, showing the ticket stub to the conductor. Ankit’s clenched fists loosened a little. He faltered.
The man had by now turned his head and stopped to look at the back door of the bus, presumably looking for Sheila, who was now cowering behind Ankit’s back, completely blocked from view by Ankit’s friend, coming in to stand beside Ankit. He didn’t see Sheila, but caught sight of the two boys. His face breaking into a smile, the man started walking towards Ankit and his friend saying. “Shovan beta, it’s so nice to see you. You should visit me and Ankit’s mother during the holidays. What do you say Ankit?”
His head reeling, his body feeling limp, Ankit replied mechanically, “Yes Dad.”
Author’s Note: In writing this piece I wish to draw attention to the silent abuse that scores of Indian woman face during their daily commute by public transport. I would also like to add that I do not accuse all male daily commuters of sexually harassing their female co-passengers. The story is a work of fiction and all the characters are purely fictional. I would have liked to add that the characters of this story do not bear resemblance to any real person, but I am afraid that given the current situation of regular harassment of women in our country, such a claim would sound absurd. But I pray to God and sincerely hope that in near future this claim becomes real.
Image Courtesy: http://www.behance.net/gallery/Silent-Cries/5520819