When the news of the actress being kidnapped in Kerala first came out, the reactions from the older men in my immediate family was as expected.
One said, it must be staged. They (including the actress) must all be in on it.
The other said, why did she have to travel that late at night, all by herself? What was this “work” that could not wait till tomorrow?
Yet another said, this actress, she is known to be “that type”, no?
On Sunday, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) held an event in solidarity with the assaulted actress. At this event, Mammootty administered the oath to protect our womenfolk and make Kerala safe for women. In his 1995 movie The King, the same Mammootty as Joseph Alex IAS famously delivered the ‘sense, sensibility, sensitivity’ dialogue. The same dialogue that ends with him pulling close his subordinate by her raised hand (Vani Vishwanath‘s character) and saying, I know how to make sure you never raise your hand at another man, but after all you happen to be just a woman. On most days, I would sweep the irony of this under the rug. But not today. In his speech he said, masculinity is not in making a woman surrender, a man’s job is to protect a woman. I would like to say to the world at large, I don’t need your protection. What I need from you is to respect me enough to let me be.
What if it had been me? Would my family have reacted the same way? Maybe not within my earshot. Beyond it they would have said, I told you so. They would blame my mother for how I was brought up. Because clearly they weren’t a part of that. They would have blamed the principal of my school for she showed us how to be independent. They would blame the hip, city college I attended though it was regressive enough to put Victorian morality to shame. They would blame everything. The books I read. The company I keep. The man I married.
Once when I refused to be dropped off to some place and wanted to drive myself there, I was told there is no need to be such a feminist. Every time I leave home to catch the train back to Bangalore I routinely get asked if I have forgotten my dupatta. And every time, I pretend not to have heard to avoid a scene as I leave. When extended family wants me to have a baby, it’s always a boy first and then a girl. I am also the one who needs to have a child “to be tamed”.
I stopped taking buses in Kerala when bus travel became nerve-wracking with abuse. When people breathed down their fake outward morality on me, I stopped interacting with them. When they began polluting the air I breathe with their obsession for perverse sexual violence and their abuse of little girls in icecream parlours and otherwise, I made myself a home far away in the trees. A place where I could think for myself. A place where I could filter the information I receive. In Malayalam we call it kannadachu iruttakkuka, meaning to close your eyes to make it dark. Recently I read something about sociological works arguing that women’s migration from Kerala is not only a strategy to escape patriarchy but to come back with a better means to fight it. From my safe space here I write, mostly to assert my sanity than to change the world.
In 2015, T & I drove across India over 40 days. We took turns driving, though T drove more because he loves driving. To me, driving is just a chore, something I know to do like cooking dinner. I chose the most exciting terrain to drive like Zoji-La pass in Leh where it was snowing, the expanse of the Agra-Delhi expressway, the Nilgai-studded highway to Kutch and the beautiful Bombay-Pune highway.
We were entering Kargil and daylight was fast depleting. T was driving. From Pathankot, three of our friends had joined us for the trip up to Ladakh. So, in the car we were four women and one man. When we came up to one of the army barricades where we had to prove our identity and the identity of the vehicle we were driving, I, along with my cousin, stepped out. We headed to a tent by the side of the road where a couple of men stood huddled around two officials, all peering at a ledger. The army official, on seeing us, called us out of turn. Madam, are these your vehicles’ documents? Yes. Is there a man with you? Huh? He needs to come to complete this formality. We tried resisting. You mean, you want the man in the car to come and show you the same documents that I am showing you right now because he is a man? Yes madam, we don’t take documents from women especially if there is a man travelling with them. But I also drive this car. That doesn’t matter Madam. This is for your own safety.
End of story. We had reached a no-go situation. My cousin who is Hindi-speaking and more outspoken than me, went at them for while. We were both fuming but there was nothing more we could do if we wanted to enter that army-protected area. We gave in. Well, this is not an inspirational story. As I write this the frustration from that day returns with alarming force. On most days I like my situation in life where I choose how I want to live my life. And then there are days like these.
Everything good that you learn should start from families and in schools. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers and students should know how to live their own life the way they want without dictating how another person should live theirs. Maybe that’s what we need to teach our kids. Respect. For self and others.