It was a Thursday, and she boarded the same overcrowded bus as everyday. Of late, she had been happy that she found a new bus route that was shorter and dropped her right in front of her workplace, albeit the fact that she had to walk five minutes from her home to take it. It didn’t really matter. She wanted to save travel time as her primary job in the morning was to make breakfast for her husband and get her six-year old ready for school, before she herself dressed up for work.
It was quite a hot day, she realised. The air inside the bus was slightly reeking with the stench of sweat from people standing, and she could feel beads of perspiration forming on her back beneath her blouse. She couldn’t manage to secure a seat for herself, but she was okay standing for a fifteen minute journey. As she wiped her forehead with the pallu of her saree, she distinctly felt a rapid breathing on her neck from behind. She didn’t turn around, but from the corner of her eye she saw a middle-aged man, who appeared to be standing much closer to her than necessary, as there was definitely some space next to him that could accommodate another human being. It wasn’t really something very new for her. Time and again, she had felt breaths upon her neck and shoulder, but she mostly ignored them, thinking that the journey was going to end soon, and it was better not to say anything.
But what happened this time made her freeze. She felt a hand, that man’s hand, stroking the part of her waist peeking out from her saree, and brushing up against her right breast in an instant. This went on for few seconds, that felt like hours to her. Don’t tell me this is an accident when I ask you, you piece of filth! She turned around with the fiercest look she could put up.
“What do you think you are doing? Did I ask you to touch me?” she roared.
The man looked somewhat taken aback. He did not expect to be confronted. “Well Ma’am, it is such a crowded bus. No space. Sorry.”
“I am also in the same crowded bus. Did I run my hands on your body?” Her eyes penetrated his. “If your answer is yes, I will get down from the bus right here. Else it’s you who gets the hell out of here.”
By now the rest of the people had heard what was going on. The woman’s voice was loud and clear, and the man was timid and speaking indistinctly. She was looking straight at him, without flinching. His head was pointing slightly down, but not completely, as if he was trying hard to decide between guilt and ego. But it turned out that at the very next stop, he got off the bus. No one knew if he was actually supposed to get off there, or not.
The entire family had gathered for her cousin’s wedding. Everyone was happy, happier than they had ever looked before. The arrangement was perfect, the house looked like a dream, every single person – man or woman, young or old – was dressed up like it was the best day of their lives, and the music was the most cheerful and uplifting. She was supposed to be wearing a bright pink lehenga that her mother had picked out for her. Although she was only sixteen, people at home were whispering in her ear, that after her cousin, it was her turn even if after few years, and she should try to start looking attractive. You never know who fancies you, especially at weddings, they said. Look your best, girl. You might just find your Prince Charming.
But she had chosen to distance herself from boys since long ago. When all her friends began to have crushes and even boyfriends as they entered adolescence, she didn’t look in the eyes of any boy that crossed her path. Something held her back. She herself wasn’t fully aware what caused this aversion, but she just accepted it as it was.
As she was putting on her lehenga, she found it difficult to zip up the blouse from the back. She couldn’t go out of the room in that state, and decided to call someone for help. But neither her mother nor her sister picked up the call. This damn loud music, she sighed. All of a sudden, there was a knock on the door. She assumed it would be a female and opened it, happy to be expecting some help. But there was a man standing there – her father’s cousin, her uncle.
“I saw your mother’s phone ringing. She is busy, you know. Thought you need some help.”
“No Uncle, it’s fine. I’ll wait for her,” she stammered.
He seemed to pay no heed to what she said, and entered the room by pushing her aside. To her horror, he then closed the door behind her.
It was evening. The family was sitting in the huge hall, singing, dancing, talking and eating. She was sitting in a corner, staring at nothing in particular, and no one seemed to ask her what the matter was. But rushes of memories seemed to attack her – memories that she thought she had long forgotten. Her eyes could not hold tears anymore, and she could not pretend like nothing happened over all these years. She remembered those frequent visits that her “Uncle” used to make when she was a child, about eight or nine – the way he always used to make her sit on his lap, give her chocolates, and shower kisses on her, as her parents laughed and chatted with him at the same time. He even used to babysit her sometimes, but then his display of affection wasn’t so soft and smooth. There were certain ‘games’ they played, which required them to take off their clothes. She never understood why. She never thought they were fun. But she liked to make her Uncle happy, because then he brought her more chocolates. When she was around ten, he left abroad for work, and returned only after six years, for the wedding. She never missed him, she realised. Neither those chocolates.
But today he was in her room. He helped her zip up, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered to her, remember how much fun we used to have together? I am back now. Be prepared. And it all came back to her.
She rose up from the corner, and located her mother, who was sharing jokes with some guests. She ran upto her, frantically wiping her tears which seemed to pour out nevertheless. She dragged her reluctant mother to her bedroom, and told her whatever had happened that day, and whatever she could remember from the dark childhood days. Her mother listened, cried with her, hugged her tightly, and put her to sleep. Then she returned to the hall, talked to her husband for few minutes, and then they dialled up the police together.
She checked her watch: 1:20 am. She regretted her decision of starting to walk from the office towards her home instead of waiting for a cab. It was barely a twenty minute walk, but the hour wasn’t favourable. Not at all. Although this town was known to be relatively safer compared to other places, one never knew. She quickened her pace and heightened her senses, despite being aware of the lack of any weapons that she could use to defend herself. She had often considered buying a pepper spray and giving it a permanent place in her handbag, but a part of her head told her that it wasn’t necessary. And some cab was always available. But not tonight.
She had barely walked a couple of hundred metres when she heard something behind her. She didn’t dare look, but the stench of alcohol that floated up her nostrils gave her the idea that she was being followed by someone who was heavily drunk. Her heart started thudding against her ribs, and she wasn’t sure if she should start running. To alleviate her fears, she heard voices. Men talking. There were more than one man. From their conversation, she could vaguely make out their names. She is alone, bro. Let’s grab the chance. She thought she heard them saying. She prayed that she misheard that.
Although she was trembling with fear, she kept walking. She realised that if these men did plan to force themselves on her, there was no way she could tackle them alone. Not by physical strength. She fidgeted inside her bag for something that might be of use to her. The very first thing she found was her mobile phone.
Should I call the police? They won’t arrive soon enough anyway, and if these men are gone by then, it will be me who will face harassment.
Should I pretend to call the police? If they understand that I am already aware of them, they might just chase me down, and finish off in five minutes, because they know there’s no way the police will be here by that time.
Should I call someone for help? Or text?
She tried to remember which of her friends is most likely to be awake at this hour. Probably her colleague, who left at the same time as her, but went in the opposite direction. But she didn’t dare to make a call and speak. She left a text message: I will call you in exactly ten minutes. If I don’t, PLEASE call the police. I am in potential danger. And she dropped her approximate location as well.
She didn’t realise that the texting had slowed her down a bit. Or did the men get faster? The footsteps were now distinctly right behind her. Without thinking anything, she started running as fast as she could. It occurred to her as a good decision since drunk men are not expected to run coherently. But before she knew it, she stumbled and fell down, and the men weren’t late in approaching her. As she found them a metre away from her fallen body, grinning and seemingly congratulating each other for having landed a prey, she thought of ways to escape. I won’t give up. This won’t be the end of me.
By a stroke of luck, she remembered having a cigarette lighter in the front pocket of her bag, that she often carried for occasional smokes between work. She just decided to stun the men somehow and have enough time for fleeing. With a lightning move, she pulled off her silk dupatta, held its corner on the flame of the lighter and threw the burning cloth on the man closest to her. He screamed as his shirt caught on fire from it, as the other two men got distracted from her and started helping out their friend. She grabbed the opportunity to rise on her feet and started running again, until she found a safe spot behind a small house to catch a breath.
She checked her watch again. 1:32 am. Her colleague had called up few times already, and her phone buzzed again. She received the call.
“Where are you? What’s the matter? Are you okay?” The voice on the other side sounded genuinely worried.
“Yes! Yes!” she breathed heavily. “But I would like to call up the police anyway.”
She disconnected the call, and visited the gallery of her phone. She was thankful for the high resolution phone camera she owned, and zoomed into the last picture she had taken. The three faces were clear enough, even from quite a distance away – one of them agonized at the sudden burns on his arms, and the other two startled and flabbergasted.