I was twelve,
when some teenage boys
started following me
from my bus stop home.
I would see them at my school gate,
a bunch of flowers in hand.
they would throw pieces of scrap my way,
‘love letters’ written in blood.
I must have done something
to invite their attention,
I was told.
Those boys laughed
as I walked hurriedly, my head bowed,
while half a world watched in amusement.
At fifteen, a cousin grabbed me
when no one was looking,
at a family function.
‘Shush!’ They told me.
‘These things happen,
and women must be careful.
And what were you doing there alone?!’
Shame reddened my soul;
‘I shouldn’t have been there alone.’
So I silently questioned myself
every day of my life,
while I was grabbed, pinched, followed, cat-called;
on crowded streets, in empty buses,
in book-fests, weddings, exhibitions;
and every time, they asked me,
‘Why don’t you have your dupatta on?’
‘What were you doing on a public train?’
‘Why were you out, late at night?’
‘Don’t you know, zamana kharab hai?!’
I am forty,
and all these years,
I have silently bled
every time I read stories of horror,
unfolding with every newspaper page –
each more gory than the last.
And I have silently cursed and cried
when they screamed out loud,
questioning us and our upbringing –
‘Why must a woman
have an education, a career, ambition, a voice?’
Yes, why at all?
Why live in fear every moment of her life?
Why go out with pepper sprays
and emergency numbers,
prayers on her lips;
the self-defense moves she’s learnt,
every time she steps out?
Why does she let random people strip her
of her dignity, her voice, her life?
She should wrap herself in her dupatta,
and suffocate herself to silent death,
before a man on the street does that to her;
reeking of alcohol and aggression,
steeped in machismo,
in cold blood.
And then she must wait for justice,
and watch silently
while her family is attacked and slayed,
her motives questioned,
while the assaulters make merry
plotting their next hunt.
And when once in all these years,
justice has been served,
we must be silent,
and mourn the death of human rights?
From time immemorial
I have been denied my basic rights.
Planned or otherwise,
let this be an example.
Let this be the start of our war cry –
that we will not be silent anymore.
I was twelve,