Who Will Marry Me Now?

Violence, justice, and a lot of talk of violence and justice. In the one year since the December 16 Delhi gang rape, young women across India have been thinking hard about their precipitous lives. But how precipitous are they, really? A Rashomon report on a Kurosawa year.

Photo Credit: MS Gopal

Arvind remembered it as a Kermit the Frog puppet. Nithin remembered it as a teddy bear-shaped water bottle cozy. “When I walked in, he was moving it up and down the bottle. It was like he was humping the teddy bear with the bottle.”

The students remembered it as a hand puppet. Nandini said, “Ashwin kept waving it behind Arvind’s head while he was speaking.”

Which one was it? I was keen to ask Ashwin when I met him. I’d have to work it into the conversation slowly, I thought. After all, what I really wanted to know was what he thought about rape. And what I really, really wanted to know was whether he had told women to fake epileptic fits when confronted with a potential rapist.

I wasn’t sure if he’d remember.

*  *  *

This is the first scene of the movie I wanted to make when I was 19.

A young woman is jogging enthusiastically down a street in Bangalore. A man at a bus stop sees her passing by and languidly begins following her. In a while, he acquires some pace. In a while, she notices him. Perhaps she is imagining it, she thinks at first. But no. When she slows down, he slows down too. When she speeds up, he speeds up too. And just like that, she is enraged. Without thinking too much about it, she turns around and runs towards him. He screeches to a halt, panics and bolts. Now the people at the bus stop who had had a fleeting glimpse of an innocuous, jogging girl are agog as they watch an ordinary-seeming man being chased, there is no other word for it, chased by a girl in a purple tracksuit.

And then up comes the title of the movie in white, retro-cursive font:

Who Will Marry Me Now?

I never did make that movie. What do I know about making movies, and I never really wanted to make anything more than that scene anyway. It did briefly enjoy some affection among my friends, the kind of affection reserved for projects never attempted, projects that have never been broken down into to-do lists and deadlines, those most delicious pies-in-the-sky. In those last days before my world was hit by the Internet, it had a meme quality. Several anecdotes were submitted as worthy of being a scene in this movie, a loose collage of Man Bit Dog, Girl Hit Boy.

Notable mentions. Bindu, who drove a pencil steadily into the groping hand that rose beside her Kerala bus seat. Divya, who punched a pincher at Shivajinagar bus stop and cracked his tooth. Smruti, who chased down the merry cyclist who had groped her and knocked him to the ground, a wreck of gears and manhood. The tall dancer whose name I don’t remember, at a party in BITS, Pilani catching a wandering, geeky hand and twisting it behind its geeky back. She smiled and took away his watch as a punishment, then patted him and let him go.

As we made our way in the world, these are the stories we told each other. These were our war stories. Of course, we didn’t know we were making our way in the world, many of us. After all, the world had been mapped by other women before us, hadn’t it?

I heard a story about the feminist economist Devaki Jain. That in the early 1950s when she graduated from Cambridge, she and two friends decided to pool in expenses and drive back to India. So they did. Three 21-year-olds in a jeep across Europe and then Afghanistan. The scornful punch line came via the grapevine from Mrs Jain, now in her 80s: “Nowadays, people write about driving from Bangalore to Madurai and think it’s an adventure.”

With historical precedents like these, it was difficult for many of my friends and me to imagine that we were doing anything heroic as we went about our lives: getting an education, finding jobs, finding lovers, moving cities, moving countries. Except for the occasional slim-hipped, khaki-wearing classmate who announced that she was going to fly gliders or study leopards for the rest of her life, few women seemed to be actually in a war, certainly not a cape-and-goggles kind of war. But then why did so many of us feel besieged? Why were we telling each other these stories as if it was the night before we had to ship out?

Those days, when I read about the ‘before’ of any culture that was devastated by war or famine, when I read about the particular pleasures of 'before' (tea, pigeon-breeding, disco), I heard an eternal bee-humming summer. This is what we are living in, I used to think to myself often. Soon, the tanks will roll in and this will be the glorious Before that we took for granted.

I also often thought: these are not real lives we're leading because we are not real women. Our lives are gifts granted for good behavior. We are on borrowed time.

*  *  *

Sujaya Sundaram has a wonderful voice, somehow made better by the late hour and some tiredness. 

In January or February this year, Sujaya helped some students at Mount Carmel College (MCC), Bangalore organize a seminar to discuss the December 16 Delhi gang rape. The bare facts seem to be this. A few students from the college, the boyfriend of one student, a human rights lawyer, and a self-defense instructor were part of the panel discussion. The event was attended by a few classes of the 4,000-strong college. It quickly devolved into name-calling and left all participants and most spectators upset, confused and raging.

Almost a year later, there are not too many strong emotions. They’ve been replaced by sardonic commentary.

In the larger world – outside the world of that Mount Carmel College seminar – since December 16, 2012 there have been almost nonstop discussion of rape, sexual assault and gender through the year. That afternoon seminar was just one among hundreds that began with an ill-defined agenda and ended with strongly-brewed tea.

Sujaya has been teaching for 20 years at Mount Carmel College, a Junoesque, relaxed presence. Most of this November she has been in a three-week refresher course for teachers at the main university campus. And can only talk to me at nights on the phone, after she comes home from a 20 km bus ride home and cooks dinner for her husband and for her teenaged sons (who are at a permanently hungry, hollow-legged stage).

As part of the refresher course she is also planning to present a paper on temple ritual and resistance. A day before she presents the paper, she says tartly to me, “I might want to talk to you about the men in my course too.” But two days after she presents, she is mellow and feeling quite kindly towards the men in her class. “One of them came to me the next day and said he discussed it with his wife. Another said he mentioned it to his daughter.” Now the voice has a rich layer of satisfaction.

This is what she remembers. A month after the December 16 protests, she says, the college organized a march – by all accounts an unconvincing ritual (and not one that would qualify as resistance in Sujaya’s paper). “I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. They were holding placards and walking about. A bunch of them came to me afterwards and complained, ‘Ma’am, you know the class reps told us the previous day to “dress decently”! Doesn’t it defeat the purpose?’” she laughs.

When the rumbles about rape didn’t die down (and it wasn’t going to all year) she encouraged her students to organize a discussion rather than have indignation meetings at every corner. While December 16 and the ongoing coverage had shaken parents and young women, making many of them feel like they lived in a rabid, foaming, barbaric world, from her vantage point inside a women’s college, Sujaya thinks little has changed for young women in the two decades she’s been there. And post- December 16, even her teenaged sons have raised the ante on unexamined protectiveness, picking her up from bus stops and mildly complaining about their mother taking risks, like walking home with new acquaintances.

“I feel that the few students who are thinking about the issues that affect them are not talking about it. But otherwise, there is just a lot of talk. And at home, parents are just more worried. And they no longer say things like: When you go out you may get felt up. It is ‘You will get raped.’ And there is no other conversation. Neither school nor parents teach them anything about life. Girls come in and they are just trying to figure out everything about love, sex, men, on their own.”

Sujaya asked her colleague Nithin Manayath to help the students invite the human rights lawyer Arvind Narrain to the discussion, and left them to think through the rest of the logistics themselves. So far, the panel discussion was going the same direction as the march.

Eight months after the fact, Sujaya now remembers Ashwin Mohan, one of the other panelists, as “someone who ran a fitness centre”. Before the seminar, Ashwin had come to discuss self-defense at one of the college’s weekly value-education classes (an alternative to catechism for non-Catholic students). The students in her class reported rather mixed  responses to him. Sujaya says, “I think he told them that fitness is the need of the hour. So they can defend themselves. The girls said he sounded irritating. Others said he spoke well. So I said that they could invite him to this seminar if they wanted, as long as he wasn’t disruptive.”

The seminar took place one late afternoon in February (or January, no one seems to remember). Arvind Narrain, the human rights lawyer from Alternate Law Forum (ALF) in Bangalore began speaking first. Sujaya says there were some teachers who were a bit unhappy because in the course of describing the clauses of the Justice Verma recommendations Arvind used words such as penis, vagina, penetrative, non-penetrative. “Does he have to be so explicit,” they grumbled.

As far as some of the MCC teachers were concerned, December 16 had unleashed a sea of explicitness that they would rather not deal with (in another era, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal had done the same. MCC teachers had to suddenly deal with students asking whether ‘oral sex’ is a proper phrase for kissing). The head of one department even told her students, without any sense of cliché, that rapes happen because of the clothes young women wear.

But the teachers weren’t the ones to shut down Arvind’s presentation. Almost as soon as he began speaking, Ashwin Mohan (the self-defense trainer next to him on stage) interrupted him. He asked Arvind, “Excuse me, can you define consent?”

Arvind was a bit startled but explained that “the law defines consent as an ‘unequivocal voluntary agreement’ when the person, by words, gestures or non-verbal communication communicates willingness.”

At this, Ashwin reportedly turned to the women in the audience and said, “You heard it, girls. Anything you do is consent.”

This was perhaps the first sign that things were not going to be business as usual at this seminar.

Or perhaps the first sign was when everyone realized that Ashwin was wearing dark glasses indoors.

Sujaya remembers: “He seemed to be a bit of an attention seeker. He flexed his muscles. He and Arvind represented binaries on that stage,” She laughs again. “There was Arvind, all gentle, who was softly getting the ideas across in his academic way, and there was Ashwin with all his aggressive body language. He sat on the table. No. First he was behind the table and then he swung his legs over, sat on the table and asked the girls, ‘Do you remember me?’”

*  *  *

Arvind’s parents’ old house has been lightly remodeled to accommodate the small group of lawyers and activists who form the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a collective that was formed in 2000.

It’s the end of the workday. It is also, in other ways, the beginning of another kind of workday. A meeting is about to start to discuss some action around the Land Acquisition Bill.

Earlier that week, my former editor Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka magazine had been accused of raping a young colleague. Though it had been two years since I left the magazine, within an hour of the leaking of his first apology email my phone and inbox were flooded with inquisitive, gossip-seeking queries from acquaintances. The occasional twitchiness, joke and sneer, which I’d gotten used to in the years I’d worked at Tehelka, were now replaced by guffaws and unfunny jokes about elevators and expressions of disgust.

Coming into ALF that evening to talk with Arvind about the MCC rape seminar, I felt queasy at the thought of having to come up with something glib to say about Tarun and the victim and Tehelka. Arvind kindly avoided asking. Lawrence Liang, Arvind’s colleague and my friend, came out of another room to say hello. We spent 10 minutes glooming over the staggeringly seamy news about Tehelka coming out every hour and our common acquaintances’ and friends’ staggering capacity for general malice and general schadenfreude over the scandal. The spectacle of Tarun’s friends, acquaintances and former girlfriends (not to mention powerful middle-aged men, who have never been forced to examine their attitudes towards female colleagues) recanting fast, recanting furious was making me ill. When both attacker and survivor were People Like Us, it was as if everyone thought they needed to throw salt over their shoulder to ward off the evil eye. Announcing that they had ‘always known Tarun had been like that.’

Tarun had been a kind, sometimes annoying and endlessly creative presence in my life for most of the five years I worked at Tehelka. To that, I now had to add a new bank of images of a venal, greedy and violent Tarun. I wished for simple disgust rather than dense confusion. I felt terrible for my young former colleague, who had loved her job and Tehelka. And terrible for my former editor, whose behavior fell neatly into a hackneyed grid of personality and gender and class and generation and cultural access. As my friend and filmmaker Paromita Vohra wrote, the view that “He doesn't take no for an answer” is “how we admiringly describe successful men.”

Would I have the clarity to fight the things that made my life good, everything that I loved, the way my former colleague was doing? Would I have rationalized it away instead? I wasn’t sure that week.

That evening at ALF, one room was darkened in consideration of a cat who was glowering over her boxful of kittens. Arvind and his colleague Vinay Sreenivasa made tea. This is one of my favorite memories of working in NGOs: hospitality powered entirely by very strong tea. Vinay urged herbal tea but we resisted. He is doing a range of things at ALF, from promoting open software to helping street vendors form trade unions. This is my other favorite memory about working in NGOs: constantly bumping into people who live and work in varying degrees of discomfort and difficulty, quixotic and rarely stopping to think like the centipede in the poem, "Which leg moves after which?"

That week after the Tehelka scandal broke, I remembered over and over again a story about an ethical dilemma some NGO friends had faced a few years ago. A colleague of theirs, in the big international NGO they all worked in, had been that classic repeat offender. He had felt up multiple female colleagues, was violent and abusive to a female colleague with whom he had been in a relationship with, and all the while presented a seraphic, sulky, self-righteous face to the world.

The big dilemma my friends faced was this: at the annual retreat, should all the women break into his room at night and beat him up? Or should they ask for an official sexual harassment committee to be formed? The woman who had had the worst time was the one finally who demanded a solution with dignity.

Later, back in the city after the retreat, an official sexual harassment complaints committee was formed. Eventually, the committee asked for him to be fired. The management asked him to resign instead. And he merely moved on to another large NGO. As far as I know, this man is still floating about with the feathery wings of righteousness. And as far as I know, my friends still have to deal with him socially and professionally.

Though over the years ALF has felt an inchoate resistance to policing each other, after the Tehelka scandal ALF swiftly formed a sexual harassment complaints committee. “We don’t want to push our luck any further,” Lawrence said to me.

Aarti Mundkur, another of Arvind’s colleagues, also floated by the evening I visited. Aarti, 34, has an unstoppable stream of macho, grinning gripes about her terrifying workload. She largely represents women and over the years has represented many sexual assault survivors

That day, she was ill. “I am dying of malaria.” There’s the grin.

“Why don’t you take the week off?” I asked.

“I can’t, ya!” Aarti said.

“What if you drop dead?”

“Then my clients will have to find someone else.”

The grin grows wider. Partly because Sister Celia has just walked in. Sixty-something Sr. Celia, the convenor of the Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Union, had come for the Land Bill meeting. Vinay walked around pressing herbal tea on all of us again but we continued to resist. Sr. Celia had a bouquet of flowers and we teased her mildly about a secret admirer. Sr. Celia is unshaken by any such attempts at levity or useless attempts to scandalize her. She speaks English with an addictive, thick accent – a mix of Malayalam and Kannada. Instead of paying attention to us, she was enthusiastically telling us the story of a young activist she had met that day.

She had met the Narmada Bachao Andolan activist earlier in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh. Only, all those times the activist had been a man. The man had since begun the transformation to a woman. Now, despite the NBA old guard’s dubiousness, the activist had stayed put in Barwani and continued her work as before. In the words of the infinitely meme’able poster, she had kept calm and carried on. Only, as Sr. Celia pointed out excitedly, where once was a retiring, quiet young man there is now an outspoken young woman “giving her opinion and disagreeing and giving speeches”.

Everyone around the table drinking tea smiled and stopped short of actually sighing aloud for this rare happy ending. This mild, schmaltzy happiness carried Arvind and me into a conversation about rape and the year gone by.

*  *  *

Since 2010, Arvind has been assiduously lobbying for a gender-neutral rape law. He says he strongly feels that is was the only way to help the transgender community that he works with, as well as male rape victims (and not just those in conflict zones and prisons). He has faced very strong opposition from women’s groups, from friends and from allies who have argued that “making the accused gender-neutral means that complaints by women can be met with counter-complaints to get them to withdraw.”

Quoting the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray Arvind once said that gender and sexuality should be two lips that speak as one. The memory of this literary feint and the annoyed response it got makes him smile. Over the last few years, he has had to scale down his hope of a rape law that is gender-neutral for both perpetrator and victim, to a rape law that is gender-neutral only for the victim.
 
For Arvind, therefore, the highlight of 2013 was certainly not an afternoon seminar at Mount Carmel College. The real highlight of his year was a consultation in Delhi organized by senior feminist lawyer Vrinda Grover and others in the women's movement – to make recommendations to the Justice Verma Committee.

At this meeting, Bangalore-based hijra activist Akkai Padmashali made a passionate argument supporting Arvind's proposal that the rape law should define the victim as ‘person’ rather than woman. This was the only thing that would prevent further humiliation and rage if a transgender needed to file a complaint of sexual assault, she said. “Otherwise, I’ll go to a police station and the policeman will lift up my sari to check whether I’m a man,” she argued. The consultations continued stormily, but Akkai had been very convincing. Arvind says, “I am really not someone who usually takes an out-there position and sticks to it, but this time I stood my ground. And I felt that Akkai, the one and only Akkai, had won game, set and match.” In February, when the Union government issued a new anti-rape ordinance, it did seem to Arvind that Akkai had carried the day since the ordinance defined rape as gender-neutral.

However, in March the related Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill passed in the Lok Sabha turned out to be entirely gender-specific again.

Another upcoming highlight in Arvind’s 2013 calendar was a November conference at the National Law School India University, Bangalore where he was to be pitched against MCC lecturer and queer rights commentator Nithin Manayath. The session was hopefully titled Section 377: A House Divided. The hope being that Nithin and Arvind would go head to head. Now, as a gay rights activist Arvind was on the frontline of the historic 2009 reading down of Section 377 in the Delhi High Court. But Nithin has publicly taken the position, again and again, that the euphoria around Section 377 is “an upper-class gay identified male vision” that actually threatened the rights of hijras by making their “public erotic acts” illegal. Arvind was looking forward to a formal debate because, he said, “I can’t respond to something like this in Facebook comments.”

In all this, the MCC seminar seemed distant and misty to him. But he tried to jog his memory. “I thought it was going to be a regular event. I was just going to make a presentation about the Justice Verma recommendations. My memory is that the self-defence guy and this other young guy, perhaps a student from Joseph’s [College], just kept talking nonsense and saying the women were overreacting. [And] that self-defense guy kept interrupting me and waving a Kermit the Frog puppet at me and I kept losing my train of thought.”

*  *  *

No one seems to be able to remember when this seminar happened. Nithin doesn’t either. Thirty five-year-old Nithin Manayath and I have been friends from before he began teaching at Mount Carmel College eight years ago. Over the years, he’s seen plenty of ebbs and tides in the conversations around rape and gender. This year, of course, has seen a lot of spikes in that chart. Some small, some big. When Kalki Koechlin uploaded her spoof video, ‘Rape it’s Your Fault’, it went viral on campus. “Of course it came up for discussion in my class because some second year student didn’t get the register, she read the irony literally and was very upset,” Nithin says.

One of the small absurdities this year has been the wide anti-Delhi wave. “Five of my students from last semester had entrance exams for their post grad courses in Delhi,” he says. “They had huge fights with their parents, who told them that Delhi was now simply out of the question and they had to pick colleges elsewhere.”

Nithin remembers quite a lot from the seminar. This is what he told me.

“[The self-defense trainer] Ashwin had conducted an earlier workshop with some group of students. The big point of contention there was that he told them that women should learn self-defense, and the students were like, why should we? Why shouldn’t boys learn self-control?”

“The students came to me two days before the event. I wasn’t convinced at the time Ashwin was any sort of anti-feminist counter. After all, what was he doing, I thought. All he was saying was that women should learn self-defense. The students were going to make some presentations about the Delhi gang rape. I convinced them to talk about their own experiences and understanding instead. Sujaya wanted me to moderate and I didn’t think that was a good idea, since it would bring the count of men on stage to three, all placed in some sort of expert mode, while the rest [on stage would be] female students. Oh, there was also one of the girl’s boyfriends on the panel. I told the girls to brief him, to restrict it in terms of his own understanding, how does he think of sexual assault. Does he think of it in terms of only women, what does he understand etc.

“On the day, I entered 20 minutes late and there was already a lot of tension in the room. It was in the old auditorium and all the second years were there Ashwin seemed to have some nervous energy. The first thing I saw was that Ashwin was wearing dark glasses. And he was playing with his water bottle and some sort of bottle cozy, a teddy bear perhaps. It looked like he was humping the bear with the bottle.

“[The lawyer] Arvind was discussing consent. He was at the podium. Ashwin jumped up and said, ‘What is consent, what is consent?’ When Arvind defined it, Ashwin said, ‘So girls, learn to control your gestures and words.’”

How did the student body react to this? “The students were very angry with Ashwin. Nobody was laughing. If there was even a single laugh, it was in that I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening kind of way. Sujaya said to me ‘You have to do something to moderate.’ So I stepped in and said, let’s stick to the format. When Arvind finished we had a brief Q&A session. [And] this is where some of the craziest things happened.

“First, a slightly strange girl stood up and asked in a disoriented way, ‘What are you doing coming to a girls’ college and telling us this? Why are you telling us all this way?’ She asked it in this strange, angry way. The students and everybody on the panel seemed confused. Next thing, a teacher sort of escorted her out. Later, there was some story of she-was-schizophrenic floating about.”

I remembered an earlier conversation with Nithin about a big shift he’d observed on campus in recent years: the pathologizing of rebellion. How parents look at their angry daughters and conclude, in a combination of kindly resignation and panic: “She must be depressed.” And how doctors step up the ante with their quick diagnosis of the fashionable ‘bipolar disorder’ and the rather less fashionable ‘schizophrenia’. So where there was once a young woman who was angry and unhappy with the world, there is now a young woman fighting a haze of powerful medication and everyone saying we-know-what’s-wrong-with-you. It is a response that makes the old-school “I will break your legs if you leave the house” parenting seem egalitarian in comparison.

To return to Nithin’s memories. The quick Q&A session continued to roil. Or perhaps there was an unmemorable student presentation at this point, he’s not sure. In any case, it all swiftly moved to a face-off between Ashwin and everyone else in the auditorium.

Ashwin argued that the law was not going to do anything. It hadn’t done anything in the December 16 case. “Then he said that you need men who love you, who can protect you, and went on about this love thing. It is only through love you can fight this. You need to love men back. He made it clear that all this is brotherly love, talked about the women who have tied rakhis on him. He said, ‘I love them. Whenever they are in trouble they call me.’ He also talked about how sometimes you are just dealing with brute strength and can’t do anything even if you have learnt self-defense. Then you need a group of people who will come to your rescue.”

A history lecturer, Kalpan Haridas, stood up to argue that of course the law is not everything, but it is some kind of response, a necessary response. Nithin says, “Now one of the student organizers’ friend or boyfriend, a boy from another college, I think, stood up and responded to this lecturer and said, “I know why you believe in the law. You believe in the law because you are old.” Nithin cracks up at the memory of this and the memory of the young man’s girlfriend clutching her head in embarrassment. “The girls were almost booing at this point. This boy was so silly. I think he had assumed that all the restless noises he had heard so far was of Ashwin becoming a hero and that he could become one too by saying the law is useless. He was reading it completely wrong.”

Nithin says he had to step out of the auditorium for some work at this point. When he returned, the session was over and a crowd had gathered pointedly around Arvind. Not a soul was talking to Ashwin.

*  *  *

Nandini, Akshata and Vinisha are three of the four student organizers of the seminar, all BA students at Mount Carmel College.

The three have hilarious memories of the event. And generally, too, they are in a state somewhere between disbelief, despair and the giggles at the world they live in.

When we meet at a coffee shop one November evening, Akshata tells me that her sister is getting engaged the next day. It’s a good thing her sister has finally picked a man she likes, she says, because all this while, the men she turned down would inevitably turn to the younger sister as their next pick. “As if I’d want to be with someone my sister’s rejected!” Akshata’s friends laugh at her outrage. Nandini points out that it’s all very Roja-like. Akshata has never heard of Roja so there is a small stumble. I had that aging moment that I also had while watching Gossip Girl’s Serena Van der Woodsen explain that Dirty Dancing is an old movie to a girl three years younger.

Akshata says, “When I first came to Mounts after two years in Christ College, I had a cultural shock. In the first couple of months I just felt like crying. Everybody was talking about how they were going to be married…as if that was the only way life was supposed to be. Then some of them had the audacity to say, ‘I used to think like you but I’ve changed my mind.’ I wanted to tell them, no, you never thought like me, ever! One day, after our first holiday our sociology teacher sat us down and asked, ‘Did you cook in the vacation?’ I cook regularly and I love to cook. But that has nothing to do with being a woman. Our teacher told the girls who said they hadn’t cooked, ‘You should learn to cook. How else are you going to take care of your husbands?’ Then all these girls were saying crazy things to the teacher: ‘I am training. I am decorating. I am meeting relatives because my mother thinks it’s important for me to learn to socialize because I will need to after I get married.’ I felt suicidal in those first few months before I met Nandini.”

Of course, it’s not just their unreconstructed classmates that drive these women crazy. Vinisha says, “Most of our teachers believe girls should cover themselves to prevent rape.” Akshata agrees, “[For the seminar,] we wanted to organize a discussion to talk about how it doesn’t matter how we dress. It doesn’t matter whether it’s provocative. The thing is, I had this teacher in my old college. During sex ed this teacher told us to dress decently to prevent rape. But we also had this outside counselor who said: It doesn’t matter, if a man decides he’s going to rape you then he’s just going to.”

“We thought we’d get a wider perspective and invite lots of different people. We were supposed to make presentations and try and draw in the viewpoint of the patriarchal girl, the feminist girl, the boy who thinks men and women are equal but different…but that didn’t quite work out,” says Akshata.

From the beginning of the event, Ashwin Mohan seemed to have represented all that they were baffled and fed up with. “He wanted to convince us that self-defense is required. He kept saying strange things like, he saw some fat girl passing by and told her ‘You are not getting any of this.’” ‘This’ in this account being some finger-waving, ‘sassy’ reference to Ashwin’s body.

The women briefly do a round of hair-splitting about Ashwin’s origin myth. Didn’t he say he became who he is because of the way he saw his mom being treated? But didn’t he also say his mother was very independent? They condemn him briefly as a self-contradicting misogynist.

Akshata says, “When we invited him, we really didn’t expect him to make other people cry.” Cry? “He made the other guy really upset. He said things like, having faith in law is like having faith in religion. I had invited Arvind. I was really mortified. Poor Arvind didn’t realize he was going to be bombarded by questions like: Hey man, what are you doing, hey man, what are you saying? I mean, Ashwin is the kind of guy who is like, I will protect you and I will do you. The first time I met him, he said, you are attracted to me, you are giving me sexual vibes. I mean, like, he is a 36-year-old man meeting me for the first time in a semi-formal situation. I know guys like Ashwin work by destroying a girl’s self-confidence. He called my friend fat.”

So what did he do on stage that day, I press the women. Nandini grins, “He was obviously tailoring it to some extent to it being a women’s college. Like, his onstage persona was all, ‘Girls, you need to kick some ass.’ But he was also saying crazy things like, ‘I can rape you and pay less than 50,000 and get out.’ Arvind’s presentation was useful. It was technical and it had a lot of information, but no one was paying any attention because Ashwin was doing things with this doll, [this] teddy bear, he was waving it behind people’s backs.”

Do they believe that the law is the way of accessing justice? That you can only achieve satisfaction, or, to use an Americanism, closure, through the law?

Yes, they all say fervently. The law is very important.

*  *  *

While all these three women and their friend Maithreyi, who also helped organize the seminar, are voluble and full of ideas about gender, they agree that Nandini is hardcore.

Maithreyi says, “I used to think I was hardcore, then I met Nandini. One day, I saw her wearing a t-shirt with a big print of naked breasts on it. I must have gulped at her and she said, “They’re just breasts, dude.” 

Nandini does combine some Big Lebowski air of laidback enthusiasm along with her passionate engagement with gender. She is 19 and dreams of other countries the way the filmmaker Selvaraghavan dreams of other worlds in his recent fantasy movie Irundam Ulagam: every dimension is primarily defined by the relationships between men and women. She has been on one college trip to Bhutan, which she loved because men looked her in the eyes when she talked and she and a friend had a chatty walk with a policeman for a couple of kilometers, something she’d never dream of doing in India. She is online a lot, where she’s found steadfast friends; several of them are Pakistani and she admires them for her feminist stands.

Sometimes, these dreams are not of other countries but of other ages. She read somewhere that in the Middle Ages, men who cried were considered stronger. This, regardless of its obviously unverifiable nature, braces her.

In her cheerful way, Nandini is very clear that Men are not the enemy and vilifying men is an obstacle to emancipation. It is the same cheerful way in which she talks about her first time having sex and how the sex was good and how annoyed she was that the boy initially thought he could get away with not buying condoms. (A mild detour about how she and other female friends always end up buying the condoms, because men are too sheepish or reluctant.) “I mean, I wish he had told me,” she says. “I had a stash at home because my friends and I had this tradition of giving each other a box on our 18th birthdays and I had just had my birthday.”

Feminism is the main thread of all of her conversations. It is what she reads, watches and thinks about. Nandini’s feminism is of the everyday variety, picked up from blogs and YouTube videos and online conversations. It is a feminism that involves endlessly analyzing her own and others’ actions to see how they pass the litmus test of ethical behavior. 

Situation #1: Nandini takes buses everywhere, even though she is the one who stays out the latest among the group. She thinks buses are safe even though there are sometimes creepy men staring. Autos are scary, she says.

Once, Nandini missed the last bus home by a few seconds. She had a small chance of catching up with it at the next stop if she found an auto for the 1km stretch. No sign of an auto, but a car stopped. A man offered her a lift. On an impulse, she hopped in. The man offered to drive Nandini all the way home but she firmly declined. When she caught sight of the bus she pressed the man to slow down, though he was still offering to drive her further. She opened the door to step out and the man grabbed her hand. Was he trying to keep her in the car or was he trying to prevent her from jumping in front of traffic? Nandini doesn’t know, but it still bothers her that she might have mistaken his perfectly good intentions and behaved as if he was a brute.

Situation #2: Nandini told her mother that some years ago her younger sister had been sexually assaulted by their father’s brother. Her mother told her, “He was young. Let it go.” Nandini cannot think of any way of justifying this. Her sister, not so unusually, blames Nandini. She also is frightened of sex and intimacy.

“I heard on the grapevine that my father used to participate in political rallies,” she says. “That he’s even gone to jail. But me, he always thinks I’m influenced easily, that I do things only because other people tell me to do them.” Her parents are engineers and they met, Nandini knows hazily, and fell in love in college. She is still startled by and disapproving of when her father told her peevishly that he only married her mother because she begged him to. “Thanks for violating her privacy, father.” Nandini uses the word ‘hypocrites’ to describe her parents much more mildly than millennia of young people have. Over the years, by continuously breaking the rules, she has broken her parents down significantly, but there seems to be little affection.

Nandini does not speak to her parents. “My parents speak Telugu at home. And I’ve stopped speaking Telugu over the years. I stutter and stammer. And I feel like an asshole speaking in English to them. So I don’t speak to them.” What is probably even more distancing than Nandini’s refusal to speak Telugu is her assiduous engagement with a dream of equality.

A friend of Nandini’s moved out of home some months ago and is now on affectionate loving terms with the mother she couldn’t stand to be around earlier. This thought intrigues her. Does she too want to leave home?

“If I could, I’d leave a note saying I’m travelling, don’t worry, I will be safe. And never call them again.”

*  *  *

In the way Nandini is fairly sure her sister will fall apart without her, Meena also worries how her parents will deal with her impending flight.

Over several weeks this summer, Meena talked to me about how her life has changed since December 16. She is a final year BA student in Bangalore and the younger daughter of an affluent family. Her parents left a small village in their 20s and now live very well as part of Bangalore’s new economy. Meena’s sister and she were always assured that their family would support their decisions to study whatever they liked, wherever they wanted. Meena is making plans to go to Europe next year. She longs to leave home.

Meena has never travelled alone. Though she has travelled abroad with her family, she has never been anywhere in India other than Bangalore and Kerala – nowhere north of Hebbal flyover, she jokes.

In the city, she never takes buses. She is usually dropped and picked up in a car everywhere. If she takes an auto, she must tell her family, negotiate a little bit, beforehand.

She has an expensive camera, lovely clothes, all the books she wants. She doesn’t possess a bank account and is convinced that asking her parents to be allowed to start one would hurt their feelings. She jokes about anorexia. Her doctor told her that she is malnutritioned She seems to live on the ice-cold bottles of Coke she carries around, which she jokes about too. Some brittle laughter accompanies most of her complaints about her unchallenging coursework, her feuding parents, scamming her therapists. She is simultaneously confiding and cautious.

Since December 16 last year, Meena’s parents have been more and more panicked about her leaving the house. She says, “My mother keeps talking about the terrible things that happen out there. She was even talking about the Junko Furuta case”.

What’s that, I ask.

“You don’t know about it? It’s a really gruesome, horrible gang rape story from Japan. You don’t know about it? Really? Everyone was sharing it [online] all the time.”

I didn’t look up the Junko Furuta case. Rape was on the front page every day this year, and with much voyeuristic exuberance. And I certainly didn’t want to read anything that was probably going to be like those eye-popping Japanese pink movies. Months later when I did look it up, I wished I hadn’t.

Meanwhile, Meena’s refrain of wanting to leave home was getting more complicated and sad. Her boyfriend and she have broken up. On an unrelated note, her parents have taken to checking her bag ever since she was caught with an exceptionally large stash of weed. “They’ve been checking my bag since I was 13 when they first realized I was smoking up. I’ve been caught lots of times. This time, my father really flipped. He asked, ‘Are you a peddler?’”

One afternoon, when we meet she talks about how depressed she is, how she wants to get out of home. “I am counting the days. But I don’t know what they are going to do when I leave.” She is convinced that her parents’ fragile peace will be shattered irreparably when they no longer have her to be paranoid about.

We don’t hang out for a while. Then one night, she messages saying she needs me to talk to a friend who has been raped. They are not sure what to do next. I didn’t either till last summer, when I worked on writing a primer on what do you do if you have been raped.

I’ve spent most of the last 10 years telling myself rape is not the end of the world, but it took some doing to not be surprised by the calm voice that called me a few minutes later. Meena’s friend Paloma told me that she had been at a coke party in Manipal where she was visiting a friend. “I fell asleep and I woke up with a guy on top of me. He had raped me.” Taking cue from her matter-from-fact tone, I tried to recap the primer for her: Go to a doctor asap, file a case with the police if you want to, go to a therapist. I urged her to return home to Bangalore right away. I gave her phone numbers of doctors.

Paloma listened carefully, thanked me, and that was the last I heard from her. Not wanting to intrude, I asked Meena a couple of times if her friend was okay. Meena said that Paloma was reluctant to go to a doctor and was crashing at another friend’s place in Bangalore. She doesn’t want to go to her parents, she said.

When I was 19, I once went for an evening walk in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park with a boy I had a crush on. I had heard that cops trawl the park for couples making out. I found the rumors baffling, given that any morning in the park usually featured at least three blithe and fearless exhibitionists. (Attending Mount Carmel College as a student had immunized me to two things: the exhibitionists who lined the streets outside college with their pants open and the rumors that sex-starved Mount Carmel girls had once raped a milkman.)

That evening, this boy and I were just getting to know each other so walking in a quiet path was all that was on the cards. I was struck speechless when two cops appeared suddenly and swiftly moved into “We are arresting you for prostitution.”

In the next few minutes, between a distraction that the boy created and some really fast running, we left behind the heaving policemen and sealed our romance for a brief few weeks. But right then, as the policemen loomed and threatened, I remember thinking that it would be easier to go to jail than to explain to my family that I was with a boy in a park. Or anywhere.

I remembered that evening in the park in 2002 when a man said to be impersonating a policeman raped a Pune University law student who was hanging out with her boyfriend. I thought of it again in 2005 when I read constable Atmaram More’s confession of how he raped the teenager he found on Marine Drive with her boyfriend. “I put fear in the girl's mind that if she does not let me have sex with her, I will let her parents know about her actions. I then forcefully raped her.”

Thirteen years after my 10 minute run-in in the park, this little group of women from Mount Carmel College are still united in one thing: their complete lack of belief in their parents or any form of authority to look after their interests. Though notionally they believe in the law and justice, in practice they don’t believe that anyone in authority will ever help them.

Vinisha says with complete conviction that if ever she got raped or got into any sort of trouble, she would never go to her parents – they’d only blame her. “I was walking home one evening. Three boys on motorbikes suddenly appeared and starting driving round and round me, saying things. I finally got home really upset and told my mother. She said, ‘This is what happens when you come home so late.’ At that moment I’d just wanted her to say something comforting.”

Who would you turn to if you were in trouble, I asked the women.

Our friends, they all said. In practice this seems to be true. One of their friends, a young Nepali woman, found that she couldn’t sustain her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend back home in Kathmandu. She broke it off but he wasn’t quite ready to be ‘former’ yet. He turned up in Bangalore outside the college gates, introducing himself to a flood of women leaving the building and asking whether they knew his girlfriend. When Vinisha and Nandini first caught sight of this situation, they smuggled their friend out through another exit and then went to distract the boy. It took several days of their concerted efforts to persuade him to leave their friend alone.

*  *  *

The women had said various rude things about him. He has a Napoleon complex, one of them had claimed. He called my friend fat, another said. He told me that I was sexually attracted to him, one scoffed. They had been some severe complaints about Ashwin.

I’d come quite prepared to despise or be amused. I had tried to talk myself out of this silly mood, but it was a bit hard. Men do say hilarious things about women. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Recently, I remembered a distant uncle whose house I was staying in one night. His wife, small and energetic, ran the house, looked after the children and was rumored to be responsible for making sure her husband studied for his medical college exams and then kept his job.

I was 16 and my uncle asked me suitably, “What do you plan to do when you finish college?” The plans changed every day, but that week it was civil service. When I told my uncle he looked alarmed. He said, “No, no, no. Why do you want to do that?” Familiar as I was with bizarre, male relatives, this was still a bit strange. It took a bit of mumbling and throat clearing before he explained that he knew a pair of sisters who had both gone into the civil services, and both had married non-Malayalis. I backed away quietly so as to not alarm him further.

A full year later, I met this uncle again (only for the second time in my life). Every time he looked at me, he seemed twitchy. Some hours later he burst out, “I hope you’ve changed your mind about the civil service. I told you, if you join the civil service it will be very bad. You will marry a non-Malayali.”

When Ashwin arrives at his classroom on the top floor of a building in Bangalore’s Koramangala, he looks quiet and serious. He’s a wiry 36-year-old with grey in his thick hair and in his stubble. He is wearing a t-shirt and loose pants. A nervous-looking young woman accompanies him and introduces herself as Rimi, Ashwin’s student.  We enter the large empty hall. In one corner is a six-foot pile of thick exercise mats.

We sit down to talk as the students pour in. They enter silently, shushed entirely by Ashwin’s senior student and ‘adopted’ brother, a grinning man in his twenties. He had loped in and leaped on top of the pile of mattresses where he stayed for the duration of the class. At some point a young woman also leapt like a cat next to him.

Through the conversation, I am mildly distracted. First, by the Children of the Corn discipline with which the students listen silently to our conversation in one corner of the hall. They lie about with the studied abandon of advanced yoga and dance students, but they don’t breathe a word. Second, I’m distracted by the cuddling couple on top of the mattresses. I try not to giggle nervously from the commune-vibe I’m getting.

Ashwin, to begin with, speaks as dryly as the dust on an Egyptian mummy. Only later does he relax and make mocking faces and whiny noises to imitate the ignorant public who don’t understand his ways.

Even when he does stay on the dry and factual, some quality of the bizarre usually creeps in. I ask him about his interest in self-defense, and I hear the story that I’ve read before. Of how he was bullied and beaten badly by older kids when he was a child. Except he tells me, “I was taught by an assassin.” “Assassin?” I ask. “Yes, an assassin. Our society has many such people. They live in the shadows and kill. This assassin was hiding out in my neighborhood. He told me, you want to learn how to protect yourself? Go to Shivajinagar and pick a fight with someone every day for the next six months. [So] I went there and insulted people every day and picked fights. After 10 days I knew how to protect himself.” How old was he when this happened? “Eleven,” he says. Subsequently, he says, he studied a range of martial arts.

I ask Ashwin what he remembers of the seminar at Mount Carmel College. His version of events is this.

When, after the first workshop he was invited to participate in the seminar, Ashwin asked the student organizer why he was being invited. “They told me they want some men to bash up in the seminar.” I demur. Surely it couldn’t have been that. But Ashwin is sure he was being set up as the opposition, the punching bag. “So I wore dark glasses.” “Why?” “To get their attention… I took my puppet along.” Ah, it was a puppet. “What puppet was it?” I ask. “It was a lion,” he answers blandly.

Ashwin says he didn’t think the lawyer fellow was talking sense. (He had no answers. He couldn’t define ‘consent’.) And the girls were not interested in what he had to say. They just wanted to talk.

So what was it that he wanted to say? He wanted to tell them that the law cannot change anything as long as society has “mandates” for men and women. The mandate for men, according to him, is that they have lots of sex and make lots of money and become strong. The mandate for women is to make little money, be weak and not have sexual appetites.

He says that he was awakened to the plight of women in art school, where he saw his female classmates struggling at part-time jobs constantly being pawed or propositioned. He began by teaching martial arts-inspired self-defense technique classes on campus. Slowly, this became a full-time passion.

“I didn’t know what I was doing then. I was teaching them all wrong. I was teaching them full-on fighting and tackling.”

And now? “Now I teach them much more complicated responses. I teach them to think, to be prepared, to respond fast.”

Is it true that he told students at Mount Carmel that learning self-defense could have prevented the gang rape and murder in the December 16 case? “Certainly,” he says with confidence. In Ashwin’s imagining of the events of that night, both the young woman and her male friend talked back and further enraged the attackers who were eager to prove to each other their manliness. “I’m sure neither of them [the girl and her friend] were physically fit. That man may have played some sports in school and that’s probably it. They were not ready for the fight that had been started.” I’m reminded irresistibly of Rukhsana, the Mumbai-based mehndi artist in the short film Dream Girls (also on Yahoo! Originals). Making fun of the idea of her daughters carrying pepper sprays, Rukhsana says, “Bachche kya jang ladne jaayenge ya padne jaayenge? (Will kids go to war or go to study?)” But in Ashwin’s view of the world, it is a war,  a war that women should be ready for. And to not be ready is to live in denial.

Ashwin has dozens of Man Bit Dog, Girl Hit Boy stories. In one of the strangest, he describes a student who realized she was being groped by a man in a bus. Instead of turning to the groper, she slapped the man next to him. Then she turned to the groper and slyly asked him, “What kind of a man are you – standing and watching while this other fellow gropes me?” Leaving the actual groper sputtering his self-righteousness, she left. “Really ballsy woman,” Ashwin says admiringly.

It is a funny story but just all wrong. It is only right because a different Geneva Convention operates in the war that Ashwin is training women for. Did he tell women at MCC that they need men to protect them? “No!” he spits, “Why would I tell them that? What I may have told them is that they can ask men for help. If you have the presence of mind, if you are ready, you can even get other people around you to fight for you. You can tell people, do this. Do that. Beat this guy. I teach my students to be ready physically and mentally.”

That is why he expresses contempt of the women he met at MCC. “They just wanted to talk about feminism and they kept saying men should change. They were just not ready. They have to stop seeing themselves as victims and see themselves as targets. It’s a big shift.”

Why did he call a girl that he met there fat? “Because she was fat,” he says flatly.

I ask carefully if there was any context for his needing to call her fat. “She kept talking about how she was going to fight men and I told her, you are fat, you can’t fight anyone unless you are fit and healthy.” This sounds reasonable. At least until he starts talking about how fat is a toxin. Pseudoscience is painful at the best of times, and I was already a little alarmed by another conversation.

I ask Ashwin about how his personal life has changed through his insights into men and women. His answers are complicated and simple. “I don’t have much sex. I don’t make much money. I do like being physically strong, so I’ve not changed on that front from the mandate for men.” What about family, lovers, friends? “My father can’t stand that I’ve become strong. I was married for many years. My wife didn’t want to change from the mandate for women.” Did he try to talk to her about how he felt? “It went over her head,” he says, and quickly adds that he has a new girlfriend he’s very happy with now because she understands. Who? He points to Rimi, the young student he walked in with. I try not to think about how nervous and painfully thin she seems. She can apparently do 200-odd push-ups at one go so she can’t be in physical trouble, I tell myself. But when, a little while later, Ashwin’s 60-something mother walks in and he compliments her too on having lost weight since he last saw her, I wonder again about his preoccupations.

Ashwin’s mother was among Karnataka’s first group of female engineers and has seen a lot of discrimination in her day. As she talks, I observe the startling ease with which she sits on the floor, in a quasi vajraasana pose on her heels. I ask her about it and she says that going to her son’s classes once in a few weeks has taken away all her aches and given her flexibility.

As I watch Ashwin patiently practice with a male student on perfecting his grip and trying to wrestle him over, I thought of what Nithin had told me about the discussions in his class after the seminar. As it is for Ashwin, teaching is the raison d'être of Nithin’s life, so much so that there is no need to name it. To teach steadily year after year is what he has wanted to do always. After the seminar, he led a discussion about it in his class. “I asked them whether it matters how people are saying things, not just what they are saying, does it change meaning completely? Does it change our responses? We had earlier talked in class about the limitations of the law as a structure and the tensions between community and the law. We’ve talked about khap panchayats and the police. How they work together. What happens when they are not working together? So I asked if you remove the way in which Ashwin was saying things – what we are left with [is] this idea [that] you need to love people around you. And if you love enough people around you then you won’t face violence. And even if you face violence you will have a way of dealing with it. Is this any different from the way the law sets itself up as? The law encompasses a community in its whole to say: we will deliver justice to you. Similarly, you are supposed to have this affective relationship with the law.”

The students had a range of responses in this discussion. There were, of course, a few students who were comfortable with separating the content of Ashwin’s interventions from his tone. But many argued that how Ashwin spoke did matter as much as what he said, since it changed what he said. Because if he said it in this violent or combative manner where he seemed to think that it was something only he was thinking and other people would never agree with him, then surely he was not thinking in that community-based way, in terms of the love that he seems to think is the answer. Perhaps that idea of love should also enter how he communicates.

As I leave Ashwin’s class hall, I hear him telling his students, “You are a mosquito’s target. You are not a mosquito’s victim.”

*  *  *

I am 34 now and the world has not come to an end. However, in the last few years I’ve had a better understanding of why my friends, I and other Indian middle-class women have felt, still feel, that sense of being on a precipice. It is a combination of several things.

One, we can find glimpses of our lives in pop culture but few robust representations of it. So little in pop culture captures our sense of every inch of freedom being carefully negotiated or violently fought for at home. So little in pop culture knows our bargains and lies. Nothing in pop culture knows our shock, confusion and guilt on the occasions when we discover that we can stop fighting, that the opposition has called a time out.

Two, young Indian women feature in all discussions largely as victims and, at best, the brave survivors of rape, acid attacks, dowry deaths, khap killings, police torture and other gruesome fates.  The rhetoric of Indian women being under siege seems to be the only one available.

In January this year, I spoke to students at an international school in Pune about the December 16 Delhi gang rape and the ensuing protests for justice. I found myself fascinated by the responses of some of the teachers (some NRI, some foreign) after my lecture. They were enraged at my suggestion that India may not necessarily be the rape capital of the world and that ‘rape capital’ may not be a useful formulation in any case. When I responded with statistics of the matching dismal conviction rates in the West, they were keen to cite anecdotal evidence. When I responded with anecdotal evidence, they were keen to cite rape statistics in India. It seemed necessary for their unshattered worldview that India continue to be a hellhole where women are either victims or survivors.

As the philosopher Denise Riley once wrote, “It’s not possible to live twenty four hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. Gendered self­ consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.” This is the third reason why we still feel on the precipice. Much of the conversation about being a woman in India assumes that your flickering gendered self-consciousness does not flicker. It assumes that your anxiety and fear about being an Indian woman burns relentlessly. We learn with our mothers’ milk that this is a difficult country to be a woman in. Watch out, watch out, watch out.

So, for the days and months and years that we felt we had won battles at home and elsewhere, when we didn’t feel oppressed, when we won without trying, what we were left was the sense of being an aberration, an imposter, a fake Indian woman.

*  *  *

Maithreyi is the last of the group of students who helped organize the seminar at MCC. She seems younger than the rest. She’s certainly more earnest. December 16th changed her life irrevocably, she says. It made her more angry and more prepared in some ways.

For instance, when she’s riding her scooter and hears car drivers honk impatiently, she now sees it not as an attack on her but as an act of contempt towards women drivers. Recently on a street near her house, as she was driving by she saw a man beating his wife while the neighbors just watched. She says she jumped off her scooter and muscled her way in. Flashing her student id for a second, she pretended to be a social worker and threatened to report the man and all those watching to the police. No more crap, could be her t-shirt.

She is also the first of the lot who passionately believes in the death sentence for rapists.

But Maithreyi is also passionate in her truth telling. She talks about other kinds of pressures closer home. When she was 15, she says she went through an exceptionally lonely time. She had moved schools, had no friends and was doing badly in exams. Her parents were going through a tough financial time and her mother felt compelled to join the family business “to steady my father”. After school, she was alone at home often till midnight. Into her life came a 17-year-old boyfriend who was loving and interested in everything she had to say.

“I don’t know how but when I think of how young he was then, he must have been a criminal mastermind,” she says. This boyfriend put a lot of pressure on her to go further sexually than she wanted to, and she caved. “I really loved him. Today, I wouldn’t let anyone pressure me like that but then it was different.” More, he persuaded her to steal money and expensive things from her family for him. He has convincing sob stories, she says, and she did it for a long time. Until her family found out.

She says, “I will always be ashamed of it but I let my parents think it was the servant. They even filed a police complaint. And then my mother realized it was I. She was so upset because they had blamed the servant. She was so angry.”

Maithreyi’s parents suspected that the money was going somewhere and grilled her to confess, but she wouldn’t give up her Fagin. She took the blame. “My parents beat me black and blue. I stopped going to school. I still wouldn’t tell them who it was.”

Eventually, Maithreyi’s father saw how deeply their little family had been damaged by all of this and worked to put it behind them. Today, by her account, Maithreyi has an exceptionally strong and open relationship with both her parents. She is planning to do a masters in psychology. “I discuss everything with them. I know I can face anything in the world because they will support me.”

Like Nandini and the others, Maithreyi simply cannot stop talking about her gender-skewed world. It is a river of observation, outrage, confusion, and in Maithreyi’s case, determination. Maithreyi says it herself: “I am determined.” She says it in that Bangalore way – deter-my-nd – which somehow is more determined than the regular determined.

Yes, you are ready to be a hero and rescue others, I ask Maithreyi gently, but do you think you will be okay yourself?

Her response is slow but clear. “You know, I’ve thought about it a lot. If ever I get raped, I will never hide myself. I will never use a pseudonym. Never. I will never stop fighting. I will never feel ashamed. Why should I?”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Nisha Susan is an editor for Yahoo! Originals and the women’s zine The Ladies Finger. Her fiction has been published by n+1 magazine, The Caravan, Out of Print, Pratilipi, Penguin and Zubaan. She is currently working on her first book. Follow her at twitter.com/chasingiamb

 

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    A former Maoist zonal commander. A retired head of state police. A democratic ultra-Left underdog. And an ex-MP expelled from Parliament. Their battle at the polls this week in one of India’s most ‘Naxal-infested’ constituencies encapsulates the political madness that is the method in Jharkhand.

  • Is this the Politician We Keep Saying We Want?Mon 7 Apr, 2014

    India’s finest investigative journalist has been smiling, bowing and asking with folded hands for votes in New Delhi. Is this an item from 2014’s list of snigger-worthy, believe-it-or-not career flips? Or is it exactly the kind of political engagement we wish our leading citizens would undertake? And can a non-career politician actually deliver?

  • How the India growth story has backfired on the HIV-positiveFri 4 Apr, 2014

    The millions of dollars of foreign funds pledged towards Indians with HIV-AIDS have dried up. A government directive does not allow NGOs to do anything other than tell people to be careful. Is the infrastructure that once offered succor to lakhs of HIV positive people crumbling because Indians are not interested in philanthropy?

  • How I Rediscovered the Indian BodyThu 3 Apr, 2014

    A massive new show of little-known art works from across India explores the various tradition of depicting the human body. Many of the masterpieces have never been publicly exhibited before, and were collected from obscure and provincial collections based on the curator Naman Ahuja’s painstaking research and field trips. Here, he recounts the most remarkable trips he took for the exhibition and his sometimes funny, sometimes unfunny encounters with the Indian bureaucracy.

  • Are We at the End of Caste Politics?Wed 2 Apr, 2014

    If there ever was a tradition of voting as a caste bloc, it's over. In the last decade, voters have increasingly voted on class rather than caste considerations. So why do our politicians and pundits refuse to acknowledge this?

  • Is the BJP's Confidence Cracking?Tue 1 Apr, 2014

    Why is the party lowering its post-poll seat tally? Is the hyped Modi wave fading? And is there truth to the conspiracy theory of a '160 Club' in the party?

  • Why is there a rising machismo of the Mahadev?Mon 31 Mar, 2014

    An explanation for the muscular, political Shiva.

  • In Ten Days Windows XP Is Going To Betray Your TrustFri 28 Mar, 2014

    If you still use and love XP, here’s what you can do.

  • For Persons with Disabilities, Elections Continue to Be One Giant NightmareThu 27 Mar, 2014

    Persons with disabilities comprise 15 percent of India's population and yet they struggle throughout the electoral process - from registering to vote to receiving assistance at polling booths to standing for elections. Why won't political parties cater to their interests?

  • If You Too Could Be Narendra Modi, Wouldn't You Be?Wed 26 Mar, 2014

    A double's guide to surreal power in the capital.

  • Why Indian doctors fear for their livesTue 25 Mar, 2014

    And how they are trying to cope with violent, rampaging relatives.

  • So you thought you knew why your city has a water shortage and needs a new dam?Mon 24 Mar, 2014

    Experts estimate that 20 to 50 percent of water pumped into the water supply system is ‘lost’ due to unexpected reasons such as leakage.

  • What's making India's Second Biggest Wine Industry Cry?Fri 21 Mar, 2014

    The Karnataka Wine Board is facing considerable opposition to its audacious plan to sell locally produced wine at government-run vegetable stores. But the state's wine industry has more problems than a lack of social acceptance. For one, the Europeans are coming.

  • Why Everyone Should Go On The Malwa Kabir YatraThu 20 Mar, 2014

    For the last five years people have come from around the country to join a journey celebrating Kabir in Madhya Pradesh. The traditional satsangs are joined by new and old Kabir lovers, urban and rural performers and the merely curious. A photojournalist recalls the first yatra, a journey that began a new variation of Kabirophilia.