For about a year now, I have been teaching 33 wide-eyed and wise middle schoolers. As we have read fiction, studied history, exchanged stories, and tried to understand the world together, I have found my students to be wonderfully curious and innately compassionate. As the school year drew to a close, I wondered how to conclude our time together. Because our parting at the end of a fulfilling year together was bittersweet, I was looking for something both lighthearted and meaningful. I settled on an old favorite of my own, The Paper Bag Princess, an unconventional fairy tale that turns the ‘prince saves princess from the dragon’ stereotype upside down. As always, I was amazed by my students’ heartfelt and fresh responses to the story.
As I had expected, my middle schoolers with their keen sense of social justice intact, were immediately thrilled to see a brave, bright, and resilient female character in action. But perhaps one of the responses that moved me the most came from a boy who said he was relieved to see the princess doing the saving because it’s quite a burden for boys to always be the ones who have to come to rescue. We left class with hearts like helium balloons. If there is a balm to soothe all the world’s troubles, it is made up of the hopeful candor, unexpected grace, and unfailing empathy of middle schoolers.
But something happened this weekend that burst my helium balloon heart and brought me crashing down to the complex reality of the world we live in. Shortly before 6pm on Saturday evening, as my husband and I were on our way to dinner at a friend’s house, we had a small accident. I was driving. I am a reluctant and cautious driver. But, in an effort to become more comfortable navigating the tangle of traffic that is our city, I have started driving on weekends or during off peak hours. On Saturday evening, as I waited to take a right turn at a small circle, a white van came hurtling toward us and crashed into the rear of our car on the passenger side. We were standing completely still when this happened. And the driver of the van was talking on his cellphone. My husband got out of the car to talk to the driver of the van (who continued to talk on his cell phone). As I have stated all the facts, I must also say that my husband is calm and restrained in a crisis. He spoke respectfully as he pressed the driver to find out who owned the van and how we could get in touch with the owner. It turned out that the van was owned by a big technology company. To our dismay, the driver remained callous and I complained from my window that we had been standing completely still, and he had been talking on his cell phone, and that we should try and find the traffic police to lodge a complaint about the incident. He finally hopped out of his van, took one look at the damage, and then drove away.
As my husband got back into the car, he gently asked me if I wanted him to drive. For a moment, I was tempted to take him up on his offer. A crowd had gathered around us after the accident and the circle seemed much busier than before. It was hot and I had a headache that felt like it was getting worse. However, upon second thought, I felt that I would be caving in to fear if I did that. To have my precarious (and hard-earned, by us both) confidence in my driving skills shaken for no fault of my own would be unfair. I told my husband I would drive on myself. As I was about to start the car, two men stepped forward from the crowd that had gathered and said, “Wait!” I looked up expectantly, hoping they had seen what had happened, and were coming forward to somehow help us. But then they strode over to the front of our car and started taking photographs of it on their cell phones. For a moment, I was confused. Before I knew it, in the blink of an eye, they were standing at my window snapping photographs of me, saying, “Lady driver! Lady driver!” I felt so letdown by the sheer injustice of it all. Prejudice, plain and simple, staring me in the face. In a split second, I was intensely aware of how the men outside my window saw me in my bright pink summer dress. I have always fiercely guarded my right to wear whatever I choose but in that moment I knew without a shred of doubt that I was paying the price for my fearlessness, for my as yet unfettered choice of dress.
I wanted to somehow shield myself from their searing gaze and I tried to cover my face. Just then, to my utter disbelief, they opened my door. I snatched the door shut but my heart was struck with terror and my head was pounding. My husband, who had until that moment probably been wondering what the best way forward would be, sprung into action. He shot out of his door, pushed through the crowd, and climbed into my seat while nudging me to climb over into his. The men outside lashed out at my husband, hitting him on the upper arm, and tried to pull out our car keys. Thankfully, our car has a push-button ignition and the keys were in my husband’s pocket. He firmly pushed the man’s arm out of our car, pulled the door shut, deftly revved up the engine and drove us out of the mob. As we sped away, grateful to have escaped unscathed having glimpsed for ourselves the tip of the iceberg, I burst into big messy tears. As my husband stroked the side of my face and I looked woefully at the red splotch spreading across his arm, my mind was flooded with all the worst things—television news reports, statistics on the attitudes of youth toward women, migrants, and minorities in our country, Half of a Yellow Sun, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi—flashes of the growing pains of nations.
I have felt the sharp stab of voyeurism before but never the panic of escalating violence. A few years ago, as we emerged from Rex Theatre into the bustle of Brigade Road on a busy afternoon, I felt someone pinch me through my skirt. Without hesitation, I turned around, grabbed the offending arm and, as I had been taught in a self-defense class, hurt the man to whom it belonged in whatever way I could think of. Having just emerged from a crowded movie theatre, what came to my mind first was to stamp hard on his toes. As I felt myself bursting into enraged tears, I tried to ask him how he thought he could get away with this in broad daylight but as I tasted the rising bitterness in my own mouth, the unpleasant aftertaste of being the subject of someone else’s transgression, I already found my answer. Still, the shame on his face replied that he would probably not risk it again. My husband, then boyfriend, was with me then too, so were my parents, and to-be in-laws, but apart from knowing that they would intervene, if necessary, I had no need for their help as I had agency of my own. In fact, given my tearful incoherence, only the man and I knew exactly what had happened in that moment. But it was enough. However, this was an entirely different beast. At the moment that my car door snapped open, I had no doubt that I was in dire need of being saved. And even as I am overcome with gratitude for my fairy-tale ending, full of admiration for my husband’s heroism, how I wish we could have turned the stereotype upside down.
Our world, with its intricately knotted webs of gender and class, with its interwoven storylines of modernity, traditionalism, and development, with all its complex social, economic, and political realities, with privilege and prejudice, is a far more complicated backdrop to our lives than the forest in that feminist fairy tale. Examining street sexual violence is often doubly difficult because it forces you to confront not simply the intricacies of gender and sexuality but also questions of class and privilege. As I sat in our slightly beat up i10 Grand in my bright pink summer dress on that hot afternoon, speaking up for myself through the window, those young men must have decided that I needed a dressing-down. No doubt they felt my dress gave them license, no doubt my free voice egged on their spite. I suppose they wanted to push me back into my place, which physically they succeeded in doing, as I relinquished control of the wheel to my husband and moved into the passenger seat. No doubt they relished my fear. Nothing—not modernity, not class privilege, not even my misguided, liberal lover—would allow me escape their rules for my gender, they seemed to be saying with that one simple taunt, “Lady driver! Lady driver!” If I look back now at that moment as it is frozen in my mind, we are all empty shells. I am reduced to their image of me, the much-too-modern lady driver uncomfortable in her own car, in her own country, squirming under the machismo and moral policing of their male gaze, self appointed upholders of the status quo, and they, in my eyes, turn into unredeemable savages.
Truth be told, though, we are each the very opposite of what the other mistook us for. I am the granddaughter of refugees who fled from Lahore to Bombay during Partition and I am intensely aware of the fact that the only thing that separates me from my grandfather, who studied under street lamps, and my grandmother, who at one time in her life owned simply 2 sarees, is my father’s sweat and blood. I am also the granddaughter of a man who walked miles and miles to school and copied whole biology textbooks by hand because he could not afford to buy them, and of a woman whose father sold books door-to-door, carrying them on his back, until he set up a premier academic bookstore in Bombay, and from their later good fortune comes my mother’s grace. Above all, my parents have tried to impress upon me the importance of generosity, of empathy for those who are marginalized, of a certain compassion that has always been the essence of India. I am not denying the precious softness of the nest in which I was raised but simply suggesting that I still remember the story behind each straw that my parents, grandparents, gathered. My husband spends every waking moment building technology to help alleviate poverty. But these are not identities that we wear on our sleeves, or print on our summer dresses. What is in our hearts is not what meets the eye in the moments in which we collide.
In quite the same way, it would be simplistic to dismiss the men who frightened me by simply calling them savages. I have always known that street sexual violence is much less about sexuality and much more about power. Violence against women holds out to men the false promise of an elusive empowerment, an ephemeral opportunity to feel powerful by looking into the depths of someone else’s fear. Perhaps, simply, to know one is not alone in one’s own fearfulness. With our bifurcating economy, our increasingly divided society, and the deepening insularity of our lived realities, the world is ripe for collisions like this one. I suppose the question is, how we will react to them. Do I think before I put on a bright pink summer dress and drive to my friend’s house for dinner? Do I stop voicing my opinions when I am out and about in the streets of my city? Do I look at the young men around me differently? Or do I simply carry on, as I always have, sometimes fearless, sometimes cautious, doing the best I can under the circumstances, to make the world a slighter more equal, slightly more compassionate, slightly happier place, one wide-eyed and wise middle schooler at a time?
“Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory in the Face of Fear” appeared in Kafila