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Men aren’t good enough, good aren’t men enough – the problem with women’s safety

Life in a sleepy industrial township is mellow. With a multicultural population comprising mostly of educated employees sourced from across India, one would expect a degree of maturity in the township’s culture; and so it was in Bokaro, at least as much as I can remember from my early childhood.

The politics of a life as a child is also simple, your siblings double up as your best friends and worst enemies. Parents play the role of super-national bodies dictating peace and threatening economic blockades and military action if ever there is a breach. Such was my life too. As the youngest of four, I was closest to my sister who is 6 years elder to me.

This little simple world, in the ideal town, changed for us as we grew up. In the same locality was a gang of boys who had grown in age and size but were fast depreciating in character. Cat-calling, eve teasing were increasingly becoming commonplace. I had seen bloody brawls with bare knuckles, sticks, stones by the time I was 8-9. Everyone was generally scared of these guys and they were getting emboldened day-by-day feasting on this fear.

I am writing this in the backdrop of the mass molestation in Bangalore on the first day of 2017. Enough intellectual jiggling has happened over what women should do to be safe and what society should do to keep women safe. Useful theories like “All men are potentially rapists” have been propounded, which effectively drives us towards leveraging technologies like in-vitro spermatogenesis and eventual eradication of human male species. Less radical and ideas like “Change all men’s mentality” have also been brought forward. However mentality change might take time on a generational scale and until that happens, and before facing eventual annihilation for being a man, I wish to explore why the bad men stand at the front of representing manhood and why the good men are not men enough (with due advance apologies to the feminists).

The next few incidents are real anecdotes from my life, with some men who were sexual predators, some “good” men, who were not men enough, and why.

***

I was 8-9 years old. My sister was 14-15. We are from a conservative North Indian family. It was the 90s, fashion as it is now, had not picked up. It was a township, far removed from metro culture. My sister would wear frocks, t-shirts and trousers at home but would always change into salwar-kameez if she had to step out.

My mother once told my sister to get sooji (semolina) to make halwa (porridge) as we were expecting some guests. She tagged me along. The shop was about 400 meters away. It was dusk, the night was claiming the skies fast. I was walking, holding her hand when a voice called from behind – “O madam, time kya ho raha hai?” (O madam, what is the time?).

My sister’s pace hastened. Holding her hand and walking along I looked up and saw her looking down, fixated on the road beneath, walking very fast to the point where I had to gallop a little to keep up.

I was a kid but I was not stupid. I knew what was going on. I asked, “Wapas ghar chalein?” (Should we go back home). But she was in a battle with herself. She was reacting to the cat-calling but did not want to be seen doing it. She said, “Jaldi chalo nahi toh mummy daantegi” (Let’s make it fast or mother will be angry).

We took a longer roundabout route back home to avoid them. She never told our parents about this incident, neither did I. I don’t know if she was trying to be brave and assure herself that she can deal with it, or if she was afraid that our parents would interrogate her first as to why she attracted such attention. Thereon she seldom left home for the extended neighborhood. She would always prod me to go to the shop. But I had my own fears…

***

Few days after this incident, we had come to know that another girl was being harassed by the same gang of guys. She had once replied back to them. In revenge for the “insult”, they got hold of her younger brother when he was playing in the ground. He was in my age group. They tore his clothes off and had him run back home almost naked. I, in turn, had given up going to the ground. So I believe, had others who had sisters.

But I had to follow orders and go to the shop. On one of such visits, I was called by one of the guys in the gang. He was called “Mantu”. “Aye babu… idhar aao…” (Hey kid.. come here). I was too scared to not obey. I was already imagining myself naked and looking around for bushes where I could hide until it became dark, also fearing if a snake would bite me at a place where I can’t tie a rope or make a cut. But that didn’t happen.

There was a long inconsequential talk for about 15-20 mins about things like “Kya naam hai… Bada badhiya naam hai… Shankar ji ka naam hai ee toh… Koun iskool me padhte ho… Bada badhiya iskool hai…” (What is your name… What a nice name… It is Lord Shankar’s name… In which school do you study… It’s a very good school…) This was repeated on more occasions when I went to the shop.

I had started to develop gradual fascination for the power those guys wielded, of how they could stop and talk to anyone, how shopkeepers, doodh-walas crossing by, would greet them, how they could have samosas and not pay and yet the samosa-wala would say, “Phir aaiyega bhaiya” (Please come again bhaiya).

My mother was getting suspicious as to why I always get back late from the shop. She followed me once, saw me talking to them happily, called me back from afar, took me home and gave me a mighty thrashing for talking to the already infamous bunch! My mother’s fear prevailed and I always avoided them thereafter, taking the longer route, changing my path when I saw them.

In retrospect, the beating was God’s hand correcting my path and the fear of my mother’s beating was a divine shield protecting my character!

***

On another occasion, they rounded up another guy in the colony. He was a handicapped guy. He had a sister who too had dared to talk back at them for their advances. They were beating him up in the middle of the road. It was a weekend when all the “good men”, fathers, brothers, were at home. At once, many men came out from all around, in balconies, outside their buildings, on the street.

Ab bahut hua… Ab hadh ho gaya… Ab ee lanth log ko sabak sikhana hoga…” (It’s enough… They have crossed the limit… These goons must be taught a lesson…) It looked like the end of the reign of terror!! But the goon-in-chief, “Mantu” was calm. He stopped the beating and calmly went back up the street. In two minutes, he was back raging like a mad bull and with a pistol in his hand!! “Koun bola re… kisko himmat hua re… koun aayega… aao sala…” (Who was yelling at us… How has the guts… who will face us… come now..) he yelled, and fired two rounds in the air!

All the good men were silenced in the middle of valiant war-cries! I saw two things for the first time that day – a pistol in action and a mass-freezing event with all the good men frozen in their snarls!

Out came the aunties and pulled the men inside, many willingly went in. Some good men tried to resist to give credence to future claims of “Sala bandook nahi hota toh maar dete usko…” (I would have killed them if they were not carrying a gun), but they eventually agreed and went inside homes. The neighborhood was desolate again and the reign of terror was re-established after 15 mins of freedom.

***

This reign of terror, molestation, eve teasing, cat calling continued for a couple of years. For a couple of years, my sister, just as other girls, didn’t go out in the neighborhood. For a couple of years, boys with sisters didn’t go out to play in the playgrounds. For a couple of years, the good men told their families to be careful and not venture out when they left for work.

In those couple of years, I saw how papas are not powerful, how puny, insignificant and scared (for explicable reasons) the mighty men in the homes are. It stands to reason that this loss of awe and respect for the patriarch of the family and other families around and the feeling of powerlessness, would aggravate youngsters’ issues during their teenage rebel days, and drive them on a quest of immediate power, rather than morality, and give them  a sense of perceived impunity.

***

The terror ended when a new SP (IPS) came to town. I don’t quite remember if it was Mr. Dinesh Singh Bisht or Mr. Sunil Palta, but he was very strict and always had his way. The gang suddenly disappeared. Every few days one of them would be seen with bandages, limping, twisted, scarred, swollen. We stopped seeing them after a while. Youngsters who had begun to flock to them and were learning “skills” under their tutelage were also not to be seen at their marked spots. It was this simple. Peace had returned!

All higher ideals aside, I believe it was plain simple fear that worked for them, when they silenced the good men into submission and against them when the police reoriented their consciences with their batons. This, I guess, is the language that men who didn’t learn enough as boys, understand.

***

The higher ideals, family values, education, sensitization etc. work during the formative years, with boys who are yet to be cast into a mould. As with us, when our testosterones introduced themselves and ran amok, we started looking differently at the same girls, many of whom we had known since kindergarten. But we were driven to win hearts and we vaguely knew how to go about it and molesting was certainly not the way to do it.

These ideals, mostly bred in the family and at school, stop you from taking the wrong path and give you the good fear of dishonorable conduct and of law. Sensitization, co-education give you empathy with the girls who are victims of sexist crimes. More importantly, they give insights, suggest acceptable ways in which you can creatively address your attraction, so you are not driven to desperation.

The perplexing question however is, why are the good men who wouldn’t indulge in crimes themselves, not man up and stand against these crimes as men should. How could predators be emboldened enough to molest at such a large scale, with an air of impunity, in Bangalore? Where were all the good men? Where are the good men when a lone girl is molested in a crowd of hundreds by 4-5 predators?

Violence is the crude dynamics of power. Molestation is an act of accessing and abusing without consent, the body, which is a very private possession of the individual. Through molestation, the criminal says, “I am so brave and powerful, I can take what you have claims over, whether you like it or not”.

The good man, on the contrary, is one who is ready to relinquish all claims and buy a quiet way out.

Perhaps, our definition of “good” is flawed. We identify the good man as a passive being who does not fall into trouble, who is shrunk in himself and is benign to the world, who may not help but also does not harm others. In effect, we identify those men as good who honor every fear around and postpone every fight for later, when risks are minimized.

The “good man” is afraid of physical harm to himself, harm to his family. His family and he find dishonor in a policeman visiting his home. A good man is worried about tomorrow before attending to his today. And ironically, even the fear and awe of law seems to bother only the good man, not the criminal!

Our socio-legal systems and institutions, and our value systems are giving us a goodness that is not good enough, and good men, who are not men enough.

There is more to this which I wish to share, of what it took to stand up and resist, but that is perhaps for another time.

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