An advice my late grandmother dispensed — sparingly through childhood and generously ever since I hit puberty — went like this: "Eta kintu Hindi cinema noi." Translated from Bengali, it simply meant: "This is not a Hindi film, alright?"
This = life.
If one was watching Hindi films through the 90s and the 2000s, there was perhaps a pressing need to tell children — especially young girls trying to negotiate public spaces — that the kind of male-female interaction one saw on screen are best avoided in real life. That there was nothing remotely romantic or right about being chased around roads and in parks by gangs of men on bikes. And that it was perfectly alright to feel annoyed at — not enamoured of — men leaning out of cars, auto-rickshaws, bikes and buses to shout songs at you.
Often, while returning from tuitions, or making a trip to the Puja pandals, or simply waiting for a bus at the bus stand, I — like many other girls my age — wondered if men were ever enlightened with a similar wisdom. Because after dodging gropey hands on public transport, breathlessly trying to out-walk random men following us the moment the sun looked to set, pressing a big bag to our breasts at crowded stations in sweltering summers, it just seemed that boys and men were watching these films literally with no reality filter.
It's as if, while a generation of women was growing up believing it was their responsibility to not get stalked, a generation of Indian men were made to understand that stalking women was a rite of passage to manhood.
The day Varnika Kundu was chased by two men — one of them the son of a Haryana BJP leader — a friend and I were making arrangements to return from another friend's birthday party to our lodging for the weekend in Chandigarh. We almost booked a taxi from a cab aggregator when both the hosts and we decided it would be perhaps 'safer' to have their driver — a man — escort us to the place we were putting up. It was around 12 AM, the same time Kundu was being tailed and harassed by two men a few blocks away from us.
The idea frustrates and infuriates every woman I know, but we relegate our claim on public spaces for the sake of 'safety' almost instinctively. Because there is no evidence that a sizeable section of men in India consumed the idea of stalking the way most women did — as something reprehensible. Not all men, as women have pointed out in the past, but just enough to want to us to give up a democratic right.
Many men actually expect to be rewarded for stalking — an activity they consider to be the 'extra effort' they've made to earn a woman's attention. When they are gleefully stomping over the idea of consent, on the assumption that they are making a romantic advance, they are busy telling themselves — as well as the object of their advances — that nope, they're not stalkers. In others words, they are telling the victim of their stalking the way she should feel and respond to the experience of being stalked.
Ask any Indian woman's who's on Tinder, it is most likely that her Facebook and other social media accounts are flooded with messages from men who claim to have 'found', 'seen', 'spotted' them on the dating app. Now Tinder works on a simple and absolutely clear principle of mutual consent. If two people have 'liked' each other, they get to initiate a conversation. In effect, it asks people to not only respect a potential match's consent, but also restricts any activity, at least on the app, that goes against it.
In the famed land of jugaad, though, men go great lengths to hunt down women on other social media platforms and proceed to 'add', 'message' or 'poke' them. Although the app doesn't give away a user's surname, women still receive scores of messages, thereby implying the lengths some men must have gone to find a woman who clearly didn't wish to establish contact with them on the dating app. There's just one way to describe this experience: creepy.
Again, a woman's existence on the internet is hinged on the same principles as our life is off it. It's our responsibility to not get stalked. So most of us scurry to put the most severe privacy settings — I know someone who made her profile unsearchable — fed up with unwanted messages. In the process, also barring friends, acquaintances, colleagues, professional contacts or potential collaborators from reaching out to us on platforms meant exactly for that.
While most women ignore these messages — again, it is our responsibility to grit our teeth and un-see the fact that strangers have been lurking around our profiles — some have bothered to tell these men off. Only to be met with bitter, shocked, aggressive and dismissive responses that seek to tell the woman that she must be a person of twisted, sour and frustrated disposition to even question what these men were trying to achieve by ignoring the very premise of the dating app they were on and stalking women who didn't reciprocate their interest.
Days after Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya released and danced its way to glorious box office success, I trawled my social media timelines with some amount of disbelief. A film, which involved a 'spurned lover' stuffing a woman into the trunk of his car and driving around the city to teach her a lesson, was being applauded and appreciated in some of the most 'liberal' circles I know. Because towards the conclusion, the 'reformed' man gets drunk and tells his father that women too should be allowed to follow their dreams and ambitions, like his girlfriend did. With that, social media posts exhorted, balance had been restored in the film's universe and one must forgive the poor man for the excesses of love.
Assuming my heart must have stopped functioning in recognisable human ways, I asked a few women how they'd feel if an ex packed them inside a car's trunk and drove around the city because he's hurting? Most of them commented, if they did come out a sane person from such an ordeal, they'd try their best to have the man spend at least some part of his life in jail since there's no way they themselves could migrate to another planet, away from said man. Yet, people were ready to defend the film's plot and idea of social justice because the 'hero' bawled a bit after a few drinks. That too, most of it was in pining for the woman, not lamenting his own criminal escapades.
However, this was barely as mortifying as watching elected MPs in the Parliament romanticising stalking, while debating the changes that need to be made to the existent law against rape and sexual assault in 2013, following the death of the December 2012 gangrape victim. The concern, voiced by several men was, how else would men express their interest in women if stalking is made into a criminal offence? The trend is unabated even four years later, as BJP MP Babul Supriyo proved on Twitter.
As this article on HuffPost India points out, though they failed to decriminalise stalking, several parties joined hands to make the first registered offence of stalking a bailable one, where the accused can get bail without being produced in court. It is this 'amendment' that made sure Vikas Barala was a free man, hours after he was caught red-handed, stalking and then trying to accost Varnika Kundu in Chandigarh.
Unlike the United States, there is no way to get 'restraining orders' on stalkers and similar threatening individuals in India. One can, however, try to get a court to impose an injunction on an individual and bar him or her from coming in contact with you. However, it is rare and, as this article points out, difficult to get executed and should ideally be the last resort.
Kundu's case struck a chord immediately as it involved an aggressor from the political class — one easy to blame and be reviled by in India. Yet, time and again, we insist on 'going easy' to other patterns of stalking, almost legitimising the idea that there can actually be an acceptable form of it. But there isn't any — and never was.
Also on HuffPost