What defines me? What is my score on the character scale? What all am I allowed? Just tell me once and for all. So that I know exactly which barriers to crush and bones to break. Or perhaps accept and give in?
If I wear a sari, will you spare me? Or a burqa perhaps? Please tell me the precise length of the skirt above which I become characterless and you get the license to teach me a lesson. What about make up? Does that count too? Any particular shades that raise a red flag? I shouldn't even mention the choice of beverage, right?
While driving, when my favourite song plays, can I sing along without you staring? Am I even allowed to have a favourite song? And drive?
When I go to the market, do I have to always look purposeful? Do I have to walk with my gaze firmly fixed on the road lest I miss a pebble? And the frown? That has to stay, right? When the rain hits the ground and an intoxicating fragrance makes every cell of my being tingle, do I pretend to not notice? Can I not raise my head, close my eyes and feel the breeze on my face? And smile?
While driving, when my favourite song plays, can I sing along without you staring? Am I even allowed to have a favourite song? And drive? For when I drive I see challenge in your eyes. Sometimes I see a satisfied grin in your rear-view mirror when you force me to jam the breaks to protect myself. I deep breathe then and resist the urge to scream and ram my car into yours. Should I be thankful for just being on the road? That you decided to just put me in my place and not a ditch?
You scoff and say that I sip my coffee in a high-end cafe. I have no business complaining. Should I ignore all the stares for having the coffee alone? Am I supposed admire the table, or can I look up? Are you wondering if I am divorced? Widowed? Unmarried? Where is my character-stamp, the man? Are you wondering?
The whistle is my fault, right? The man on the bike who tried to pull a dupatta was putting the girl in her place. She got sent to the hospital with friction burns because she earned it. Let us not even start about acid attacks. What the hell were those girls doing outside in the first place? The girl whose entrails are still plastered somewhere on the road, it was her fault. She tested her boundaries. She stepped outside. She deserved it. Didn't she?
In my rear-view mirror I can see a car. It is drawing close. I can see your silhouette. There are four of you. I need to go. Fast.
What about the girl who hesitates going back home from college alone, although her village is next door from college? The village men accuse her of doing "dhanda" when she comes late from college. She wraps her head in her dupatta, hangs her head and hurries home while the boys shout, "kitney kamaye (how much did you earn)?" She is stupid. She should have stayed home. Education is not for her, right?
What about the girl in an upmarket private school? What does she do when she is told to take home science instead of electronics club? Should she give up on the soldering iron? When she comes home, the helper at home opens the door with a bruised arm. The drunk man beat her up and she fears that going to the police will worsen things. What do they do? Definitely not look you in the eye, right?
What about the woman who gets beaten up despite being educated? Despite living in a first-world country? What do you want to say to her pleas, begging to be spared? The muffled punch, the brazen kick? What is she doing wrong? She needs to know.
On most days, I have a thick skin. I sing along, I smile when the first spray of rain hits my face. I ignore your gaze that moves from my head to toe. I know you don't care what my age or shape is. It is me that matters. It is my flaw of being a woman. And a woman who refuses to stay indoors. Every day we skip through a landmine. We look over our shoulder, we judge every step. Is this route safe? Those men standing over there look like bad news. Maybe I should turn and take the longer route. Oh, crap. It is dark and I need to get home. I skip a heartbeat every time a car drives by a tad bit closer than usual. Or the driver steals a sideways glance. Or a stare. The fear chokes the rage that I feel every day. Every minute. The rage that makes me want to grab you by the neck and ask, "Why? Where am I going wrong?" But that will have to wait. In my rear-view mirror I can see a car. It is drawing close. I can see your silhouette. There are four of you. I need to go. Fast.