By Jackie Pinto Jan. 02, 2017
Jasmeen Patheja is unlikely to join the candlelight march to protest against the Bangalore mass molestation. She’d rather protest by hosting a tea and samosa session for strangers.
Talk to me.
We haven’t had a chance to get to know each other.
Let’s have tea, a samosa and talk over the next hour.
We may not remain strangers after this.
We could talk about anything; our dreams, hope, fears…
Jasmeen Patheja’s invite begins innocuously enough. The 30-something design graduate is handing out these cards to men on a street in Yelahanka that has a bad smell, and a worse reputation. The road is notorious for being a spot where women are subject to groping and catcalling. The rising numbers of complaints in the last few years have prompted a few to refer to it as “rapist lane”.
Bangalore prides itself as the best Indian city to live in, according to a 2012 statistic. Unfortunately, the same year, it was also declared to be one of the most unsafe cities for women. This was showcased once again on New Year’s Eve when a number of women said they had been molested on the bustling MG Road, despite the presence of several armed police personnel. Reports said both policemen and male relatives and friends of the women found it hard to fend off the hundreds of louts who had mixed in with the crowd. Some women were seen running from the crowd, stilettoes in hand, crying.
Jasmeen, like any other conscientious citizen, has been frustrated by such incidents in the past. The difference is the way she chose to act on it. Her form of protest does not involve a march to the Governor’s bungalow, a petition, or a candlelight procession. She protests by hosting tea and samosa session with strangers. It’s an invitation to conversation, an invitation to break barriers. She calls it Blank Noise.
Jasmeen says the idea came to her from a teacher at the Srishti design school with whom she has discussed her own unsettling experiences. Men would look her top to bottom, eyes lingering on her breasts and legs. Sometimes, they would be in pairs or groups, nudging each other, sniggering. Without so much as being touched, the hair on her arms would rise involuntarily and her heart would race. She admits to having felt a cocktail of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and misplaced shame.
Jasmeen clearly recalls the incident that sparked off the genesis of Blank Noise. One morning, years ago, a man had followed her bus all the way to her college on his bike. At the entrance of the institute, she went up to him and asked him if he would prefer escorting her to class or the police station. When Jasmeen went on to relate this story to her teacher, the teacher’s response surprised her. Instead of showering Jasmeen with sympathy, she simply said, “Invite him into your world. Try offering him a coffee instead.”
Jasmeen tells me about how a man confided in her about his family. I can speak to you easily, he had told her, despite her being a stranger.
What her teacher was suggesting seemed outrageous to Jasmeen at the time, but still fundamental. It attacked the idea of “strangers” as the root of the issue. As unknown entities, people felt free to do more harm. But if there was an attempt at familiarity, even friendship, maybe the danger could dissipate? Jasmeen decided to give it a shot.
Jasmeen and 20 students from college started Blank Noise, envisioning it as not an intervention but a giant tea party for community building. The team went about setting up tables and chairs on the deserted “rapist lane”. Their members, who call themselves “Action Heroes”, invite strangers from completely different backgrounds to drink chai and hold a dialogue for a whole hour. Sexual harassment was deliberately never discussed.
Some chats were pleasant and revealing, others not so much. Jasmeen tells me about how a man confided in her about his family. I can speak to you easily, he had told her, despite her being a stranger. It made her smile. She recalls a meeting with a security guard from Jharkand, who spoke about his exhausting back-to-back shifts and his family whom he saw once in two years; the auto driver who told her about his passion for films, and his desperation to find a girlfriend; the middle-aged storekeeper who had to look after his aged parents and give up his dream to travel. Stories that spawned not from gender, social economic profiles or education levels but stories that bind people together in the epic struggle of coming to terms with life.
Over the years, Blank Noise has begun to change the tone of “rapist lane” – Yelahanka no longer has the reputation it once did.
Two years ago, the Blank Noise team set its sights on Cubbon Park. It came as an immediate reaction to the rape of an engineering student by two security guards in the popular city hangout spot. According to Jasmeen, the media and cocktail party chatter had turned the spotlight away from the perpetrators onto the woman. “They said things like, ‘she was there right… she must have wanted it.’” The next day, the group of Action Heroes took mats, snacks, and water to Cubbon Park and held a “Meet to Sleep” there. They stretched out on the soft grass, without pepper spray or brass knuckledusters, and took a nap. They declared Cubbon Park safe by the simple act of lying down there, defenceless.
Just like the tea party at Yelahanka, the sleepover at Cubbon Park is a small act that holds the potential of becoming a statement about reclaiming the public spaces in our country, a country that has gained a persistent reputation for being unsafe for women. But for now, Jasmeen prefers to take it one area at a time.
Jackie Pinto is a Bangalore-based lifestyle writer, a self-confessed carnivore, and an intrepid traveller. Her work has been featured in The Deccan Herald and The New Indian Express.