I’m Not Nirbhaya. Or Shakti. I’m Just Scared


I’m Not Nirbhaya. Or Shakti. I’m Just Scared

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Hello. I’m an average Indian girl. I’m not Nirbhaya. I am, in fact, the opposite of that. I am scared. I’m so scared to walk down a deserted gully that no matter the time, I sing out loud like a crazy person hoping it might alarm potential attackers.

I was walking back home one evening thinking it’s the health-conscious thing to do. And I could sense a couple men following me. I could feel their eyes on my back, but was too afraid to turn around. I was wearing a kurta and jeans if anyone’s wondering, it was 8.30 pm. (Saatchy aat gharaat or max home by 8 pm, right?).

I’d met my boyfriend and I kept thinking that these men had probably seen me hugging him, giving him a peck on his cheek. Was it my fault that I behaved so “outrageously” in public? I increased my pace but that only heightened my already spiked heart rate. I stopped and pretended to tie my shoelaces (without bending over, so it doesn’t seem like I’m inviting them) and they stopped too. Maybe I was over-analysing things, but I ran. I ran all the way home. I didn’t tell anyone because, well, what could anyone do? But I decided not to let this affect my penchant for PDA. My own little form of protest. Hah. I squashed my own rebellion and found something to distract me. A movie, a “chick flick”.

Perhaps this is the reason I dig romantic-comedies. It’s an easy escape. Because the probability of my life (like that of every other woman’s) pivoting into a horror story in a moment is immense.

Women trade horrid stories like WWE cards – if you’re a woman, you know. “My friend was almost abducted outside a movie theatre at night in Delhi.” “I’ve been petrified since I was 15 because I was crossing the road at noon and in broad daylight a stranger came and grabbed my breasts.” “When I was on the bus, the man sitting next to me unzipped his pants and flashed me.” Being afraid then is like a survival instinct for us. I say survival because there could be a life-altering (nay, ending) twist at every step of our life.

Being afraid then is like a survival instinct for us. I say survival because there could be a life-altering (nay, ending) twist at every step of our life.

I could be with family, and some distant uncle could try to cop a feel. I could be with friends and then he could take me to a party with other friends. Those other unnamed male “friends” could gang up on me. Or I could be walking toward my parked scooter. I’m sorry. I know it’s too soon. But for me, it’s also too much. Way, way too much.

My mother has always detailed out possible scenarios for whenever I’m travelling late at night in the hope that if nothing sneaks up on me, I’m prepared. Some she conjures up in her mind, some that she has nightmares of, some she reads about in the papers: What if the cabbie takes a turn in a dark alley and stops the car? What if you’re rickshaw breaks down on the highway and some miscreants show up? What if someone punctures the tyres of your scooter? My ma has been doing this since I turned 16, 15 years ago.

She makes up these monstrous sequences so I can be ready for anything and have a sliver of a chance of getting away. I carry a cutter in my purse. I constantly think of stuff I have that could be used as weapons such as the handle of my bag or the cord of my phone charger with which I could strangle an assailant if need be. I could as my mother tells me, use anything to debilitate the attacker and in that fraction of a moment, run away.

All this thinking and overthinking is sapping. And I do all of this with the knowledge that there is no guarantee of a heroic escape. If I don’t escape, (even as I write this, my heart drops down to my gut.) I need to be complicit. Distract the attacker if possible, shout for help, try to run again. Press 100 on my phone. In case of no help or no hope, comply. In the feeble hope that my attacker doesn’t kill me.

All of this would be perfectly at home in a horror thriller. But my life doesn’t have the morbid, gray tone of a horror film, nor the spine-chilling, foreboding soundtrack. Instead, it’s a slice-of-life tune set to a technicolour visual. It is interspersed with the sassy, vibrant chorus of “Run the world!”

The fact that rape is one of the most common crimes in our country assures me that we don’t, in fact, run this mother.

The fact that rape is one of the most common crimes in our country assures me that we don’t, in fact, run this mother. This makes the scare trickier to spot. And that’s why all women are always cautious. I doubt there’s a woman who hasn’t felt a bad touch – by an uncle, the old man on the bus, the senior at an office party, the juvenile at the street corner. So no matter how much we scream about girl power, I feel, somehow it doesn’t stop our hearts from racing when we enter a crowded space – that’s where we wear our big girl faces that spell “Don’t mess with me”. If you think resting-bitch-face is not an evolutionary change, you’re wrong.

But the truth is that women aren’t born brave. Yet they have no choice but to grow up to be brave – to side-step the mine of dangers we face every day. Imagine the anxiety of a drafted soldier who is untrained and behind enemy lines. Now multiply that with (almost) 50 per cent of the world’s population.

Every woman has her own way to deal with this constant angst. Personally, I use escapism. I avoid newspapers because I need to calm my nerves. I don’t want to start my day with “Policeman Rapes Woman After Offering Lift in Odisha” or “16-Year-Old Gang-Raped in Chattisgarh”. Because every rape is gruesome and horrific, no matter which page of the newspaper it is printed on. If we’re boarding a crowded train or walking on a street teeming with people, we’re told to hold the bag in front of the body, so that breasts are out of reach. But then we leave the bottoms unguarded. We know it’s only a matter of time before somebody pinches it. Or before next assault “shakes the nation”.

Women who have been abused and survived are dubbed brave and strong. Still (knowing our society), I shudder to think of the treatment these survivors receive. And victims who have died have to forego their own names and surnames to become “India’s daughters”. Publicly, they become symbols. Privately, within the living rooms of our homes, they become examples.

They are called Nirbhaya. They are called Shakti. But I’m not Nirbhaya (I don’t think she was either). I’m just a girl who keeps predicting terrifying ends of her life at every corner. I’m afraid. Just like you.