By Lavanya Jayashankar Nov. 04, 2017
We’ve all heard the familiar condescending voice of a female Bombay-ite telling a Dilliwali, “Oh please, at least in my city, I am safe.” I have been that person. That changed on Shah Rukh Khan's birthday, after I was molested by a mob outside his house.
On November 2, my social media timelines reminded me that the day is to be dedicated entirely to Shah Rukh Khan’s birthday. But I didn’t need a reminder. My office happens to be in the lane right next to Mannat, SRK’s famous home in Bandstand that is almost a pilgrimage spot for his fans, and everyone within a two-kilometres radius knew King Khan was turning 52.
It was a great day in office — my first productive one in over a month after recovering from an illness. My friend and I walked out of work together, feeling a sense of contentment over what we had accomplished that day, when we noticed a large, but mostly harmless crowd outside Mannat. A crowd rendered harmless by the fact that it consisted of men, women, and young children, peacefully milling about on the road outside, dressed in their best and taking photos, showing their love for their idol. A crowd made to feel even safer by the presence of several police officers, clearly there to control the gathering in case anything happened.
Then something happened.
The gates of Mannat opened. In what felt like an instant, all of Bandstand swelled like a sea gushing toward the doors to catch a glimpse of the man of the moment. It took me about five seconds to process the change in the atmosphere and to realise that there was nothing peaceful in the air anymore — it was charged with an adrenaline, tinged by the almost-religious energy that comes with idolising movie stars. These were people who would let nothing stand in their way.
My five-second reaction proved to be too slow. By the time I turned around to leave, I found myself in the middle of a mob of over a hundred people, all running in one direction, with me caught helplessly in the middle, the sole person facing in the opposite direction.
As this sea of humanity hit me, the privilege of my upbringing coupled with the cocoon of spending most of my adult life outside India, quickly turned into my greatest disadvantage.
Because I made the choice to save my life, I didn’t think about my body. In retrospect, I should have chosen to protect BOTH. Afraid of losing my footing and getting trampled, I instinctively did what I had been trained to do in emergency situations — I raised my hands to cover and protect my head, thinking that that would increase my chances of survival.
What I didn’t realise was that this one simple action exposed the rest of my body, and what came for the next minute was an onslaught of hands, grabbing at every part of me: my breasts, stomach, every bit of skin they could get their hands on.
It took a few grabs for me to even realise I was being molested. Because you see, Bombay lulls you into a false sense of security. It has this amazing image of being the cool city, the city of dreamers, the city that welcomes everyone. The city that doesn’t molest, rape, or treat its women with disrespect. We’ve all heard the familiar condescending voice of a female Bombay-ite telling a Dilliwali, “Oh please, at least in my city, I am safe.” I have been that person.
I am here to tell you, nobody is safe. What Delhi wears on its sleeve, Bombay keeps hidden, only to rear its ugly head at a time when it is confident that there will be no consequences. And there were no consequences for the abusers. While I screamed and shouted and abused and fought them off, the police officers were only intent on making sure that SRK’s car passed through the mob safely. It hit me that they weren’t there to protect me or anyone else in a predicament, but to take care of the car of the man who can afford to lose 10 and buy 100 in replacement.
And this celebrity, who has one of the loudest voices in India, has never used it to teach people to behave otherwise. One word from him could bring in order against lurking in large mobs outside celebrity homes, that several articles of legislation cannot. The mobs that are allowed to gather unchecked outside Jalsa, outside Galaxy and of course Mannat are testament to the fact nobody thinks this is a big deal and nobody worries about how a mob can easily get out of control.
For people who have never fought a mob, it is only an intellectual understanding of a bunch of human beings standing together. But there is nothing human about a mob. Somehow, when a mass of humans comes together, it loses its humanity. It morphs into something much more frightening, not unlike the incredible monsters of B-grade Hollywood creature features. A mob is like a mutant that feeds on all of humanity’s baser instincts, and somehow magnifies them. With every additional human it subsumes into its swelling body, it grows disproportionately more vicious and powerful. It has countless arms and legs and makes a noise that remains like a roar inside my head that just won’t quieten down, several hours after I have been safe and loved and comforted.
The mobs outside these celebrity homes only grow in size because the stars indulge in the adulation. Shah Rukh Khan has a stage-like terrace on which he comes out to wave to his fans, the way movie stars are expected to. Salman has turned his balcony into a direct broadcast venue from where he thanks fans for the spectacular success of his movies and wishes them Eid, driving them into such a frenzy that lathicharges can’t deter them. We’re talking about a mob of hundreds of mainly young men, in a state of charged-up excitement. In which part of the world is that not a recipe for disaster?
I am intelligent enough to realise that I was caught in an unbelievably unlucky mix of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, smack dab in the middle of a crowd that happened to turn ugly. But the fact is, because mobs are allowed, and in fact encouraged, it could happen to anyone.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one to have undergone this horrendous experience. The Quint reporter Abira Dhar broadcast her injuries in a near-stampede, during a Facebook Live. But SRK made it up to her by doing a little dance.
SRK didn’t dance with me, and even if he had, I wonder if it would’ve made up for anything. I got out without my clothes being ripped off because in that mob, ONE man stood up for me. One man heard my screams and came to my side and helped me find my way to a corner, out of harm’s way. A man I cannot thank enough: People like him make me believe that while our on-screen heroes are flaccid IRL, there are at least a few real-life ones around.
Lavanya is an entrepreneur who lives and works in Bandra. She earns to travel, travels to learn. An erstwhile Bollywood lover who wasted several hours of her youth swallowing that mainstream drivel, she now chooses to have a functioning brain instead. An unapologetic feminist and soon to be cat mother, her transformation to a Crazy Cat Lady is almost complete.