Risha moved to the city of Kolkata a year ago, for she finally received an opportunity to join her dream job. She was rushing to get to work, early. She held onto her handbag and lunch box strapped round her shoulder as she quickly paced toward the bus stop. Risha barely waited five minutes when she saw her bus approaching. She waved her hand and hailed the bus to a halt. The green minibus slowed down and Risha stepped on. The bus was not crowded so she approached the ladies’ section and held on to the partially painted yellow bar revealing patches of rusted iron.
The bus began to pick up pace. The next stop would invite many passengers on board and Risha hoped that she’d get a seat before reaching this stop. To her surprise, not many people boarded the bus and not many left their seats. She realised there was a fifty percent chance of getting a seat or she may have no choice but to stand the rest of the way.
She held on to the yellow bar as the bus slowly began jolting forward, leaving the bus stop behind. At the next stop, a man with dark brown and partially light sandy coloured hair wearing a vest and shorts boarded the bus. The sun was sharp on that summer morning. He stood at the entrance and scanned the bus for a seat. He eyes fell on Risha. He began to move towards her. He found an empty space right next to her and held the bar leaning oddly close to her.
On reaching the next stop the bus shuddered to a halt. Almost immediately, the man fell on Risha who in the moment panicked tried to avoid him by moving out of the way. Risha felt very uncomfortable by the appearance and attitude of the man. She felt angry that he fell on her but she found solace in the thought that there was space on the other side of her.
On the way, the bus took on more people till it was packed to full capacity. The man gave way to another woman and then took a spot behind Risha. The bus jerked at intervals of every five or ten minutes. Risha was partially blocked from both sides now as the bus was full. She requested him to give her space to stand. However, the man adamantly leaned on her, twice.
By this time, Risha was infuriated by his behaviour. There was no hint of honesty of him trying to keep his distance. She felt so violated so she nudged him to keep a distance, but he was persistent. She decided she would not hold her silence any longer. “What are you doing! The bus is packed but there’s enough place for you to maintain distance from me!” she exclaimed in anger. He did not feel culpable, he shouted back telling her “Go by taxi if you cannot travel by bus but don’t nudge me!”
Risha felt the fear of the crowd turning against her for raising her voice for ‘petty glitches.’ With fear, yet compelling strength to raise her voice she told the man, “You don’t have the right to tell me if I should go by taxi or bus! That is my choice” By this time, a woman who was watching from the on start of the incident raised her voice for Risha. She saw her struggling and asserted the man to move away. The man felt threatened and became submissive. Risha shouted at the man demanding him to move away from the ladies’ section and further said, “I have the right to choose and I also have the right to liberty and personal space under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.” The man moved away quietly after ‘a group of men and women defended her.’ She felts safe as soon as he left that space.
Women across the nation face violence, daily. Invasion of personal space on the streets and in public transportation continues unchecked. In public spaces women are groped and touched inappropriately. They feel violated and often raise their voice against this behaviour, however it does not seem to end. The highlight of Risha’s incident was that the crowd raised their voices for her. Risha knew her rights which helped her only, partially. She still feared whether the crowd would support her. The central point is, has our thinking changed or are we still under the chains of inequality. In similar situations or worse, will we speak up for justice or will we remain silent and look away when a scenario unfolds in front of our eyes. There may have been ten other Rishas and bystanders on that bus and lacs in our nation who choose to remain silent or look away. Will you be conscious of violence and be the one to speak up in a crowd that would make Risha feel safe rather than fear? Even one individual’s actions can bring about a major change in perception. Let our nation be that change.
By Janice Norris
Janice Norris works with an NGO working to support victims of human trafficking.