I grew up in Delhi – went to school in delhi, and then onto college. I traveled on the public transport from IIT to our flat in Alaknanda most weekends. Living in the hostel at IIT was sheltered. It felt safe – at least as long as we were on campus. When we went out of the campus, we went in groups. We frequented priya cinema – walked many times past the same bus stop that Nirbhaya waited on. As I read her story, 15 years after I left Delhi, I still feel as though it could’ve been me. I don’t know if I would’ve had her courage or her strength. She had the courage to fight, and a desire to live free. It is in her honor that I write today.
Many a times, it almost was me.
I was perhaps 12 when I first experienced harassment in delhi. I was coming back from a ping-pong summer camp on a bus. I was seated in a crowded bus, as I had got on on an earlier stop. I was tired and resting my head on my elbows. A man, it could’ve been anyone, started brushing his hands deliberately, yet inconspicously against my breasts. I was startled. I wanted to slap him. But, my older cousins had warned me – don’t antagonize a man – he may come back or follow you to get his revenge – just stare him down. It took all my courage, but, I stared him down. He moved away.
When I was a pimply teenager, my parents took me to see a homeopath – to get some medicine for the pimples. The medicines helped me, and I would go back weekly to get medicine. One day my mother was sick. So, my younger sister and I went to get the refill. The doctor took the opportunity – said he needed to examine me. And took me behind the curtains in his office. Under the guise of a physical exam, he stroked my breasts. I knew something was wrong. But, I was young and scared. Even with my sister just outside, I still stayed quiet. Fortunately, she thought it was odd that it was taking so long, and said something. My ordeal was over, and I could get out.
Another time, I was returning home from IIT on a bus. It must not have been rush hour. It was midday. The bus only had a few passengers. One by one they got off the bus at different stops. Mine was yet to come. When the last person got off, I got scared. I had been told of the many cases of girls taken by bus drivers and conductors to do as they will. I saw the expression in the eyes of the driver and conductor. I was easy prey. The next stop came up, and the driver barely pressed the brakes. It was not my stop. I jumped off the moving bus. I walked the rest of the way home. It was just another day in Delhi.
She is me, and I am her
I do not need to know her name to know her. She has given me the courage to speak. Whenever I stay quiet, I perpetuate the same misogyny that killed her. I live in Seattle now. And, thought me to be free. But, the misogyny is spreading. I felt it when working at Expedia in Bellevue. I have no proof. Only the memory of a darkened office where the engineering lead (an indian man) and his manager (an indian man) proceeded to berate me – telling me what a terrible employee and engineer I was. The meeting is not on any schedule. And that of a VP (another indian male) who proceeded from telling me how great an engineer I was in private, to how mediocre I was to his peers and managers. When I challenged him to, he refused to say so in writing. Given only two female Sr. Developers in a company of thousands, I was alone. The men I thought to be decent (many indian men among them), kept quiet and watched, as I gradually lost all my self-confidence and eventually left. It isn’t those that bully, it is the ones that watch and say nothing who promote the impunity to do so again.
I had given up – on corporate america, same as I had given up on Delhi. But, the fighter in me came back. Is this what my daughters have to look forward to? How do I protect them? I built my own company, and with it rebuilt my confidence. With it, I hope I build a better future for my daughters. I watch all the men and women fearlessly protesting in Delhi. With it, I hope they build a better future too.