Pankaja was waiting for more than an hour now. People around her seemed irritated. She could hear someone curse the bus drivers. She was used to all these. She patiently stood in the hot sun. She could see a bus approaching, but it wasn’t the one she was waiting for. It was of a different route. The crowd ran towards the bus. The elderly got pushed and Pankaja heard a few more cuss words.
Suddenly she felt someone touching her hips. Pankaja turned around to see a well dressed man smiling at her. She was shocked. The man pinched her and walked away. Without wasting time, Pankaja pulled that man’s collar. He turned around and winked. His antics irked her all the more. She threw a punch on his face and his nose started bleeding.
Now it was the man’s turn to get shocked. He wasn’t expecting a mighty punch from a puny woman. He took to his heels but Pankaja wasn’t going to let him scot free. She chased him but in vain. Pankaja managed to tear off his collar. The man jumped over a compound wall and vanished before her very eyes.
Pankaja was fuming and people started coming towards her. The aunties especially, were interested in knowing what happened. She told them that the man misbehaved with her. They weren’t satisfied with her reply; they wanted to know more- in detail! Pankaja felt like throwing a punch on that lady’s face as well. How dare these women inquire? None made any attempt to help her. Instead they let the offender run away. They stood watching as if it was a free show and now they demand an explanation!
Teary eyed Pankaja walked back to the bus stop. She missed the bus and had to wait for one more hour now. There were no auto rickshaws available either. She sent a text message to her team leader about the incident and informed her that she would be late. Little did she know what was in store at the office!
As Pankaja stepped in to her cubicle she noticed her colleagues staring at her as if she were nude. Pankaja was taken aback; her team leader had spread the news already. She sat in front of her system and turned it on. Her boss and team leader walked up to her. They would console her now, thought Pankaja. But she was wrong.
The boss yelled at her for coming late to the office. He also told her not to cook up stories. He said that he never expected Pankaja to give him such a ‘silly’ excuse. When she tried to explain, he said “Hush! Don’t speak”. Pankaja wanted to cry out loud. She couldn’t find her voice. Her team leader was nodding her head in agreement as the boss went on scolding Pankaja. The boss left but the team leader stayed back.
Pankaja hoped that at least the team leader would show some respite. But to her utter shock, the team leader mocked Pankaja. She advised Pankaja to come up with better excuses from then on. She also wanted to know as to why only Pankaja was being targeted; why didn’t other female employees ever complain about eve teasing or molesting. “That’s because only a few like me react and others do not” said Pankaja. The team leader looked amused.
“How come I have never been eve teased?” asked the team leader.
Pankaja began choking and excused herself. She could hear the team leader imitating the boss; saying “Hush! Don’t speak”, in a gruff voice. Her colleagues were laughing their lungs out, at this ‘joke’.
None of her colleagues spoke to her the entire day. Pankaja felt unwanted and ignored. It hurt very much and she couldn’t concentrate on her work. It showed and she got yelled at yet again by her boss. She cursed her fate and ran to the washroom. She buried her face in her palms and wept bitterly.
She reached home after a bad day at work and desperately wanted to be consoled. But she was scared of telling her parents about the incident. She knew that her mother would scold and that her father would tell her to quit the job. So she silently went to her room and thought of calling her twin who was at a boarding school.
It was ten in the night and Pankaja kept praying that her twin should not be sleeping. For once luck favoured her and Prajwal picked her call. He sounded quite cheerful and wide awake. He was a good listener and so Pankaja told him everything that happened during the day. She sobbed and sobbed. There was a long pause and Prajwal did not say a word.
Pankaja begged him to console her and then Prajwal told her to have food first and then go to sleep. She was upset. She just wanted to be consoled but Prajwal did not have anything to say. She disconnected the call and went back to bed. Her sulking and sobbing were muffled as she buried her face in the pillow waiting for a miracle to happen.
Days passed and so did weeks. Everything was back to normal. Her colleagues were talking to her. Her boss was in a good mood. Her team leader was busy yelling at someone else. It was just a bad dream, Pankaja thought. She was smiling again after a very long time. She was relieved. She decided not to get affected by such things again.
The streets were unusually dark that night. It occurred to Pankaja that the streetlights weren’t working. The cab driver dropped her in front of her gate and sped away. Just when Pankaja was trying to open the heavy gate, a man from nowhere groped her. She began screaming at the top of her voice but the man shut her mouth. Pankaja didn’t know if he was a thief who wanted her bag or a rapist on the loose.
The area was poorly lit and so she couldn’t see his face. She didn’t know if he was armed either. Yet she mustered courage and lifted her knee and hit him where it hurts the most. His grip loosened and he began writhing in pain. Pankaja began screaming and the man fled the scene.
Hearing the noise, her neighbours came out running. So did her parents. A visibly shaken Pankaja was blabbering. She didn’t know how and where the man went. Her parents took her inside and asked her to calm down. She began panicking all the more. Was that man the very same person who pinched her at the bus stop? Was she being followed? Was he seeking revenge?
Pankaja had to tell her parents about this. She told them what happened at the gate but then chose not to tell them about the bus stop incident. They consoled her and sent her to bed. Pankaja could hear them discuss. They were thinking of getting her married off so that she would be ‘safe’. They were also planning on making her quit the job. It looked like Pankaja’s fears were turning true.
Pankaja didn’t want to give up her job or freedom at any cost. She didn’t want to get married this soon either. She was just 20. She tried convincing her parents but like always her father had the last say. Pankaja wanted to run away, but she couldn’t. She loved her parents but they didn’t understand her. She just didn’t know what to do.
It was decided that Pankaja would submit her resignation and serve her notice period. Meanwhile the parents would get started with the groom hunt. Pankaja hated her life. She asked her twin for help. But Prajwal too was of the opinion that their parents were right. Nobody was ready to help her out. Instead of finding a solution to the problem, her parents wanted to avoid the problem.
Pankaja lost hope. She was no longer interested in anything. She submitted her resignation and stated personal reasons for quitting the job. She was totally hapless. As she sat by the window of the bus, she kept looking out for a messiah to get her out of this mess. But that happened only in movies and novels, right?
After serving the notice period of three months, Pankaja left the job for good and stayed indoors. The groom hunt was still on. But none of the horoscopes that came, matched. And moreover, very few men wanted to marry such a young girl. Educated men preferred women in their mid-twenties. That one incident cost Pankaja her job and her freedom. She would’ve still being going to the office had she not told her parents about the ghastly incident.
Pankaja began putting on weight sitting at home all day doing nothing. So she decided to shed a few kilos by going for a walk every morning. She took her dog with her whenever she went out. She didn’t want any stalker attacking her again. Even if her dog wasn’t a huge beast, she had faith in it that it would bite the man who tries to get violent with her.
One morning Pankaja was walking her dog when an earthmover blocked her way. She decided to take another road as the entire stretch was dug up. She was humming a tune and walking when her dog stopped by a bush and began barking. She tried to pull the leash harder but the dog wouldn’t budge. A man sprang out of the bush!
He looked more like a rag picker and appeared completely drunk. He walked towards Pankaja menacingly. Pankaja knew that if she’d run he’d chase her. So she tried to shoo the intoxicated man away, with her dog barking madly at him. But the man wasn’t scared of canines. He advanced towards her and grabbed her hand. Her dog bit his hand and did not let him go.
The rag picker kicked the dog and it went flying! The leash was broken and her dog was lying at a distance, whimpering. Pankaja had no option but to run. She ran as fast as she could. She picked up her dog and ran home. Her father was a worried man. He took the dog to the vet. Her mother tried talking sense in to her. What was Pankaja’s fault? Wasn’t she supposed to step out of the house at all?
Pankaja lost her cool and yelled back at her mother. Her mother was shocked. Neither Pankaja nor Prajwal had ever raised their voices in the presence of their parents. But now Pankaja was arguing.
“You have been given too much of liberty and that’s the reason why you don’t have any manners now. We made a huge mistake by sending you to work after college. We should have got you married off then and there. At least then we didn’t have to see this day” said her mother. When she tried to justify, the same words were uttered. This time, by her mother. “Hush! Don’t speak”.
Pankaja rushed to her room closing the door behind her with a loud bang. She wanted to kill herself. She was being shouted at for no fault of hers. She was being punished for no fault of hers. She was being treated like a burden for no fault of hers. But she knew that suicide was not at all an answer. She had so many dreams and aspirations to achieve before dying.
She knew that her parents would choose a groom who would be strict like them. He would expect her to stay indoors all the time and do household chores all day. She didn’t wish to get drunk, smoke, do drugs or flirt with men. All she wanted was to be happy. She wanted to earn her own bread. She wanted her parents to be proud of her. She wanted peace of mind. But now she was nothing but a caged canary.
A family friend residing in the same neighbourhood came to her house one day. She had a proposal for Pankaja. She discussed the alliance with Pankaja’s parents. It looked more or so that the horoscopes would match. Her parents were relieved and super excited about the alliance. They were laughing and talking loudly as if the marriage was fixed.
Pankaja kept staring at the ceiling. She was just trying to stop her tears from rolling down her cheeks. Suddenly, the guest invited Pankaja to join the conversation. Reluctantly she sat with them with a fake smile on her face. The guest seemed to know about the groping incident. She asked Pankaja if that was the reason why she quit the job.
Before Pankaja could open her mouth, her parents began speaking for her. They began abusing companies that make female employees work late in the night. The guest agreed with them and said that girls should not step out of the house after five in the evening. She kept telling how girls invite trouble by attending late night parties, watching late night movies in theatres and by working in graveyard shifts.
Pankaja felt an itch to ask the guest about the plight of those women who are sole breadwinners of the family and have to work day and night to make ends meet. Will the guest provide them an alternate day job, Pankaja wanted to know. Is working in the night shift reserved only for men? What about students who work at night to pay college fees? How will staying indoors after five o’clock going to help them make a living?
Pankaja so badly wanted to ask the guest those questions but then she preferred not to. The guest then said that girls were being molested in broad daylight too. And she told the parents about the man pinching Pankaja at the bus stop! There was a moment of pin drop silence in the living area.
How on earth did that woman know of that incident! Pankaja turned a pale white. Her parents were equally baffled. The guest went on telling them how Pankaja chased the man and tore off his shirt collar. Her parents turned to look at Pankaja who now was trembling with fear. They made her tell them what happened. Pankaja asked the guest as to how did she know of the incident.
The guest jubilantly told her that she too was at the same bus stop waiting for a bus. Pankaja was so disappointed. She asked the guest, “Aunty, didn’t you feel like helping me? Why were you just watching? Why didn’t you raise an alarm, call the cops or do something?” asked a pained Pankaja.
Her parents began yelling at Pankaja before the guest could come up with some reason. “Why did you chase him? What do you think of yourself? Are you a wrestler? What if he followed you? What if he threw acid at you? Who would have married you then? What if he tried to kill you? Have you ever thought of that?” her parents went on.
“Then what was I supposed to do? Let him grope and pinch me?” asked Pankaja. Her father was astonished at Pankaja’s response. He yelled, “Hush! Don’t speak”, and warned her of dire consequences if she dared argue with him.
Pankaja had had enough. She demanded an answer. The guest too took sides and supported her parents. She reminded Pankaja that she was a woman and that a woman can never overpower a man.
“Agreed, but did that mean that the man had the license to do whatever and wherever he pleased? Nobody would stop or question him? And the victim should keep mum when being humiliated and tortured? People around should become mute spectators and enjoy the show?”
Questions ran on her mind one after the other. But she did not feel like posing them to her parents or the guest. They would only keep reminding her that she was the ‘weaker’ sex. The discussion did not stop at that. The guest then opined that wearing provocative dresses invited unwanted attention. And that was why men misbehave with women, she said.
Pankaja interrupted. “But aunty, I always wear Salwar Kameez! I hope you remember what I wore that day. Why are burqa clad women eve teased? Why are kids and infants raped? They don’t wear provocative…”
“Enough Pankaja. Go to your room. You have been speaking much these days. Mind your tongue” yelled her mother. Pankaja couldn’t believe that her parents could be so narrow-minded. Not only her parents but also the guest and in fact, the whole society was!
Just as Pankaja was heading to her room, she noticed the show running on TV. It was the Mahabharatha. Draupadi’s saree was being pulled by Duryodhana and Dushyasana while her five husbands vowed to kill all the Kauravas. Bheeshma, Drona, Kunti et al were watching the horrific act but do nothing.
Pankaja’s parents were busy talking; they weren’t even watching the show. But Pankaja was moved by the plight of Draupadi on screen. She could empathise with the character. Her throat hurt and she couldn’t swallow saliva either. She felt like her eye balls could pop out any time. There was so much of anger, frustration, disappointment and pain in her that desperately needed a vent.
She knew the story of Mahabharatha very well, yet she stood there watching the show. She knew that the Pandavas wage a war and kill the Kauravas to avenge the humiliation done to their wife. Thousands of men are killed, for the sake of a woman’s honour. Would the scenario be same now? What an irony! People would advise Draupadi to ignore. She might be told to forget the incident and move on. Or may be she would be forced to stay indoors all her life! She would be told, “Hush! Don’t speak”.
Pankaja felt the very same pain she felt the day that man pinched her. She felt the same fear she felt when that man groped her. She felt the same helplessness she felt when the rag picker grabbed her hand. She stared at the TV screen and a miracle happens. Draupadi calls out Lord Krishna’s name and he comes to her aid. But who will come to Pankaja’s aid now? Who will save the honour of all those Pankajas out there? None.