(Originally wrote this for the Blank Noise Project blogathon – I’d been told the post didn’t necessarily have to be on street harassment. Oh well, it can sit here now.)
I was nine when my parents separated and my mother and I moved into a new flat. My relationship with my mom had always been very candid, and so it was that even at that early age I developed an understanding of the perceptions many men had about divorced women: that they were available, desperate for any form of companionship – and even fundamentally loose-charactered (it being a major step in our society for a woman to leave her husband’s home, and therefore indicative that she was unconventional in her thinking = not a sweet, submissive Bharatiya naari = Westernised = unprincipled).
One of the first friends my mother made in the new colony was this slightly sad-faced lady (I’m not sure if she was like that from the very beginning or if I’ve ascribed those qualities to her retrospectively) who I’ll call Ritika aunty. She would often visit, sometimes with her husband Rajiv, and mum and I would occasionally go across to their place as well. I can’t recall what I thought of him back then – my memory is so clouded by what happened later – but I probably thought he was an okay sort: the adult male figures in my life up to that point hadn’t exactly been paragons of normalcy, and compared to them most uncles would have seemed okay-sorts.
Ritika and Rajiv seemed the picture of a “normal” couple – well-settled, living in a decent-sized house with two small children and one large dog. Which is why it’s easy to imagine how shaken my mother was when one day – a year or so into our acquaintance with them – Rajiv called her up late one evening and, after initially asking if his wife was around, started making overtures. The kind of talk that begins with “What do you do all day, it must get very dull” and progresses with surprising swiftness to “Is the kid asleep? Should I come over?”
The first thing mum did was to tell me about it. The second thing (and this is something not many women would have had the courage to do) was to call Ritika aunty over and give her the whole story as calmly and straightforwardly as possible. I think it’s equally creditable (given how women in Indian society are conditioned to be fiercely loyal to their husbands just to maintain appearances, “family honour” etc) that Ritika accepted the story without fuss, admitting that she had long suspected Rajiv was up to all sorts of things behind her back, but had resigned herself to it. I imagine she confronted him about it later, and of course that was the end of any contact between him and us. They’re still very much together, though I don’t know what sort of a relationship it must be.
The incident had a major effect on my mother. She no longer felt as free or as comfortable talking with her friends’ husbands as she had before – even with the ones she had known for many years and genuinely believed to be decent men. This most relaxed, unselfconscious of women started feeling the need to measure everything she said at get-togethers. She told me once that she didn’t know anymore whether to laugh at a risqué joke told by a male friend, even if it was in his wife’s presence – because if another such incident ever occurred she might be accused of having brought it on herself by being over-familiar. As tactfully as possible, she made it clear to her closest friends that she was more comfortable when they visited alone rather than with their husbands. Inevitably, the strings of some of those friendships were loosened as a result. And all because of one stupid episode.
I’d like to think things have changed since those days in terms of how men look at a divorced/separated woman – or in terms of people being more accepting of independent women in general. But every once in a while I’m reminded they haven’t. A friend who recently got divorced told me about how she’d been getting strange, scarily persistent phone calls and SMSes from male acquaintances: come-ons based on the assumption that she must now be lonely or insecure. These included guys who were themselves married or in relationships, and who had never been anything more than pleasantly cordial to her when she was married. And I’m talking here about a woman with a thriving career, financial security and parents who were supportive of her all the way through. I can only imagine what it must be like for others who aren’t as lucky. It makes it easier to understand why thousands of women in this country persist in sticking on in bad marriages.
P.S. I still see Ritika aunty around the colony sometimes, looking tired and careworn, usually leading a big dog listlessly around. (It’s almost always a different dog – none of their pets lives very long because this isn’t a family of animal-lovers, they just keep getting dogs to fill the empty spaces in their lives.) She even drops in briefly once every few months but the friendship between her and my mum has never been the same since.