A general, unwritten tenet of Indian society is to ‘get over it’. The amount of apathy that we are capable of is astounding to many, but only if you grew up in India do you truly appreciate the neglect and contempt as which this apathy manifests. It seems, we believe in this: It does not matter, it happens to everybody. Get over it.
Vishnupriya Bhandaram was on an overnight bus from Hyderabad to Chennai and woke up to a fellow passenger’s cold, disgusting hand inside her blouse. She pushed the man away and defended herself, kicking and screaming as loudly as she could. With little help from her fellow passengers, she confronted her assailant. He offered an excuse about how he had a dream, and referred to her as ‘sister’; when this failed to vindicate him, he fled the scene by jumping out of the bus onto the highway.
Vishnupriya dealt with this incident the way she thought was best: Taking it to Facebook. On July 9th 2013, she wrote a note on her personal Facebook page describing the incident, with a photo she had managed to snap of her assailant. ‘I got molested last night, and I want to open up a dialogue about it’, she wrote. The note can be found here. In less than 48 hours, the note was shared over 500 times on Facebook, and comments continue pour in with support and apologies, and a usual dose of Indian moral policing.
I caught up with Vishnupriya over Google chat, ill at ease owing to my inexperience at interviewing heroines. “I’m sorry my answers are late”, she responded after a few minutes. “I’m eating this samosa and so my hands were busy”.
Like many other bold and funny ladies of our generation, she is quick-witted and was easy to talk to. I started off with the question that’s on all of our minds:
What made you think of using Facebook? Was it just the best way to reach the most number of people, or was there a particular reason?
Facebook is the closest thing I have that you could compare to a journal. Only, this journal is accessible to my friends. I share a lot of things on Facebook, my Instagram feeds, pictures of pizza slices, fleeting feelings, status updates, one line-movie reviews and what not. So when I decided to write about it, it wasn’t written with a particular audience in view. It was just another story I wanted to share, albeit much longer than a status update. The idea was never to ‘reach the most number of people’ – that happened by the sheer power of that ‘share’ button.
Even among the ‘youthful’ communities on Facebook, there are hushed whispers of ‘How will she get married? This will follow her forever.’ I spoke with one person who said, ‘The lack of anonymity is an inherent flaw of Facebook, but why would you put your personal life on the Internet?’
You talk about anonymity, tell me- why should I be scared? I was wronged by that man and by the on-lookers; certainly, I shouldn’t have to hide my face because someone touched me inappropriately. If I were to endorse anonymity it is an insult to my upbringing, education and intellect. Most importantly, it would mean that shame and fear are placed on the wrong side of the table and this to me is a bigger injustice.
Can you tell us about the reactions that you have been receiving from your commenters?
First of all, it was overwhelming. Within hours, I’d received so many comments, from a Telugu feminist writer, from people living across the country, some even from the UK and Australia. Comments on the post are representative of the common anger that most women feel. I must admit, there were some really nuanced and reflective comments that took my breath away. At this point, I’ll also admit that I did not shed tears in the bus but I found myself tearing up after reading a barrage of personal messages that I received – women who wanted to share their stories, lawyers who wanted to help, the list is endless. Of course there was one naysayer and another who was ‘concerned’ about what I was doing to my ‘family prestige’. But the bigger picture wins for sure when you realize that an increasing section of people exist, who understand the deeper issue at hand and want to do something about it.
Like you’d shared on Facebook, your assailant has gone on to message you and offer ‘clarification’ to his actions. Just to that post, I read comments that said you must give him a chance, because you have ‘changed’ him. What is your reaction to this? I understand that your reason for doing this was not to smoke him out or publicly shame him, but to bring this up and get people talking about it. Have you been receiving any backlash or threats?
What is the chance that I must give him? I view it as psychological warfare, to appeal to my sense of forgiveness. This wasn’t unintentional or an accident and hence there can be no forgiveness. There are others who would disagree and they are entitled to their opinion, just like I am entitled to mine. Since the pain was mine to bear, the forgiveness is only mine to give and frankly my dear; at this moment- I don’t give a damn.
How has the reaction from your family been? One of your commenters had mentioned that by making this public you’re ‘transferring your shame to your family’. What do you have to say about that?
Ah! Family. I was always the rebel, the radical one, and the one who had strong opinions. I think they saw this day coming and they have only been supportive. I used to find it odd and silly that 50-year-olds like my mother and my aunts should find Facebook so amusing. My aunt is a YouTube-r, while my mother loves Farmville! However, in all of this, it is heartening to see my aunt share in my small triumph or see my mother break many of her past silences through me. It gives me a sense of accomplishment – however small it might be. As a family, we discuss news, we discuss women and we discuss what is right and what is wrong and this situation has only proven that we are not merely here to talk, but are indeed capable of backing it up with some action.
Undoubtedly, the only thing worse than the actual incident was the absolute nonchalance of your fellow passengers, followed by the way that the bus authorities handled it. Can you tell us more about these things?
I travel by bus frequently. I make last-minute trips to either holiday or visit family. Buses are convenient, but sadly, they are a breeding ground for inappropriate touching as well. I stopped taking semi-sleepers because I had a similar incident when I was about 18 or 19, of course I beat him up then too, but I try to not take semi-sleepers. Sleepers were fine and this was the first time such a thing happened to me on a sleeper bus. Essentially, the issue lies in the lack of awareness and the inability to react appropriately.
Men get awkward and they spend way too much time wondering if they should help you when instead it would help if they would. Bus authorities are clueless; they aren’t briefed about how to handle such events either. A certain guideline must be in place – a procedure starting with not letting the alleged molester get off the bus, noting down his name number and details from an ID, either taking the alleged molester and complainant to the police station, either nearest or the one at the destination. Most mishaps on transit usually have jurisdictional issues; these must be looked into as well. It involves a little bit of work but once in place, there is no reason why things shouldn’t go smoothly.
This is my last question, and you need not answer it if you don’t have an answer yet. Are you willing to seek justice? You mention quite clearly in your note that you want to open up a conversation. It definitely has, and you’ve been successful in removing yourself from the (usual) image of a ‘victim’ and gone on to be more of a ‘crime fighting social media ninja’. How has this impacted the way in which you deal with this situation? You are now everybody’s cause- a mockingbird, if you will. Has the support you’ve received helped this decision in any way?
As a matter of fact, the more reactions I got, the more strongly I felt about taking action. I have as of now spoken to the Police Commissioner in Hyderabad and I e-mailed him a detailed complaint along with all the pictures I took from the phone.
I don’t know what will come out of it, and honestly- I don’t care. What I care about is that I took a step. A step that is seen as unnecessary by most –making an official complaint. But a word of caution would be to not depend on the results of the complaint, complete your responsibility towards your body and mind – make a complaint. The rest will follow. I must assure you it is liberating to tell your story and be heard. Silence is what these men thrive on, start a conversation, talk about it and men like the one I encountered on the bus won’t have a sturdy silence guarding them anymore. Also, please use technology. If you can Instagram your pasta, you can definitely take a picture of your molester. Smartphones for the win. Even if it is blurred, it will scare the bejesus out of him/her.
As we e-mailed back and forth during our conversation, Vishnupriya reiterated that she hopes this piece will be about the issue at hand, and not about her. But as I finish writing this up, I realize that the protagonist of this story is not molestation, it is she. It is the courage of a girl who thinks it is but natural to not victimize herself, but fight for justice. Quoting her, “People have an ‘abla naari’/ woman in distress sort of an imagination when it comes to a victim of molestation, they almost always assume that you must be crying, moping about the issue to no end. Different people react in different ways. Not all victims bottle themselves up in a dark room begging for death! Just saying.”
And on behalf of strong and decent human beings everywhere- Cheers to that.
This article is originally written for Talking Cranes.