Murugan stretched his hands up in the air and yawned. Half the seats in his bus were empty. ‘College kids always take their time at a dinner stop. There they are laughing..wonder when they will get into the bus’, he muttered to himself. ‘Two Hindis- check. hmm, the IT guy has boarded the bus. Good. Yellow duppatta aunty – check. Who else , who else? Ah, our 2 military uncles. Where are they now? Hmmm..’, he opened the window, put his head out and looked around.
He noticed the driver Daas, standing outside the restaurant, sipping a hot cup of tea. The college kids were just starting to walk towards the bus. ‘Two boys, three girls – check’, Murugan’s mind worked as his eyes continued to search for the uncles. Turning his head towards Daas , he shouted, “Namma military uncles innum erla. Paathiya?”. The driver without a word, pointed his hand to the side of the hotel. ‘What are they doing there?’, Murugan wondered. He got his answer in a second. Chandran made a thumbs up sign with his hand and brought it up to his mouth.
Murugan sighed and slumped down to his seat. He hated the smell of liquor. But there were no written rules on this, so at times, few passengers brought a bottle with them and helped themselves at dinner stops. They usually go right to sleep on boarding the bus, so he hadn’t felt a need to make a big issue of it so far.
A commotion outside got him looking out of the window again. A woman in her 30s, wearing a pretty kurti and jeans, was arguing with a man outside the restaurant, in front of the paan-staal. Daas was standing right beside it. She was looking animated, pointing fingers and accusing a guy of something. Murugan noticed the military man say something to the girl which made her even more agitated. He knew he had to get down now.
“I’m going to call the police!”, the woman was shouting. Murugan inquired with his eyes to the military man.The woman had come out of the restaurant, when the paan-seller’s customer whistled at her and called her ‘sema kattai’. “Or so she says”, the military man added softly. “The paan seller says the guy did not whistle at her and she is making a scene.She says they are all liars supporting a rascal for money. She wants to go to the police. For this! See the fun yourself!”, finished the military man.
“Look ma, if you go to the police, you will not have any witness. This paan-walla isn’t go to say anything. Why make a big issue of it? Leave it. Even if it is true that he had whistled at you, let it go. He called you some name, so you call him a pig and go about your business. He didn’t do anything right? Why make a big fuss?”, the military man was saying to the girl. She stared at him. And scanned the crowd. “You are all pigs”, she said and walked briskly to her car. “Wha..?! The nerve of her! No wonder men call her names!”, Murugan heard someone say. The crowd dispersed soon.
Murugan wiped the sweat off his forehead and checked his watch. 15 more minutes for the bus to start. He noticed the yellow duppatta lady get down from the bus. She was walking towards a tea stall that was to the left of the restaurant. “Might as well drink a tea myself”, he thought. It was a small shop run by two men. Murugan saw the lady standing with the crowd waiting to be heard. Murugan came near the stall. She was waving her money and shouting her order. Murugan looked as a bulky man inched his way to her and rub against her calling out his order a little louder than her. The lady wrapped her dupatta a little more closer to her and hesitated a second before waving her money again.
Murugan tapped her on her arm. “I will get the tea for you madam. You wait in the bus”. The lady paused for few seconds as if weighing his suggestion, then smiled a thanks and left.
“Bus will depart in 5 minutes“, he announced loudly before boarding the bus with 2 tea cups in hand. After handing a tea cup to the lady, he moved to his seat, the first row on the right side. This was his special seat. There was a conductor seat to the left of the driver, but Murugan sits there only when he wants to give company to Daas or when the bus is full. On other days, like this one, when he knew there were less passengers, he boards the bus first and makes sure everyone knows that this was his seat.
It was where he sat the first day of his job. It was the seat he always ate his lunch in, thinking about life and his dreams. And 2 years back, when he got married, he had brought Seetha to his work and made her sit there, while Daas took them both for a short drive. He smiled as he remembered the way her glass bangles clinked against each other as she held onto the front rail and shrieked when Daas applied the brakes. He was a little disappointed she didn’t hold onto him then but he never told her that.
“Vanthaacha Muruga elarum?”, Daas’ voice brought him back to reality. He stood up to check for the military uncles. Looks like finally everyone got settled in their seats. When he okayed the departure, the bus geared to leave the hotel. It was 8.40 p.m. The TV in the bus was showing Tamanah wearing skimpy clothes and dancing in the rain with Karthi, who was fully clad in jeans and shirt.
The college girls were talking amongst each other about a recently released film. They were talking about how feminism had been brilliantly portrayed in that. “All women should definitely see this movie. It will inspire you to be independent. Men and women were given equally important roles” one of the girls stated. “Which movie ma?”, Murugan asked.
The girls mentioned the name. The North Indian lady nudged her husband, “I have been wanting to go to that movie too. Shall I go with Renu this Sunday?”, she asked. “Sunday…? But I’m meeting my friends then. They will come to our home for dinner too…How about you change your plan to sometime later? It’s just a movie right, it will be there next weekend”, the husband suggested. “Yes, but I wanted to do this..”, she muttered as Murugan listened in silence.
“Seetha used to like all movies..even the bad ones’, Murugan thought. He remembered the time when she jumped at any chance to leave the house. Every night, she waited eagerly for Murugan to tell his bus stories. She was frustrated that he got to be away in bus for two days, while all that she had to do was sit and talk to neighbors. It was after one of these two day trips, when Murugan returned home that she blurted, “I want to work. Like you..”, she added sweetly.
Seetha almost hit him when he responded to her with a, “But..what do you know?”. She was a high school pass out, so in her mind, she was sure she could get a job. When she eventually got one at a tailoring institute, she couldn’t contain her excitement. Murugan tried his best to be the best husband for her, helping her with house work, but Seetha seemed to have no problems in managing both house and work. She just wanted to be out of the house, Murugan remembered thinking. She was like a toddler who just realized his legs were there for running.
“Murugan, do you have any snacks?”, called the military man. Murugan went to give a pack of mixture to him. “Thanks Murugan. This yellow dupatta girl. Is anyone with her?”, inquired the military man as he opened the packet and shared it with him. “Why are these women traveling alone in the night..? Hmm…all these incidents happening in the city but they act as if they don’t have brains”, the man continued. Murugan looked at the front seat. He noticed the IT guy had also come alone. He didn’t mention that to the military man. Instead he turned and walked to the college guys.
“Big plans tomorrow?”, he asked them. “Yes..we are going to a meeting on women empowerment. Youths all over the country are collecting there to speak on the injustice happening to women..maina, gender inequality that exists everywhere”, said one of the guys. “Good good, who will be coming to the meeting?”, asked Murugan. “Everyone’s invited. Many youngsters gather to speak about this. A celebrity speaker and some well known writers will be there too. It’s all to raise awareness”, said a girl. Murugan considered what he just heard. He thought about sending the paan-waala and the tea stall owner to the meeting.
“What’s wrong ji?”, the college kids asked. “Nothing nothing.. I’m thinking how good it would be when what you do reaches those who actually need it”. Murugan came back down and switched channels. A talk show was going on. The two teams seemed to argue on whether women have attained real freedom or not. One team seemed to be arguing that women have already attained what they dreamed about, but are still complaining. Another team was arguing about the freedom that they are still struggling to get.
“This is nonsense. Look here, some girls are travelling alone and some with boys! Can we have imagined this before? The way they dress, the way they talk!”, said the North Indian husband. “I know! I have a woman as my manager. She is such a b—–. We call her our Nazi. These women talk as if they need equality, in reality it’s us men who actually need equality”, added the IT guy. It was going to be a 1 hour show. Murugan switched to the news.
After the usual political story, there came the daily incident report, which caught everybody’s eye. A 25 year old lady was returning to her home at around 10pm with her manager in his car, when the manager took her to secluded spot and tried to rape her. She somehow escaped from the car and managed to catch an auto. She was okay but a case has been filed on the manager, the report said.
Murugan sat frozen to the screen, even after the news broke to advertisements. “Atrocious! These type of people, we should shoot them in public”, said the North Indian man. “Why is this woman leaving office with her boss anyway? That too at 10’0 clock!”, added his wife.
“It’s just these women with ideologies. They walk in mini skirts late in-” started the man again. “So it’s as if the girls are begging to be raped??” interrupted one of the college girls.
“We don’t even know if she was attacked.. maybe she had something against her boss that she played this drama out. I mean, why would an educated guy do that! Oh..maybe she wanted it and decided against it at the last minute”, spoke the IT guy.
“Are you kidding me! Who kids about an assault!”, chirped the young girls.
Murugan clutched his head with two hands. He felt suffocated..he opened the window quickly and took deep breaths. It never changes, Murugan groaned. He remembered the evening Seetha came in later than usual. Murugan took a look at her and slumped down on the floor. She looked all scared and shaky. She said nothing.. The scratches on her face and hands spoke volumes. For a long while she kept staring at her palms, as if something was written there. She didn’t answer to any of Murugan’s cries.
Then she ran to the basin and started scrubbing her hands with dish soap and sponge. She kept scrubbing and scrubbing, as tears kept flowing down her cheeks. The whole night she sat on the kitchen floor staring at the wall. Suddenly she would run to the basin and start scrubbing her hands again. Murugan cried with her, howled at her to respond, but she never opened her mouth.
Murugan was broken. Every time he looked at her, he felt weak. She didn’t go to office after that. But she got up everyday and cooked for him. Then she went to bed. And stayed there until it was time for her to cook again. Murugan didn’t know if he has to tell somebody. He knew he could inform the police, but he didn’t know if he wanted to. She has been through enough, he decided. After some weeks of rest she might be alright, he felt.
The military man spoke up again. “Tell me one thing people. Since we are all adults here..I have always had a doubt”, the military man drawled. “His booze has gone to his brain”, muttered the IT guy.
“See, I have always wanted to know something but have never had the guts to ask..Tell me, this girl, and all the other girls, why do they fight when they are attacked? It is after all sex right? They like it when their boy friend take them to a room, but why do they keep struggling with the rapists? If they try to relax, it won’t be rape, right? The woman can try to enjoy the pleasure it gives. You all have heard about the earbud and ear analogy eh?”, the man gave a loud laugh that vibrated throughout the bus. No one spoke. The tension in the air could be sliced with a knife.
“What the hell! Have sex with your daughter and see if it pleases her, you motherfu–“, started the IT guy and came rushing out of his seat towards him.
The yellow dupatta lady spoke up. “Stop it! Stop! All of us are to blame for this mentality. This ‘Enjoy rape, if you can’t prevent it’ exists in the minds of many people but they are scared to ask. He was drunk enough to brazenly talk about it. Rape is the extreme dominance that a male inflicts on a female. He breaks her physically, mentally and psychologically that at times it takes her decades to recover. And you equate it with sex?!”, she asked the military man.
“What do you mean we promote this mentality??” the IT guy butted in.
“Yes, everyone of us, why is it hard to believe?! We as a society implicitly promote a rape culture that excuses and tolerates sexual violence”, the lady spoke on.
“In our minds, as long as it’s not rape, it’s not that bad. But the rest of it is not ok too! Looking at a woman’s chest is not ok! Commenting on a woman’s dress is not ok. Catcalling is not ok. Not taking the victims seriously when they report an assault, not ok. We trivialize things that shouldn’t be trivialized. We have grown to expect men to act however they please and we expect women to adjust to it..if they are not silent, they are called names”, she said.
Murugan looked at the IT guy as she talked. He seemed to be busy with his phone. “But people have started raising voices ma’am”, one of the college girls said. The lady was silent. “Yeah…But don’t you feel that for every two steps a woman takes, she is pushed a step back?”, the lady asked.
“Don’t be sad ma. Every single step matters”, said the Hindi lady. In her mind she was already making plans to call Renu to watch the movie this weekend.
Most of the people had fallen asleep by now. The bus jogged through the night as Murugan thought about what the lady had said. He remembered the look in Seetha’s eyes when he said that he had decided to not register a police complaint. Maybe if had, she would have been alive to listen to this bus story now.