Heroes & Villains
Those of you who have watched Bollywood movies (or any Indian movie, for that matter) would remember at least one scene where the heroine is being harassed by a villain with blood-shot eyes, obscene muscles and chains dangling all over his body1. With tattoos of all shapes, sizes and colours jumping up and down those bulging biceps, but with a laugh that completely underwhelms the visual spectacle, you would have seen him running after the poor helpless girl. In most cases, he would have at least three henchmen with him, who sometimes needed to be reminded who they were actually chasing - their muscle man boss or the damsel in distress!
And just when they are almost upon the girl and all hope seems to be lost, the muscle man suddenly flies off thirty feet and falls to the ground, breaking heaps of flower pots and toppling over a cart of fruits and vegetables on the way down. For that is when the hero makes his grand entrance; and when you realize that it was just a swipe of the hero's hand that sent the villain flying, you cannot but help shout and whistle in appreciation along with all the others in the cinema. Watching a movie in an Indian cinema is indeed a highly recommended experience - one that should be there on any half-decent list of "things I want to do before it is too late", but that's a topic on its own for another day!
Coming back to the hero who stands up for the cause of justice, breaking the hands and legs of the evil men and sending them limping and scurrying away, not a single strand of his well-combed hair falling out of place - he is an inspiration for all men. Some of us may have been in such situations, maybe not as dramatic but in essence quite similar, and our responses may have been varied. My real interest here is not so much in understanding how you responded or why, but in asking you if you have ever felt like standing up in front of a crowd, puffing out your chest, holding a girl's hand and shouting "she is mine!"? It seemed to me that such an exuberant exclamation would be more natural after you have saved her from a few evil men - hence the elaborate setting up of the Bollywood scene earlier.
As for me, I can remember at least two such instances, and fortunately for me, on both occasions it helped that the villains were only half my size!
The first instance was when we were coming out from a cinema after watching probably the saddest Malayalam movie ever made - I guess Preethi's eyes were still wet with tears and that is why she did not see the groping hand that seemed to dart out of nowhere. She is normally supremely alert in these kind of situations and can smell a rat a mile away. I did not notice it too until a second too late. But just like the hero, I too swiped my hand, and the puny guy fell to the ground at least three, if not thirty feet away! Before a crowd could gather, he had scooted. I thought of giving chase, but this was many years before our marriage, when watching a movie together was still frowned upon. I remember her restraining hand on my arm - we definitely did not want to be the focus of any unnecessary attention. So he escaped - no broken flower pots and all his bones still intact.
The other instance was in a public bus, which is the breeding ground for many such shameful acts. It takes a lot of strategic planning to be able to sit as a couple on a Kerala bus, because there would normally be two or three double seats at the front of the bus, reserved strictly for women2. So, if you wished to sit together as a couple, you would be best advised to sit on the first set of seats just behind the reserved seats - else what would happen is that before you sat down, you would have to get up and offer your seat to a lady who had just boarded. On this particular trip we were lucky, and she was sitting by the window with me beside her. But before long, a hand slowly crept up from behind, by the window. She realised it almost at once, leaned over and whispered in my ear. I didn't need to swipe this time; I turned back and gave the guy a drop dead stare - I could literally see him curl into himself. He got up immediately and left, but not before getting quite an earful. And as if that were not enough, I said out loud to the guy who moved in to the empty seat - these guys should have their hands chopped off! I guess my comment served the purpose - the poor chap who moved in to the hastily vacated seat, sat with his hands folded for almost the whole of the two hour trip! By the way, these perverts who harass women are generally the biggest cowards - all it takes is a firm stare and invariably they will make a hasty retreat.
During and after both these incidents, I felt deep within me a sense of possession, a sense that I needed to protect this girl, a sense that I needed to hold her hand and a sense that she was indeed mine. But probably my biggest "stand-up and puff-my-chest" moment came much earlier than both these incidents and definitely in lesser dramatic circumstances.
It actually happened on another bus trip3. In fact, it was our first ever bus trip together. There were no empty seats this time; there was just about enough space for us to stand. As mentioned earlier, the ladies were sectioned off toward the front of the bus. I managed to squeeze my way up from the back to the front of the men's section and I could not go up any further. I could see her standing and holding on to the handle bar on the ceiling of the bus, trying hard not to lose her balance and fall, as the bus veered and swerved on its way.
And that is when the conductor (the person who collects the bus fare from the passengers) came over. We were still in college back then and in those days, a student (or indeed anyone who looked like one!) could travel on a 10 paisa ticket, as long and as far he or she wanted. Though it was not fair to the bus owners, they dared not ask for more, because if they did, the very next day the students would ensure that the particular bus was stopped and all its glasses shattered. You see, life was anything but dull, growing up in Kerala! So, when the conductor came and asked for my ticket, something made me impulsively take out two ten paisa coins. And before the surprised conductor could react, I gestured to the front of the bus and pointed out the girl in the yellow dress.
The conductor nodded his head and I saw him weave his way up to the front and I watched intently as he approached her. Unaware of my grand action, she offered her own ten paisa coin to the conductor. But he did not take it and instead gestured to the back - he probably thought she would understand; but she did not, because it was not something she was expecting. She offered her fare a second time. I saw the conductor then lean over, say something and point to me. She turned back and looked at me in surprise.
In the blink of an eye, I felt slightly taller and my chest swelled in happiness. And then and there, my friend, was when I thanked the Almighty from the bottom of my heart and silently shouted to the world "this girl, she is mine!"
It didn't take an expensive ring, it didn't take a romantic candlelight dinner, it didn't take a trip out to an exotic getaway; all it took was a ten paisa coin and a look that said, "don't worry, I am there for you".
She smiled and turned away.
1 I am reminded of the "specialist women harassers" of Indian cinema - Prem Chopra, Ranjeet, Pran and a few more in Hindi, Ummer and Balan K Nair in Malayalam. From the crude and shabby to the suave and sophisticated pipe-smoking villains, these guys had only one ambition in life - to make the life of the poor heroine as miserable as possible!
2 I may be wrong, but I don't believe any other state in India has this reservation system - is it related or just a coincidence that the harassment of women on buses happens far more in Kerala than anywhere else in India?
3 Our friends who know us well, will attest to the fact that we spent most of our time together on buses, trains, bus stands or railway stations!