The murder of Rajeeb Das, a teenager in a Kolkata suburb has Bengal all shaken up once again. Rajeeb Das was escorting his sister back from her work when some drunken lumpens in the street corner in a Kolkata suburb wanted to molest her. These drunken vagabonds murdered Rajeeb Das brutally when he protested. The venue of the crime was the front gate of the District Magistrate’s bungalow. As the bad characters were beating up this child, the older sister ran up to the guards at the officers’ gates and begged for help; the policemen on duty refused to relent. The sister helplessly watched her brother being pounded to death. This shameless act of eve teasing has left Bengal gaping because for long the Bengalis pretended that they were one great ethnic group that guaranteed freedom to women. Among many lies in the world, this is indeed one.
I never experienced Bengal as a space where women can move freely. Gazes, eye movements, body language, and lewd comments would make my life miserable in the state of my birth. I always wore loose clothes, had no hair do, never used make up and looked every inch a plain Jane which in no way could ever appeal to any man as an embodiment of feminine desirata. Yet, I and not my friends who were more beautiful than I and who were commensurately conscious of their endowments, was the target of the obnoxious obscenity. I could never understand the puzzle. I started excelling in physical sports so that I would end up looking stronger and more weather beaten but there was little let up in the concerted effort of Kolkata men to make me uncomfortable. I started feeling hemmed in and cornered, molested and mauled in Kolkata. I stopped venturing out. I left Presidency College in eight days flat as soon as my name appeared in Jadavpur University’s admission list only because I could never get myself to board buses where men did not know how to behave. Soon, the road became a nightmare for me. Unable to bear this constraint, I decided to leave home at last to breathe free in Delhi, a city that is supposed to be India’s crime capital apart from being the political capital of the country. Another woman friend, who had similarly migrated to Delhi for her masters education agreed that Delhi was a far freer zone for women to move about than Kolkata. In Delhi, my grand aunt was the other person to second my thesis about Kolkata and her ghastly stories about eve teasers helped me realize that eve teasing has been a part of the city’s culture since aeons of time.
After the Rajeeb Das murder, Nilanjana Sanyal, a teacher of Calcutta University’s psychology department wrote a piece in Ananda Bazar Patrika in which she tried to theorize eve teasing as consumerism. She decided that rapists attack women out of lust and hence murder who ever stands between them and their platter. She suggests that the growing consumerism lies at the heart of a class competition which translates into competitive consumption and hence such men rape women as they would compete to buy a car or an apartment home. Somewhere her ideas have been laid out in a wrong order.
Bengal has never had a record for treating women well; Sati, female infanticide, child marriage, ill treatment of widows, large scale prostitution and institutionalized concubinage seem to have originated in Bengal. This is perhaps why Bengal also had its share of strong women and when the social reform movements started here, modernity empowered women against a tradition that had reduced them to statuses of chattel. Since the men who were on the side of women during the social reform movement were also the economically powerful and socially effectual, to believe in women’s freedom became a statement of culture that often went with the upper class. Throughout the 20th century, it was fashionable for families to send women to schools and colleges and in some families women drove cars and rode horses.
Despite such social reforms, because the economic conditions of the state did not improve commensurately to bring about fundamental changes in the ways in which opportunities were distributed, the Bengali man’s attitude towards women’s independent career, women’s right of inheritance, women’s access to family property remained where they were. While it was no longer politically correct to repress women, but the Talibanistic psyche persisted. Hence, when my grand aunt went out for work, young men would encircle her on the pavements with such verbal obscenity that it seemed to her to lbe no better than a physical violation of her modesty. This was not a male desire for her; this was an act of male intimidation of women to drive her indoors, precisely the effect eve teasers want to achieve.
I realized that eve teasers always gang up; a boy may be perfectly sober as an individual but as an eve teaser he is invariably a part of a gang. Eve teasers operate out of ‘posts’, specific locations along a street, very much like ‘hafta” gangs, or armed goons who ask for extortion money. Both are born out of social envy of non-performers and both ask you to leave the public space if you have done better than them or if they perceive that you have more advantage than them. This is why when my bearded male cousin came to Kolkata with a job, the gang that was tolerant of me around the locality paan shop was obnoxious with him. Eve teasing uses women as a site to attack households and families who they envy. No wonder then in the Rajeeb Das murder case, one of the assailants, Chandan Roy is also an extortionist. Seen in this way, eve teasing falls under the category of kidnapping, extortion, Talibanism and terrorism; the psychology of the criminal in each of the above cases is identical.
The Bengali man’s conservatism about women’s clothing, his discomfort with women driving, his problem with women thinkers and politicians emanates from the same psychology as that of eve teasing; intolerance of women as autonomous individuals and consequently of those families where women are freer. The liberation of women is directly related to the higher rank of families in the social mileu; Bengalis have never tolerated success because they have hardly ever had the opportunity or the motivation to become successful.
Bengalis have been a defeated race. Kolkata has steadily declined, jobs have progressively depleted, incomes have fallen and Bengalis have migrated to other states. Men have been emaciated economically and culturally and the only way they feel that they can hold on to their own is by holding on to their women in doors. The control of women has risen in proportion to the loss of control of the men in dealing with their external world. Bengal is the only state where in the 1970’s and 1980’s, women were openly discouraged by the men in their families do not to appear in competitive examinations because if they qualified they would be ‘taking away” the seat of a man and eventually ruin an entire family. That a woman could work and also run a family seemed to be absent from the mindscape of Bengal. The mighty Ghatak made Meghe Dhaka Tara in which his female protagonist was portrayed as an object of pity because she had to go out and work to support her family !!! Pity was also a way, not unlike eve teasing, to confine women into their homes.