after ten years

Ten years have passed.

This is what I had said to Geetha Rao, a reporter with The Times of India, in Jan 2007.

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What has changed since?

The ridiculous term, eve-teasing, seems to have thankfully become an anachronism. You don’t hear people use it anymore. Indians now call it sexual harassment just as the rest of the world does.

img_5469Girls no longer seem to take the blame for ‘attracting attention.’ You hear of girls and their parents filing complaints at police stations without worrying about what their relatives and neighbours will think. It’s just an impression. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the press reports only on people who file cases. Perhaps the percentage of girls taking action has only increased a little, and maybe many still don’t file. Police records may not reflect reality.img_5470img_5470

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More parents seem to be conscious about giving sons and daughters equal opportunities, and fewer parents seem to be staying within the gender roles assigned to them by tradition, at least in Bangalore. I won’t go into the topic of honour-killings, etc. taking place all over the country.

It seems that movies glorifying guys who stalk unwilling girls and ‘win’ them in the end aren’t being made anymore. If I am right, this is major progress, considering two-three generations of boys grew up thinking stalking was a normal courtship ritual.

In this article in 2007 I mentioned “teaching little boys about gender equality.”

In the Times of India, Bangalore dated 9th Jan 2011, I said “each child has to be raised right” with reference to another case of sexual harassment.

I’ve subsequently realised that’s easier said than done. There are so many external influences that shape a child’s character. Parents have to be alert to small changes in a child’s behaviour all the time, without making the child feel watched and controlled. They have to nip potentially dangerous behaviours in the bud by taking away the source of the behaviour, for example access to adult sites on the internet that a child might have stumbled upon. Parents do come for consultation regarding such situations. And then too, there is no guarantee that the child can be straightened out if the habit has become deeply entrenched, or personality development has been severely impacted, for example a teenaged boy who was  sexually abused in childhood.

Bringing about change in society seems a mammoth task to me as my work deals only with individuals, and my sphere of influence is limited. A sizeable proportion of the citizenry seems to believe that women shouldn’t expect to be safe if they want freedom to go out at night. However, public discourse on the topic of sexual harassment is now more open and some citizens are looking for ways to draw the attention of the government and the police to this issue. We might still get there.

unsafe in the city

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In the ­­­last post I wrote, I had inadvertently put myself in harm’s way. I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language and I was walking alone on a deserted road with the sun sliding rapidly towards the horizon.

The walk would have been wonderful if I had felt safe. There was no traffic noise. The pavement was wide and even. The cool breeze and the mellow light of the setting sun added to the sense of comfort and peace that the nuns had instilled in me. It was a perfect evening. But for the silly man prattling away behind me and giving me the jitters, it would have been a perfect walk. He completely ruined the experience for me, and caused me to have nightmares for days thereafter.

Newspapers often carry stories of women being accosted or molested or having their outings and peace of mind ruined by men whose attentions they don’t want.

In my city, Bangalore, I have encountered men who stared, or violated my personal space, sometimes even completely obliterating it, by passing too close on the sidewalk for example. Last month, at the Metro station, I noticed a man standing hardly fifteen feet away, staring at me. And there was nothing wrong with my clothes either, just straight cut jeans and a long, loose, full-sleeved printed cotton shirt.

These men are known as miscreants to police, perpetrators to crime investigators, perverts to the general public, creeps to girls, and frustrated losers to married women who expect to be left alone by virtue of their mangalsutras or wedding rings. To psychiatrists they are known as people with paraphilic disorders. Some of them could be diagnosed as personality disorders, impulse-control disorders or compulsives of a sort. But the issue is not tidily sorted. Controversies exist in the mental health field about classifying and managing them.

These are men who will never understand #i will wear what I want. They will see it as a challenge. They may crack risqué jokes about it. To them, every female is fair game. Some of the worst abuses in Hindi and English probably reflect the existence of such people.

I’m aware that there are deviant, depraved and even frankly deranged people around. Just as people with anti-social personality disorder – more commonly known as psychopaths – exist and should be avoided, I believe deviants should be avoided too. They are an ineradicable section of human society regardless of country and form of government. Personally, rather than make myself vulnerable, I try to avoid places where they are likely to operate. Of course, they often strike in the most unexpected places as any Bangalore girl will tell you. I used to think there was safety in groups, but I realised later on that when a mob runs amok, groups get broken up and stampedes and free-for-alls can follow. So I don’t go to crowded places at all. Nor to deserted places. This works for me as it suits my lifestyle. But I know this cannot be a solution for everyone.

I think there is a limit to what the police can do because a large amount of security would be needed to protect vulnerable individuals in a crowd. As paraphilics show no outer signs of their intentions, and commit crimes with their bare hands, what sort of security measures are possible? The US Department of Homeland Security is apparently working on something called Project Hostile Intent to improve airport security. Maybe we need something like that.

Even when a complaint is filed, the victim is often unable to convey information clearly or identify the perpetrator; prima facie evidence is not always sufficient to implicate a perpetrator; cctv footage, when available, is not always clear; forensic evidence may be unavailable, depending on the type of paraphilic behaviour indulged in by the miscreant. And the police have to be fair to the accused and cannot assume he is guilty.

Women are trying to address this problem through various campaigns. Protest marches help raise awareness in an evolving society. They draw attention to the lack of safety in public spaces and the consequent distress women go through. Men are supporting these campaigns too. But everybody has to agree that wanting to feel safe in a city is a normal expectation, and that culture and tradition will not be eroded if women feel safe and free to go out at night. That includes ministers, cops and people who don’t see the need for the sort of freedom being sought by the campaigning groups. Maybe therein lies the rub.

Hopefully, laws will be laid down – and implemented – to check miscreants, and society will gradually change. Or rather, soon change. One day, hopefully, people will learn to live and let live, and not make value judgments about others.

(Photo by Chandrika Rao)

‘May God be with you’

It wasn’t even an incident. Thankfully, nothing happened to me on that summer evening in Portugal many, many years ago.

The ship I was sailing on was in dry dock* at Lisnave dock yard in Almada, Portugal. I had walked to the shopping area of Almada to pick up a few things. Walking back, I lost my way. I asked passing pedestrians directions to the ship yard but only got “no comprendo” and a regretful shake of the head. At that time I didn’t even know the little bit of Spanish – which shares similarities with Portuguese – that I know now. I began to feel anxious but told myself that it was summer and it wouldn’t get dark for another hour at least.

Presently I saw two nuns in white habits a little way ahead. Weaving between people thronging the sidewalk I caught up to them. I smiled and said “Excuse me?” Then I started with the simple English that kind of works in some places.

“Help, please?”

“Ship?”

Blank expression. In desperation I tried the two Spanish words I had recently picked up.

–¿El barco?–

–¿Lisnave – puerto?–

One of the nuns asked, “Do you speak English?”

I could’ve wept with relief.

She said, “Wait…I… haven’t spoken English… for ten years…It is…difficult…” I waited. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. She said she was from Canada and told me a little about herself. The other sister was Portuguese. They accompanied me till we reached the road that would lead straight to the ship yard and left me with a solemn blessing, “May God be with you.”

I bought an ice cream cone as my mouth had gone dry with all that anxiety. As I began walking a man fell in step behind me. Hypervigilance is second nature to me when I’m walking alone in an unknown place, or on a poorly-lit road in the dark. I became acutely aware that the road was completely deserted. I quickened my step, but he kept pace. I sneaked a look at him and he grinned and called out something I didn’t understand. After that I resolutely avoided looking back and walked faster for – 5 minutes? 10 minutes? More? I don’t know. He kept up his non-stop gibberish.

The scenarios that played out in my head in those few minutes sent me into a panic. It was like being in a nightmare. I was gasping and my heart thumped away like I was hearing it through a stethoscope. My knees felt like they could buckle any moment. And the man continued to keep pace, insolently tossing out short phrases that sounded like questions. Frightened though I was, I held on to the thought that I was fitter and swifter than this middle-aged man.

Finally the shipyard came into view. Oh, thank God! I guess He had heard the nuns bless me. I chucked the melted ice cream and broke into a run. Some ship yard workers in boilersuits were around, and the footsteps following me ceased.

I have been in an accident where my moped was rammed in the back by a lorry, and I had a head injury and lay unconscious on the road. Another time, a speeding bus scraped past my little moped and pushed it into a storm–water drain whose width was fortunately less than the diameter of the wheel of my bike. The wheel twisted and got wedged, and I was saved. I fainted, actually keeled forward on to the handlebar. Some passengers stopped the bus and got down to revive me. It took me weeks to recover from both these accidents. PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

As I said at the beginning, it wasn’t even an incident. Nothing happened in a physical sense to hurt me on that summer’s day. Nonetheless, the jolt to my psyche was no less traumatic than being hit by a lorry.

*Dry dock:

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Ship is sailed into a tank and carefully placed on blocks. Water is drained out. Repairs and painting are carried out.

raising a toddler on a ship

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Until he had to go to school, my son grew up on ships as his dad’s a captain on oil tankers. As far as he was concerned, the ship was home, and the entire deck with its pipes and companionways was his playground. A sturdy swing had been made for him using pilot-ladder steps. It hung from one of the innumerable pipes running along the main deck.

On transatlantic voyages, where there was practically no traffic, he would spend time on the bridge with Sergei, the second mate, whose watch it was from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. He would eagerly rush upstairs with his collection of plastic balls and he and Sergei would toss them to each other. I would plant myself before the radar screen and keep a watch for stray ships, which Sergei found hilarious, but indulged me nevertheless.

Soon, my son was comfortably calling out “Kedai match” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know Cyrillic) in Russian, meaning ‘throw/catch the ball’. He differentiated between ‘bolshoi match’ and ‘malinki match’, big ball and small ball. In a few days he began greeting people with ‘Dobrevecher’ or ‘Prev-yair’. One day he said “Spasibo fo’ changin’ bubb” to the electrician when he replaced a fused bulb in our cabin! It was amusing to hear him say “Dosvidaniya” in a sing-song voice while leaving the salon after dinner. He addressed all Russians on the ship as ‘dhyadhya’, meaning uncle, much to their delight. At the New Year’s party he picked up ‘Snoven godhaam’ and enjoyed teaching the Filipino crew to say it. I miss those days so much, it’s almost a physical ache. There’s nothing more fun than watching an excited and happy child grow!

Meanwhile, he spent about an hour at tea time with the Radio Officer and a couple of others in one of their cabins. One day, he came back reciting the alphabet, “A for alpha, B for bravo, C for Charlie, D for delta, E for echo …” all the way up to Z for Zulu! He would have to unlearn this, or they may not let him into pre-school in India, I thought!

An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. I often wonder how the various ‘villages’ my son grew up in through his nomadic early years have influenced his approach to life. I mean, a large part of his early childhood was about getting up in the morning, peeping out of the porthole and saying “Whe’ ah we today?” We would take him out to Chuck-e-Cheese in ports in the US, mainly for the ball pool he loved, and to various zoos, parks and McDonald’s in other countries. For those few hours he would be like other children, playing with peers instead of adults. Just when he got used to seeing the same view from our porthole for three or four days, it would be time to sail out. The port would get a mournful farewell as it receded into the distance. I still remember his sad, disappointed little face saying, “San Funando, Twinidad gone. Faaaw-away”, and rotating his little hands outwards over and over.

‘It takes a village’ reminds me of Hilary Clinton’s book, which in turn reminds me of how my son regarded the Clintons as part of our family circle. Those days, TIME and Newsweek magazines were, more or less, our only contact with the outside world. We got them once a fortnight or so, when we reached a port. And Bill and Hilary were often on their covers.

Once, when Immigration officers came aboard in the US – as is the usual procedure – to check our passports, my son pointed at one of them and announced “uk ike Kin-thun.” “Looks like Clinton,” I duly translated for the benefit of the man pointed at. Everybody burst out laughing and agreed that he did resemble Bill Clinton, while the man asked incredulously, “He knows Clinton?”

The TIME and Newsweek magazines were my son’s property. He hoarded them in his toy chest with his other books. When we had people over for drinks some evenings he would bring them out and introduce Bill and Hilary to everyone. He called them Biy and Ee-uh-yee, and I often had to explain to mystified people that he couldn’t pronounce ha, la and ra. Soon, he took to explaining, “I can’t say uh, uh and uh, an’ so I ko’ uh Ee-uh-yee!”

Russians, Filipinos, Indians, the Pakistani chief mate, Saad, whom I haven’t mentioned here, the Turkish Mr. Halaq who stayed on board for a few days on official work – they were all one large family to my son. Everybody was an uncle, and he could visit them in their cabins any time and be welcomed and fussed over affectionately. It was a happy life. His problems actually began when he had to continuously deal with small human beings in school!

earthquake

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The first time I was in an earthquake was in Augusta, Sicily, in December 1990.

Our ship was sailing into Priolo, on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was about six o’ clock in the evening and we were listening to BBC news on the radio. There had been an earthquake at Syracuse, about 14 km south of Priolo.

My husband and I planned to go to Syracuse the next morning. Of course, we were behaving like a couple of idiotic tourists, just wanting to gawk at the damage caused by the earthquake. The ferry service to Syracuse was cancelled, so we went to Augusta instead, ten minutes by boat to the north. There was no damage to any of the structures there – though it was only 35 km from Syracuse –  except for an ancient church, the Chiesa Madre, whose plaster had fallen off in places. That was all.

But what a sight! People were camped out on every available inch of open space. All buildings had been vacated out of fear of a quake or aftershocks. But the day passed uneventfully.

The next morning I went up to the bridge to look at Mt. Etna through binoculars as I had noticed small puffs of smoke coming out of its crater. Joško, the second mate, came up to make a cup of tea. He had just finished his watch and was going to Augusta to take in the sights. He asked if I wanted to go along. We had lunch at a restaurant there. I remember having spinach tortellini and some strong red wine.

We paid the bill and sat there talking about Yugoslavia over the last bit of wine. Those days, Yugoslavia was in political turmoil and was about to be carved into several independent countries. Joško often said, “There’ll be no Yugoslavia when I go home!” with a touch of gallows humour, but was really worried about his family back home, especially the girl he had married just a few months before.

Suddenly we saw everybody running for the exit. People were crying, shouting and hugging each other. We asked people –¿Qué pasa?– in Spanish, hoping they’d understand, as Joško didn’t know Italian either. People were too numb to bother to answer us. We wandered out and asked a couple more people. Someone answered “Tumulta!” Wow! There had been an earthquake? Joško said, “That wine must’ve been strong. I never felt it either.”

We ran to the ferry boat and made for the ship. It seemed the safest place to be. We casually asked the boatman if he had felt the tremor. He nodded with a troubled expression and told us in English that his daughter was out there somewhere, and he was worried about her safety. His eyes glazed over as he stared at a distant memory and murmured something about the last time there was an earthquake. We didn’t know what to say. Was this a way of life for these people?

And here we were, excitedly looking around like there was a film shooting going on, and the whole thing was a movie set. We had addressed the boatman in much the same insensitive tone that we find offensive when used by interviewers on television. Although – between us – we claimed the novelty of the experience as an excuse, we felt quite ashamed of ourselves and silently stared out at the shore as we sailed away from Augusta.

On reaching the ship we rushed up the gangway to the Cargo Control Room. The third mate, Boris, was on duty. We told him about the earthquake. He said it had been just a mild aftershock. Obviously then, the locals had been on tenterhooks and had overreacted. Joško and I were glad to know that we hadn’t been too drunk to notice an earthquake!

ships that pass in the night

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Quoin Islands

It was a night like any other. Our ship was making her silent passage, bow gently cleaving the waters, propellor leaving a broad wake as she passed.

We were on a voyage outbound from the Persian Gulf, thirty nautical miles south of the Straits of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman. The ship was carrying a cargo of 300 thousand metric tonnes of crude oil.

It was about half past eight. Capt. Murphy was in his cabin, gazing out at the fo’c’sle through the porthole. The transit through the Persian Gulf had taken 26 hours after sailing out of Ras Tanura. He was exhausted.

The third mate, Alex, was on bridge-watch. This was a routine passage for the ship but the captain had decided to keep a casual watch from his cabin, based purely on gut instinct, as he later told us.

He suddenly sat bolt upright. The Didamar light house on Quoin Island that we had passed a little while before on our starboard side was now on our portside! Experienced navigator that he was, he sized up the situation in a trice. He rushed upstairs to the bridge (wheelhouse), took over from Alex, and asked him to go to his cabin. The phone rang in our cabin for my husband, the chief mate, to join him on the bridge along with the bo’sun. The bo’sun took the wheel and Capt. Murphy snapped out helm orders. The chief mate kept watch for traffic and the vessel’s position on the radar screen. With my toddler son beside me, I watched tensely from the porthole in our cabin as the ship was slowly steered back on course.

This is what had happened. Alex had had a psychotic breakdown, something that had apparently never happened before, as per his medical records. He had turned the ship around, heading back towards the Persian Gulf. And he was in the wrong lane, which would be like driving on the wrong side of the road if it were a street on land! The vessel’s passage plan had been totally abandoned by his addled mind.

Had there been a collision, or if she had run aground on one of the islands, imagine what an ecological disaster that would be. 300 thousand tonnes of thick, viscous crude oil gushing out into the Gulf of Oman! Images of the Exxon Valdez running aground four years before in Prince William Sound, Alaska, were fresh in every seaman’s mind. Mine too, as I had been on another tanker when that happened.

It was only Capt. Murphy’s quick response that averted a major calamity that night. And the good fortune of not having another ship sailing towards us on a collision course during those moments. The other ship would have been fully loaded too, like any ship sailing out of the Persian Gulf. Our ship was moving at 14 knots. It’s incredibly hard to apply brakes on a ship moving at that speed due to momentum. If the ship’s engine had been put in a ‘stop’ position, she would have moved 2500 metres more before coming to a standstill!

There is a poem called ‘The Lights’ by J.J.Bell in an anthology I own. It had never meant anything to me before. That night I vaguely remembered it was about the ‘emerald’ and ‘ruby’ lights that tell you which way a ship is going. It ended with a prayer for ships passing in the night.

I have often wondered what jogged Capt. Murphy’s gut instinct that evening. Did Alex seem spaced out when he last spoke with him? Did he notice something out of kilter? Or was it just sixth sense?

When I greeted Alex in the alleyway the next morning he looked blankly at me. It was an expression I had seen countless times on the faces of patients in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. So, it was entirely possible that he would have displayed prodromal symptoms  – some oddities in behaviour – the previous day, that might have drawn the attention of anyone interacting with him. But then again, he was from an Eastern European country and nobody knew his language, or him either.

What happened to Alex eventually?

Well, there is a book called the Captain’s Medical Guide that captains consult to treat minor ailments. Common medicines are available on board too. For medical problems beyond the captain’s ken he can talk to a doctor via radio. If a surgical emergency is suspected, for example appendicitis, the ship can be diverted to the nearest port, or a helicopter can land on the ship to take the patient to a hospital.

In Alex’s case, he was given a standard dose of antipsychotic medicine on a daily basis. He was confined to his cabin so he wouldn’t hurt himself, as the medicine was extremely sedating. The captain checked on him twice a day and a steward took his meals up for him. The door to his room was left ajar and a member of the deck crew sat just outside his door to ensure his safety.

He signed off the ship when we reached port after a fortnight. Some of us went to see him off at the gangway. He happened to open his carry-on baggage to put something in. His entire salary in stacks of 100-dollar bills was in there, shoved in carelessly. He looked around vacantly, waving indifferently when we said goodbye. Did he make it home safely with his passport, money, and other valuables intact? I don’t know.