He was about fifteen, perhaps: the makings of a thin moustache struggling to push itself up through the layers of the skin on his upper-lip. I caught a flash of his hand, the colour of mud, before it retreated: slithering back, under the cover of the airline blanket. He continued, looking straight ahead at the small TV screen: fascinated I followed his gaze to where Paul Walker raced a car against time—before crashing in real life.
“How could you?” I hissed at the boy, who turned to look at me, expressionless. “Every action has a consequence” I pushed, and he looked at me uncomprehending, until I specified: “I am going to tell the stewardess.” At this, brow furrowed, he folded his palms together: the Indian gesture of respect, to signify I see the God in you; also used to plead for mercy. “It’s because of boys like you that women in India get raped” I burst out, and he looked at me incredulous.
Minutes earlier, I had fought my way up from under layers of darkness, at the first flutter against my breast. Opening my eyes I had peered through the up-in-the-air shadows, dismissing the doubts storming my mind, before sinking back, into the velvety arms of slumber. Then, a second touch to my breast had me springing up and out of the sluggishness of sleep, my arm darting out to catch the culprit: his hand.
Looking around, to the passengers in their own private cocoons of obliviousness: I knew I could not spread the blanket of ambivalence over myself. Throwing off my cover, I stepped over his aisle seat and walked towards the rear of the plane. “You okay Madam?” I blinked at the cheery voice of the comfortably rounded hostess, her red lips glistening with freshly applied gloss. I shook my head, “the boy next to me has been touching me all night. I can’t sleep.” Her eyes widened but she did not seem surprised. Just another flight, with fellow passengers feeling each other up under the cover of blankets.
“He’s just a young boy,” I raised my hands, palms-up in bewilderment.
“His parents are sitting just ahead, I will ask them to exchange seats,” she patted my shoulder fleetingly, before walking down the aisle. Not wanting to see the exchange, I ducked into the restroom.
When I emerged, the father was in excited conversation with the stewardess: “how do you know he did it?” I overheard his animated voice raised in righteous emotion.
“I am not saying he did anything, just that the woman was uncomfortable and requested he change his seat.” The stewardess stated matter-of-factly.
“But you can’t prove anything” the man threatened, in defence of his own blood. The spawn had to be protected at all cost, nurtured to emerge into the wider world.
A male flight attendant intervened; his tall, broad-shouldered build towering over the other pigeon-chested, pot-bellied, be-spectacled and balding, epitome of middle-age: “Nothing has happened here really…” Turning, I walked to my own row, and stepping through the now empty leg space of the seat next to me, I wore the armour of inertia: eye-mask, ear-plugs, blanket.
A few minutes later, the seat next to me heaved and peering through the gap below my eye-mask, I saw the larger bulk of the mother, her flesh pouring through the space below the armrest. I moved closer to the window and ensuring no inch of my skin was in contact with her, I closed my eyes.
“I am fine” I heard the woman tell her husband in a low voice before she turned to her son “you okay beta?” she enquired.
Fleetingly, I wondered what I would have done if I had been the parent. Would I have apologised to the woman who my son had touched? Would I have slapped the boy right there for what he had done? Would I have turned a blind eye, for my flesh and blood is always perfect and I will always support him? Or would I have waited to get home before launching a full-blown enquiry into what had happened.
Is it because in India we indulge our men, forgive them, that things have reached where they are? Here I was, a grown confident woman and yet I had hesitated to kick up more of a row. Was it my conditioning that held me back, for at the heart of it as an Indian woman, I don’t really want to call attention to my sexuality? Would a woman of Western upbringing have pushed back a lot more.
When I was fifteen, the man in the seat next to me on a BEST bus in Bombay had crept his hand on my knee; twenty years later a fifteen-year old boy had done the same on a transcontinental flight out of the city. Yet, here I was, back in my life, going about the everyday. Should I have confronted the parents further?
–I thought a lot before sharing this post; did I really want to talk about something so personal? Then when I shared the post with a few friends, I was surprised by their very different, yet extreme reactions. One told me how she had been molested by a friend of the family, in her own home, while his wife and daughter were in the other room. She did not do anything about it, for fear of hurting his family who she knew very well. The other–who had a teenaged son of her own, wondered aloud what she would have done if it had been her son, confessing her first instinct would have been to jump to his defence. Have you had a similar experience, what would you have done?