The irony about harrassment

The greatest irony about harassment is that the one who is harassed inevitably feels awkward, embarrassed, nervous and frightened about having the gall to call it into question.

Sometimes its ‘minor’, in scale and effect – the shameless gawking that auto rickshaw drivers do when you are standing close by – they look you up and down, scratch their private parts, stretch out noisily and yawn while nearly continuously sizing you up as though you were prey. And if you should dare react by acknowledging the many layered infringements they are committing, they actually get emboldened still as if to say – ‘you’re in public space, a female form, I have a fundamental right to at least stare’.

But at other times its major.

In choosing to send my 3.5 year old girl further away than most of my friends have done with their tots, I had wanted to ensure among other things that the travel arrangement by a school bus was foolproof and safe. I trialed it for three days with her and although I am more than happy with the kind, attentive and gentle maid on board, as well as with the civilised, pleasant and good driver, I was more than uncomfortable with the conductor – a young lad whom I found openly gawking at the young girls on board, in my presence.

I took it up with the supremely efficient and sensitive bursar who is also in charge of the school transport who said he would have the lad out.

But given how complex these things are, and how quickly his sudden firing could result in a terrible backlash that could affect me, the children on board the bus and so on, the bursar has wisely decided to keep him employed until the school breaks for summer but ensure that the pre-primary children who return earlier than the rest of the school, do not have to have him on board.

Given that I was the only parent on board the bus just before he was shifted to another route, the lad had of course quickly understood that I had complained about him in some fashion and I had noticed him pointing me out to his mates when they walked by me at school last week which gave me the shivers.

Reading the profiles of those who harass or attack women and children makes me aware that the most unlikely, nondescript, sorry-looking, small-built men can be exactly the ones who do the most harm.

I let the bursar know about this as well and he decided to put him back on our bus route but only in the mornings when the bus has about 20 children and often times at least two teachers in addition to the maid on duty. He said this way the lad would find it harder to blame me for his eventual firing.

I trust the bursar and I trust the school; very few are known to respond so swiftly so effectively and so subtly to problems of this kind.

But I can’t help think how strange it is for me to feel weak in the knees each time I think of him and remember his stupid gawking. It’s possible that he’s just a ‘gawker’, it’s possible he has no intentions of crossing any line, but to me, gawking at young children IS bad enough.



The smell of freshly fried fish fingers at a cosy little elementary school in Rome.

The strong, pungent smell of garlic bread fresh out of an oven just beneath my parent’s one room flat on Via Panisperna.

The romance between Peter and Mauri on the winding stairs down from ours to the office below.

My gawking at them when they kissed wondering how they didn’t tumble-down the stairs while doing so.

The ancient, clunky lift in the well of the ancient building housing my father’s news agency and our flat above.

The sight of my father, thickly bespectacled, with scores of newspapers before him, and a cigar or cigarette perennially lit between his lips, impatiently turning the pages of what he was reading while smiling benevolently at me when I went by, on occasion, to hang out at his office.

My love of the sights and sounds of a busy newsroom.

A thick yellow light drenching my father and his colleagues. Their always seeming to be talking unnecessarily loudly in order to be heard above the din of typewriters, always clanking away in the background.

The wonderful smell of apple shampoo in our tiny bathroom.

The bubbles it made – fragrant and huge.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee from my mum’s little kitchen.

The noisy arrival of my father, his protegé, Peter, and other hanger-ons up the stairs, into our little flat, their heavy collapsing into the few pieces of furniture that we either rented or owned.

Long leisurely lunches filled with conversation and laughter often ending with someone or the other knocking down nearly empty wine flutes.

Peter playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Lennon and Genesis.

My father playing Ravi Shankar whom I distinctly remember he didn’t much care for, back home.

My playing for hours on end, behind the door leading to the small sitting room, with an immense and colourful UNICEF puzzle that consisted of putting a group of children’s hands correctly into each other’s, as they stood half-smiling at me.

The noise of Rome’s vegetable markets. The smell especially of celery.

The stink to my nose of its various meats.

The beautiful and delicious pastries down the street from home.

The numerous ice cream cones my mum and I devoured after she picked me up from a school bus-stop.

The dark, deep delight of chocolate.

The one time I travelled on the school bus with my classmate Peter to his home when mum wasn’t at the bus-stop.

His mother being so kind and attentive to me.

The game machines, rudimentary back then, in the ‘corner stores’ where I played and won small trinkets – which were always surprisingly appropriate to the desires of an eight year old girl – hairpins, rubber-bands, scented erasers.

The gorgeous stationary.

The Italian Pablo and the Spanish Pablo gifting me handcrafted leather-bound sets of colour pencils and deliciously thick crayons.

The tall, cold glass of milk at school.

My best friend Bianca so eager to learn English from me.

My embarrassment at being ‘too attached’ to my mother in comparison to her seeming independence from her own mammy. Feisty, bright-eyed, sun-speckled Bianca.

My insisting on wanting to see Venice as part of school ‘field work’ on Marco Polo.

The pigeons in Venice: so many, so tame, so willing to be fed.

One sitting on top of my head.

The wonderful way my father’s colleagues loved my mother. The open home she kept, the delicious food she made, the lovely saris she wore, the way she always made it seem as though working hard was fun, enjoyable and deeply satisfying.

The larger than life, Indian intelligence officer who loved to see me giggle when he drove us around, at great speed, in his always immense automobiles, always nattily dressed, always smelling of cigars and strong, manly perfume.

My mum getting drunk once. Really drunk. At an Indian embassy party. Her crying. My crying. My father trying to console us.

A window in the sitting room at home out of which I saw clothes flapping on lines tied between our building and the one next to it.

The easy banter between neighbours.

My speaking Italian easily, fluently. My becoming my parents’ translator.

People on our street calling out to me, ‘Ciao Bella! Indiana Bambina!’

My wanting to have ‘bangs’. The high-end barber at the end of our street turning red with embarrassment when my mum offers to pay for what he says ‘izz not, NOTTT a hair cut ATT ALLL!’

Visiting the British Council library and feeling at home in the midst of English language book titles.

Sensing, without being able to describe it, how ‘un-Italian’ the staff were.

The way the most ordinary streets were full of extraordinary beauty.

Door knobs, flights of stairs, water fountains, shop windows.

The way children were always ALWAYS heard and seen and loved.

The visit to English Vic’s Italian family.

The delicious pasta his large, gentle, bespectacled mum-in-law made. Ripe tomatoes, abundant garlic; the warm sun, the beautiful, golden Laura, then Vic’s wife. My little friend, with golden locks for hair, Lorenzo, their son.

Going out with Peter and Mauri in their car to the sea.

Riding on Peter’s back as he swam out, me shrieking in delight, him proud and happy like a young father.

Our returning late.

My worried parents.

A late meal at home. My falling asleep in the midst of it – listening to their conversation.

My writing a stupid letter to the Queen of England and handing it to Peter whose mum worked for the Queen!

My receiving a reply from her office thanking me for my wishes and my wonderful drawing!

And yet despite all this, a nagging longing for home.

My missing my aunts, the smell of earth, the rains, the trains, the people, the sounds.

Our journey back with Michella, my Italian speaking doll in tow.

Her ‘talking’ button accidentally coming on in the airport making for some embarrassed apologies from my parents and eventual joviality among the airport staff.

The flight home. Alitalia. My loving the way the word sounded and looked. So many A’s, all perfectly placed.

The memory of my aunts receiving us.

The feeling of time well spent in a magical world. Happiness at getting back.

One little squirrel

My little girl and I LOVE squirrels.

They are tiny, quick-witted, fast-moving, with long swishy tails and perky little faces dotted with dark, shiny eyes and tiny o mouths.

Our neighbour whose courtyard is flooded with sunlight for nearly as long as the sun is in the sky has over many weeks and months got a loyal following of a large group of squirrels.

She feeds them peanuts and grains and sometimes even makes them special rotis often embarrassing her teenaged children’s sense of cool.

We went to join her one afternoon and were soon surrounded by these little darting creatures to little T’s delight.

But since they hadn’t yet made an acquaintance with her, they sped away the moment she tried feeding them peanuts after prising open their shells after long spells of concentration and effort.

She looked up at me and asked – ‘why aren’t they stopping for me?’

‘They dont know you yet, T, and maybe they are scared you may harm them,’ I replied.

‘But all I want to do is feed them, mamma! And I LOVE them! How can they not know??’

Well…what could I say?

Our neighbour intervened helpfully and suggested – ‘why dont you stand close to me, and try not moving too much, they may come to you then’.

And happen it did. First one little furry creature and then another and then a little crowd of them came towards T, emboldened by her staying impressively still and her clutching on to a fist full of peanuts.

Once they came closer, she too felt more confident and knelt down to prise open peanut shells and then proceeded to make little squishy bits of them ‘because their mouths are SO small’.

One little squirrel whom she nicknamed Tum Tum then proceeded to come and eat exactly those little bits that T had so lovingly made bite-size for him/her.

The joy of that communion!

Nothing comes close to the delight of seeing young children and the younglings of other creatures play together – without props, without gadgets, without prompting, without pre-set rules and even in a way without the expectation of wanting to repeat what had happened in exactly the same place or same way.

Thank god for kind and generous neighbours, the sun, squirrels, peanuts and little ones.

To be reminded of who you are

Old, dear friends can surprise you in the most unexpected and heart-warming ways.

You could have been out of touch for decades and not known much at all about the million small and big events that have swept up in their lives and yet, when you sit down with them, with faces (your own and theirs), enriched by the often difficult, challenging and at times gut-wrenching choices they and you have made, you can return, in an instant, to the closeness you had long-lost.

And what can make you gladder still is when such old friends can effortlessly reach out and establish an easy and deep affection with your young child — not because they want to please you or be polite, but because loving children is to them, as it is to you, one of the most natural things in the world and their wonder at the miracle of the birth and existence of a young person can remind you of your own, now often forgotten wonder — submerged as you often are in the necessary although uninspiring humdrum of the everyday.

In the past few months, I have had the wonderful chance to have had two such old friends of mine pass by our home. And although neither is much like the other, what both do have in common is an unwavering respect of young children, the ability to effortlessly fit in to a home centred around the child’s needs, and an unbridled enthusiasm in celebrating play, spiritedness and mischief.

Thank you, both!