Varun Gwalani is a 20-year old resident of Mumbai. His first novel, Believe, was released in November 2013 by Shyam Benegal, who praised it extensively. Varun was also featured at Mumbai’s Literature Festival, Tata Literature Live! Believe is set in alternate world which serves as allegory for our world, and explores complex social issues such as sexual violence and religion. He plans to continue placing several novels in that world, hopefully trying to innovate and experiment as he does so.
A Short Story
"Culture of Indifference"
The woman in the pink churidar stood alone at the bus stop, looking down the street with her brown eyes, anxiously waiting for the bus to arrive. She had just retied her black hair so it wouldn’t fall over her face which was simple, yet pretty. The bus was late, as was not unusual in any part of the city of Mumbai. She wanted to catch a taxi home, but she didn’t have enough money and there weren’t any in sight. So she waited for the bus.
The bus pulled up after five minutes, and she grabbed the railing and pulled herself up, a little labouredly. Almost immediately a man appeared behind her and quickly tried to push past her, in the process rubbing against her breast. She was startled because she hadn’t seen the man anywhere. Had he been waiting till she climbed up so he could brush up against her…? It wouldn’t be the first time. She didn’t have any proof, though, so she just glared at him and told him in Hindi to watch where he was going. The young man just cracked a grin and went and took his seat near the window in the middle right row.
Laxmi surveyed the rest of the bus. The driver and conductor seemed unconcerned by this outburst. There were a few other women scattered around the bus, of different ages. None of them had looked for long once they had ascertained that it was not going to be a prolonged fight. Laxmi bought her ticket and took a window seat in the left row, towards the back.
She was staring out the window when the man sidled up next to her. She started and then gave him a hard look. “What are you doing here?” she snapped in Hindi. “There are so many seats, why must you come and sit beside me? Go sit somewhere else!”
Unperturbed, he smiled that disgusting smile and said, “I like the view from here.”
She flared up and signalled the conductor. He came near her and asked what the problem was. She told him that man was harassing her. The conductor looked at the man who said, “Women, like this only no?” and they shared a laugh. Laxmi, outraged, said, “You’re not going to do anything?”
The conductor sneered. “Why should I, madam? He is a man; he can sit wherever he wants.”
Laxmi was so furious she was rendered speechless, which the conductor took as an opportunity to move away. Laxmi snapped at the man next to her, “Get up so I can move out.”
“Why should I move?” He sneered. “Go from there,” He indicated the narrow space in front of his legs.
Laxmi in her fury didn’t realize what the man intended and as she edged out from in front of him, he spanked her bottom hard.
An instant later, Laxmi had slapped him across the face hard. There was complete silence as everyone looked at Laxmi. The man stood up and started yelling at her and she yelled back. The women just stared on, not doing anything. The conductor came there and started yelling at Laxmi as well. The driver suddenly screamed, “EH!” and the three of them shut up and looked at him. “If y’all don’t sit down now, separately, I’ll have both kicked off the bus.”
The man glared at Laxmi at sat down. Laxmi glared back and sat down on an aisle seat a few rows ahead, opposite a young, wide-eyed girl who was staring at Laxmi but didn’t say a word. Laxmi stared back for a few minutes before she turned back to see the man who was still glaring at her. They stared at each other angrily before his eyes suddenly lighted up and he looked at the young girl. Laxmi saw his intentions and as he was rising, she got up quickly and sat down next to the girl. She glanced back and saw the anger simmering in his eyes.
The girl looked startled and a little frightened to see her. “I’m doing you a favour,” Laxmi said, “That bastard was going to come sit next to you.”
The girl looked too scared to look back but she nodded a little and said, “Thank you. My name is Sati.”
Sati nodded again a little and straightened herself in her seat, looking straight ahead. After a few minutes, without changing position she asked, “Haven’t you ever travelled by bus before?”
“I have. So?” Laxmi asked, raising her eyebrow.
“’So?’” Sati seemed bewildered. “What do you mean, ‘so’? You know that men will be men. They will do these things. We are women, we must let them. Don’t all these sort of things happen to you all the time?”
“They do, but that does not mean that I must tolerate them!” Laxmi snapped. “It does not mean that you have to, either!”
“Of course we do! How are we to stop them?! They’re so strong! And besides,” her voice dropped lower, “We’ve always been the lower gender. If so many things are happening to us, don’t you think we deserve it?”
Laxmi just stared at her. “Is that what you really think? That you deserve this?” She almost whispered. She had never thought that.
Sati finally turned to face her. “What else can it be?” her voice was almost nonexistent. “All the girls I know have been abused or molested or raped by men at some point in their life and they are all powerless to stop it. Even I…” she shuddered, and Laxmi understood. She squeezed her eyes shut for a minute, took a deep breath and then opened them slowly and continued, “We’re groped every we go like we’re pieces of meat walking around for their satisfaction. Where’s the decency in that, tell me? When we’re called bitches, it is a compliment, because animals are treated better than us, they’re worshipped.
“You know what will happen in the end? We’ll just get an arranged marriage with a husband who has the same chauvinistic attitude and will never understand our suffering. Do you know why? Because according to men, it ‘happens to everyone’ and everything we face is ‘no big deal’. It is better to accept our fate than fight a war we cannot win.”
Laxmi stared at her, at a loss for words. She could see the sadness etched into Sati’s face, the evidence of sleepless nights and a lot of crying. She didn’t know what to say to this girl that would erase everything that was around her, that had happened to her. Sati seemed to sense this, gave her a sad smile, looked out the window and said quietly, “My stop’s not far. Yours?”
Laxmi was startled to see how far they had travelled, luckily, though they had not crossed her stop yet. “Not far,” she murmured. She looked around the bus and saw that more people had also come onboard. There were some women and a few men. The lecher who had been harassing her was still sitting alone, though, staring at her.
They came to a stop. One or two women got off and a man climbed on. Laxmi realized that the next stop was hers, though it was a little far. She got up, without looking at Sati and moved to the front. She glanced back warily and it was good that she had. The beefy man who had just climbed onboard was deep in conversation with the lecher and he was pointing at her. They swaggered up to the front where she stood with her back to the front, watching them. The lecher said to his minion, “This is the woman who tried to defy me.”
The minion stepped close to her and looked at her, “Thought you could humiliate him for no reason, huh? Apologize now.”
The whole bus had gone dead quiet. Laxmi could feel Sati’s eyes on her, imploring her to apologize. She knew that if she did, she would probably be able to delay them long enough to get out at the next stop; that it was better not to get into this, but it didn’t matter. She stood her ground. “He should be the one apologizing to me for harassing me, the creep.”
The force of the slap threw her against the wall. A few people stood up, but nobody stepped forward, nobody said anything. The minion snarled, “Now how do you feel? Apologize and say that my friend here is a good person and that you wrongly accused him.” When he saw her looking at the people around, he laughed, “She thinks these people are going to help her!”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Laxmi said softly. “Nobody helps. All of us here are seeing this happening to me, yet nobody is doing anything. All you women have had this happened to you at some point or the other, and yet nobody comes forward to stop this happening to somebody else! You men have mothers, sisters, daughters and yet you sit idly by, allowing the kind of men to exist who might very well do this to your women one day! That is why this happens to us! That is why women are treated like trash, because unless it is happening to you, it doesn’t matter!” Everyone was looking at her, even the lechers seemed suddenly wary.
“The absolutely best part is that at some point this has affected you and will, and you know that it will and yet you do nothing. The reason we’re losing this war, the reason there is such rampant disregard for women is because we let it be there! How can you win a war if all your troops are not fighting?!”
Nobody moved. The bus driver had stopped the bus and was also looking at Laxmi. Suddenly the lecher laughed and said, “A lot of drama this one does. But I didn’t hear an apology. So give it to her!”
The minion smiled and raised his hand. It was caught by a woman before he could bring it down. One by one, the others also got up out of their seats and grabbed them and started beating them. The conductor and driver didn’t do anything, just stood there, watching. The lechers were on the floor, screaming and getting kicked from all sides when Laxmi yelled, “Stop!”
All of them turned to her in surprise. “Violence isn’t the answer. We should take them to the police and act as witness against them,” She said. “The police will also have to take us seriously when we are united against them.” She paused.
“If we as a people inflict more violence in response to violence, the situation will only get worse. We need to need to change our minds, not stain our hands as well. When the culture of indifference ends, that’s when the culture can truly make a difference.” They all nodded and cheered. When Laxmi looked at Sati, Sati was smiling.
Every individual forms a part of a culture, every individual change is bigger.