LARS VON TRIER is a personal God. A retrospective of his films was held in 2003 at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi during the International Film Festival of India. Breaking the Waves was playing that night — the last show — and we sat glued to our seats in the theatre, my friend Nina and I. We devoured every single moment like diligent students of film and when it ended, we walked out in a trance, still feeling the film and speaking in faint tones. It was about 11 pm and my jeep — a black Gypsy King — was parked quite deep inside the pitchdark parking lot. We heard a sound that had us crash land back to reality and before we knew it, we were running in search of it. We had heard a woman scream, we were sure of that. Several long seconds later, we came across an elderly gentleman. “She is a very brave girl,” he said. And then we saw her in the distance. She stood there, holding her visibly injured head in her hands, a few people around her. She had just dodged two men who had forced themselves into her car trying to drive away with her. She had thrown her car keys away into the bushes in the dark and screamed. The men fled, but not before they attacked her, bruising her head badly.
She had gotten away, the bright documentary filmmaker Akanksha Joshi. But there was one other, a Swiss diplomat, name unknown, who hadn’t. About an hour earlier, while we were still watching our movie, the Swiss girl had been abducted from the same parking lot in her car and brutally raped. I drove out of Siri Fort in a daze that night, but I remember Nina saying that this could just as easily have happened to us. Something inside me changed that night.
Being a Zombie had come naturally to me for a long time. As a young girl, though I don’t remember exactly when — sensitive early adolescence perhaps — I had decided that it was dangerous being ‘Woman’. Zombie, much better plan. I would cut through everything I encountered on my way to the school bus — the stares, the winks, the jeers and the gestures, stuff that horrific nightmares were made of — as if I were a soulless, expressionless, emotionless thing. I never made eye contact with unknowns in public spaces, certainly no conversation. Loose, dull-coloured clothing and flat shoes was the outfit of choice. Deflecting attention was the key. I could be scouring the shops of Nai Sarak for reference books or getting a burger at Wimpy’s in Connaught Place, but as a Zombie, I saw, heard and felt nothing. Actually, it was the reverse. I was acutely aware of everything, especially myself. I could pick up the slightest strains of a crude Hindi film song from the 1980s or ’90s from miles away; I knew them too well. Their words were daggers, wielded to tear through my defences. Strong walls of zombie-style oblivion were needed to withstand the power of those words, those snatches of song. This was my private world and I never ever engaged with the real one. By the time I went to college, words like snob and arrogant became synonymous with me; for most of the male population, that is. They couldn’t tell me apart from zombies. They had no clue. And I just let it be. Must stay safe, I thought, popularity is a road to nowhere.
Becoming a Zombie came from a place of extreme fear, no doubt, but it brought a sense of invulnerability. I moved about unscathed. My parents have always had faith, and that helped deeply. They never stopped me from doing anything. I could be, and do, whatever I wanted. So I loitered and explored, I homed in on movie sets, and I discovered the night. In my beloved black jeep, I drove everywhere. If driving is all about freedom and access, then driving at night is easily the purest version of the concept. Being behind the wheel at night, floating in the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, allows me to situate my thoughts on the seat next to mine and engage with them in a real way. The stillness of the night throws open doors in the head. Many answers have been found, work crises resolved and ideas formed, in the process. It is the highest form of meditation I know.
Driving home with me from Siri Fort that night in 2003 was the thought that turning myself into a zombie was not the solution to anything. Being a “victim” and being an “agent” are two ends of a continuum and my place on it could only be negotiated by the specifics of a circumstance. Not by what I look like, what I wear or what I say. The Swiss diplomat, the documentary filmmaker, my friend and I, we were all one woman. And answers could be attempted only by engaging, not by disengaging with the real world. The threat of sexual assault grips women the most, but it can choke men too. And this threat, or the fear of it, is not some fated, inescapable truth. It may have had a long history, it may have been socially constructed for reasons of power, but all that can change if we persist. Together.
Un-Zombifying has made me a more open person. Open enough to look at anyone in the eye and say, “I’m Woman and I’m alive to it.” So don’t tell me what girls should not do. Least of all, that they shouldn’t be out after dark. I’m as practical as can be while I’m out there in the middle of the dazzling night. I take off the earrings, tie the hair and sometimes wear a baseball cap even, when I get behind the wheel. And I avoid going to parking lots on my own. But don’t ask me to hide inside my home instead. That, I will not do.