A WALK down any street in India today is enough to show that the average person finds it difficult to raise his or her voice against injustice being meted out to another. The most common sight is kids being routinely slapped by those who illegally employ them. I would venture to say that all of us walk away. It’s not our place to interfere, we tell ourselves. In my almost 40 years, I have never seen anyone stand up for those kids or for anyone else.
Part of this could be because of a person’s environment and learnt behaviour. For example, someone from a highly patriarchal set-up would not see anything wrong in women being abused and would not object to it. Someone who has grown up seeing street fights erupt over a few words would choose not to intervene. Strange but true!
Given all this, I learnt to admire people who stood up for what was right. I grew up learning to speak my mind. The rewards from this, at work and in life, have been substantial but it can be a double-edged sword too. There have been occasions when I have spoken up on behalf of my classmates and been ostracised by the teacher. When I spoke up for my friends against bullies, I was beaten up by those bullies. But I still speak up, admittedly to mixed reactions. Let me tell you about one incident I am particularly proud of.
I was on a bus from Dadar to Worli in the late 1990s. The bus was packed with the office-going crowd. Suddenly, I heard a man’s raised voice. He seemed to be berating a woman. Maybe she had asked him to “stand properly” or objected to unwanted proximity and he had got offended. He was loudly asking her, “Did I touch you?” with the intent of embarrassing her. Possibly not guilty but still aggressive, he said, “Did you see me do anything?” Then he moved on to the insults, “I can get women like you for Rs. 50 at XYZ station.”
I had never heard anything like it. When the berating had begun, I had flinched but said nothing. But as it escalated, I found my temper rising. Before I could stop myself, I found myself shouting, “That is no way to speak to a lady.”
There was the usual mass of humanity between us and we couldn’t see each other, but the man turned towards me and shouted, “Who said that?” That, usually, is the cue for most of us to stop because you have now diverted attention to yourself and you should either hide or run. But that day, something strange had come over me. I was not to be intimidated. I don’t know what it was.
Maybe I was feeling righteous; maybe I was angry beyond the usual, maybe I was emboldened from having distracted him. I roared back with an “I did!” The man shouted back, “Did she see me do anything?” I roared back, “That is still no excuse to talk to a lady like that!” And at this point, something magical happened! More people from the bus joined in. They started berating the man for talking to a woman like that. Outnumbered, the bully’s hostility receded and the woman being harassed was finally left in peace.
My stop arrived and I got off the bus. A group of old women got off at the same stop and one of them said something like, “God bless you, son!” Some smiled at me, others nodded in agreement. I walked a little taller. It reinforced to me that if you speak up when you see something wrong, you can prevent many such incidents. And as a bonus, if others are present, they will join in.
Speaking up can be so powerful! And keeping quiet and not speaking up can prove disastrous. If you and I want a better world, we will have to make it happen for ourselves. And we can do that by the simple act of speaking up each time we see injustice or something bordering on injustice.