Adolescence in my school had just one meaning: Getting closer to girls.
I went to a government school in a small town where boys and girls lived strictly segregated lives – even in the classroom. The biology teacher didn’t touch human reproduction when female students were present, men and women couldn’t sit on the same bench and even sharing notes before examinations was confined by gender. Our lives were co-educational only in the principal’s office and on the annual inspection day.
All that changed in Class 9. The onset of adolescence in this tightly controlled life spilled out in hushed chats on corridors and corners of classrooms, in five stolen moments outside tuition classes and evenings on cycles and scooties and motorbikes, all centred on one thing: How to get closer to girls.
Most of us had no experience of anything close to romantic interest but we had already been bruised by masculinity so we turned to what Bollywood had taught us: Chhed chad. The more “daring” boys picked out women they liked (or pretended to like), proceeded to cajole their phone numbers out of them and spent the next few months in hot pursuit. The rest of the boys had an agreement among themselves who their “wali” were and who were going to keep their hands off whom. No women were part of this agreement. None needed to be.
The next three years in school was a haze of testosterone-fuelled pursuit of women, sharing “intelligence” about their text messages, phone numbers or calls, excitedly talking about who called whom and liberally adding masala to every encounter. There was implicit acknowledgment of the fact that women liked it: That the innocuous smile or polite conversation was proof that the boys were on the right track, and in the absence of a visible boyfriend, women wanted to be pursued.
That pursuit graduated from cycles in middle school to bikes in high school and cars in college – always two or three men hanging out, talking about women, how to get them and where best to confront them. Additionally, there were cyber cafes and the first of the smartphones that helped our bros into avoiding physical interactions with women but create a lurid cloud around the possibility of an encounter.
By the time we were in college, none of us believed that there was any other way to start a conversation with a woman, except by asking other boys who she was, where she lived and what her phone number was. In fact, when some women walked up to my friends in college, they seemed positively shocked and tongue tied.
These are the boys who grow up to be young men chasing women down the streets of Chandigarh, into politicians who justify sex crimes under the guise of “boys will be boys”, into police officers who think the women were asking for it, into parents who think a little tease never hurt anyone and into public leaders who fondly reminisce their own teenage of stalking.
Love in India is fiercely policed by caste, class, gender, faith, ability and other markers that ensure we spontaneously fall for a partner of the same sub-caste as ours on Tinder. Many women have neither the right to say no or the right to say yes – indeed, for those in my school, the choice was often between repressing desire and being called frigid, or being branded a slut.
Varnika Kundu has triggered a national conversation on stalking, which germinates from inside our classrooms, our male friendships and female vulnerabilities, and what we think of as “cool” pursuit of women. Her stalkers should be punished, but unless we look at how we teach our adolescents to look at women, these cases are going to continue. Sometimes, the victims won’t be able to complain, sometimes their parents won’t be supportive, sometimes they won’t be from cities or communities we care about or won’t be from a caste we consider respectable. If we are serious about ending stalking and pursuit of women, it is time to look at young men.