June 2013

Vox

Eve teasing in India

By Bem Le Hunte
When a blessing is not a blessing

This tale begins outside a temple in Delhi. My fiancé, Jan, insisted on going inside, inspired as he was by Paramahansa Yogananda, the Hindu saint, and the ascetic sadhus with dreadlocks and tridents who lived in caves far up in the Himalayas. I was supposedly Jan’s native guide, steeped in these traditions, raised on comics of gods and goddesses draped in red cotton and gold.

We stepped into the temple and quietened as we passed in front of a depiction of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, tearing open his chest to reveal Ram and Sita inside: Ram and Sita, eternal consorts, the perfect balance of male and female cosmic forces. Jan’s smile was beatific. Standing in front of this line of gods and goddesses was like standing at the foothills of the Himalayas. This was how he’d always imagined an Indian temple, with the vermilion dust, the gaudy colours and the incense spreading the scent of an invisible sandalwood forest.

The numinous enchantment was broken by a stubby pujari – a Brahmin priest – who approached us. This was his temple. Would we like to do a puja? A prayer for our future marriage? It would cost only ten rupees.

A small price for the blessing of marital bliss, and it was Valentine’s Day. He sat us back to back inside one of the cloisters of the temple. Odd, I thought. I’d never had to sit like this for any ceremony before, but India is large and there are unheard-of traditions behind every stone temple wall. The familiar hum of Sanskrit chanting began, with the pujari facing me, blessing me with a touch on the forehead and a dash of red dust. I closed my eyes. But the pujari’s clammy hand stayed on my skin. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I did, to see his filthy loincloth, a little too close to my face. I closed my eyes again. This was accidental. We were in a temple, after all. But then I felt the cloth brush against my face. I elbowed Jan. Without turning around he told me to shut up, repeating what I had just considered – we were in a temple; I had to relax. Why would the priest be doing this with my partner, a stronger, younger man, so close by? The pujari might have just lost his balance. As I thought this, two hands reached for my breasts, and this time the pujari’s groin was pressing into my face. “Jan,” I screamed over the humming prayers, “the fucker is molesting me!”

Jan leapt up and started abusing the pujari. He didn’t hit him, not in a temple of all places, but yelled at him to give us back our ten rupees. We would have left it at that had it not been for two policemen who saw me wailing at my stupidity down the road in a local park soon afterwards. Why was madam crying?

I blurted out that I’d been molested by a pujari. Groping, in India, is euphemistically called “Eve teasing”. Within minutes we were back at the temple, with Jan and the police looking for the offender. He was nowhere to be found. The men continued looking while I shifted my balance from one leg to the other, hoping that he’d been spirited away for his sins. Then the pujari’s brother approached Jan and whispered in his ear: “Look in the bathroom.”

There, behind an open toilet door, flat against the wall, was the pujari. The police dragged him out and one officer began beating him with his truncheon. I closed my eyes to make them all go away, but the crowd quickly grew. The pujari’s mother flung herself weeping at my feet, kissing them and stroking my sandals as she begged me to forgive her son. He was a good man and we should find it in our hearts to forgive him. She cast her eyes towards her son, now being pushed to the ground so that the officer could enjoy a fuller swing with his truncheon.

Meanwhile the whispering brother urged us on: “Do you think this is the first time? He even does this to his own daughters.” Then a cousin of the pujari, who was playing cricket nearby, presented himself as an unbiased mediator. “On the one hand, what he has done is very wrong and he should be punished for it, but on the other hand, he is the only person from this family who earns an income and if he is locked away, then the entire family will starve.”

When the police asked me and Jan to get into their Jeep with the pujari, I echoed countless “Eves” who had gone through this before me: “I’m not going to the police station. I don’t want to go through any more of this. I want to drop the charges.”

Two weeks later we saw the same officers at the nearby market and asked what had happened to the pujari. “He went to prison,” we were told. “Prison? But I dropped charges!” The police officer laughed, entertained by our naivety. “Yes, but we found other charges.”

Bem Le Hunte

Bem Le Hunte is the author of The Seduction of Silence and There, Where the Pepper Grows. She lectures at the University of New South Wales.

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