For nearly two hours this morning, I tried finding out if there was a fast or protest planned in Mysore today. If people were gathering somewhere it would be good to add to the numbers, I thought, rather than fragmenting the effort. But I was told, “We are planning, but there is nothing today”. Nothing seemed to have been done yesterday or the day before, so I decided to make my own placard and go sit under Gandhi’s statue outside the court, for a few hours while it was still day.
I made a sign saying “We Want Jan Lokpal” in English on one side and “ಭ್ರಷ್ಟಾಚರ ವಿರೋಧಿಸಿ” (Oppose Corruption) in Kannada on the other. And around 4.45 I left the office, with the placard. I had decided not to go sit by the G. statue, because I could easily be missed and because it seemed a rather boring thing to do.
I walked along the Hunsur Road, but for the first ten minutes or so, I was on the left hand side, with my back to the traffic. I realised this wasn’t such a good idea–I need to face the oncomng traffic, only then would people pay attention to the sign. And it worked. People would slow down to read the sign and then speed up.
It was rush-hour traffic, people were going home from work, which also meant they were not in a mad hurry to get to office and face their workday. They had a moment to indulge their curiousity about this woman with a placard walking by herself.
For the first couple of minutes I was a bit shy about meeting people’s eyes. But I plucked up courage when I saw someone smile. And after that I kept looking at people’s faces, with as neutrally pleasant an expression as I could manage (or should that be ‘as my perpetually frowning face would allow’?).
Most people, about 60-65%, would see me, but would simply not care and drive past without slowing to read the sign. A smaller percentage read the sign, shrugged either physically or mentally, and drove on. Some read the sign and took a look at my face, but on meeting my eyes, immediately pretended I did not exist. Many looked completely cynical. One man said “ಅಷ್ಟೇನಾ?” “Is that all?”. A fraction looked at me and smiled, some in embarrassment at having been ‘caught’ looking at me and some in encouragement. Some wanted to talk to me, but were too shy. A few felt compelled to read my sign out aloud to me.
My first conversation was with a young man who drove up and asked why I was alone. I told him that i had tried to find out if anyone was organising a public event, but was unsuccessful and decided to go it alone. He said ph, that is very good madam, smiled and went away. He was wearing a helmet, but driving on the wrong side.
A minute later a slightly older man slowed down and said, “All the best!” I asked him how good wishes would help, and he looked sheepish. Unrelenting, I went on. Instead of good wishes, would it not be better if he also did something to change things? Poor man, he simply said, “Yes, yes, you are right, madam,” and sped away.
A little ahead, a man in a watchman-like uniform, with an Alsatian on a leash, asked me in Kannada, what my sign meant. In terrible, incoherent words I tried to explain, and through more effort from him than from me, managed to get the idea across. He asked if I was a lawyer. I lied and said I was a student.
Another man, (again driving on the wrong side!), stopped, introduced himself as a doctor and asked where the fasts had been organised. I told him I had tried to find out without much success. “So you are walking alone?” “Yes.” Good, good, all the best!” “Thank you.”
And suddenly, I didn’t know how to go back. Called M and asked for directions. Got them and went on. Two boys in the university compound, read the sign aloud, in funny tones, false voices, falsettos. I grinned and waved. They looked embarrassed and then waved back, jumping up and down for some reason. I felt like a celebrity.
At a crossroad where I was trying to do the right thing by using the zebra instead of walking diagonally, a group of young men in sports uniforms crossed ahead of me. One of them, not in uniform, asked me, “ಏನಿದು?” “What is this?” I replied, “The sign says ‘Oppose Corruption,’ and that is what this is about.” “What does that mean?” “Umm, it means we should all try to stop corrption and not be corrupt ourselves.” “What does that mean?” At this point, the rest of the group has begun to get impatient with him: “Don’t you know what corruption means?” “Why are you asking silly questions?” “Come on, man, you know exactly what this is about!”
I smiled at all of them and started to cross the road, when two men on a bike, one holding a camera waved at me and yelled for me to come to where they were. I waved back gesturing that I was crossing the road. The man with the camera kept shouting “Look here, I want to take a photo!” I hid my face with the sign and gestured that he should photograph that instead. Some of the sports people were still shouting questions to me: “Which college, akka?” I moved the sign to shout back some completely untrue response, when the photographer went click, click, click. Bleddy! I muttered some curses and moved on, hiding as well as I could behind the sign. He followed me for a while, but the traffic at the railway crossing got the better of him.
At the tracks, vehicles, children, university athletes and one large goat were all squeezing past each other. One motorist called out something complimentary about the placard being in Kannada.
The sun had nearly set by now. The roads were fuller than earlier, but fewer people seemed interested in the sign. People were not going to make the effort to read my squiggles in the semi-darkness.
Near the DC’s residence, a pillion-rider smiled and saluted. I saluted back. Two cops at the Valmiki Road signal said, “ಏನು ಮೇಡಂ, ಒಬ್ಬರೇ ಇದ್ದೀರಾ?” “What madam, you are alone?” “Yes, what to do, if no one joins, you must go alone, no?” “Yes, yes, you are right.” Smiles all around. Nods also.
Auto drivers at the Paduvarahalli stand, pointed at the placard and spoke to each other in a babble I couldn’t decipher. I did the usual thing: I smiled. They just stopped speaking.
M called a couple of minutes later. I was less than a kilometer from home. “I’ll come pick you up.” Sure, do! It was too dark for anyone to read the sign anyway. Or even to see me. I crossed the road to where M would meet me. A couple of auto drivers at the corner read the sign by the glow of the streetlamp and asked me what it was about. Before I could launch into my converses-only-with-in-laws-and-the-domestic-help-lady Kannada, M arrived and I extracted “politician”, and other crucial words from him and managed get the explanation across in a somewhat less garbled manner this time. M helped immensely by throwing in a metaphor about bandicoots.
Shoved the sign gratefully into the back of the car and went home.
The most significant observation I made today was that not a single woman wanted to acknowledge the sign or me. If I looked at them directly, they would not break the gaze, but simply shift focus, as if I was invisible and they were looking at something beyond. Most pretended, extremely effectively, that I did not exist. Women have a LOT of practice at this, with all the unwanted attention they get. But I must have looked into the faces of at least a thousand women today. Not one smiled. Not one looked curious. Not one stopped to ask me anything. All the people who commented or spoke to me, or even raised their eyebrows were men. I have no clue what to make of this.
It is almost three hours since I got home. My hands are still aching. Who knew a one-kilo placard was this heavy?