At the end of our holiday, my friend Marge and I found ourselves in a cousin’s apartment, discussing our “adventures”. One of those involved a bar set in the middle of an artificial wilderness. Sweaty, grimy and tired, we gratefully stumbled our way in the dark to what looked like an abandoned heritage building in the middle of the carefully manicured “forest” surrounding the resort and threw open the door to meet the astonished gaze of some adolescent who was doubling as the bartender that night – and about five chipli uncles settling in for their umpteenth drink of the early evening.
“Hey,” the male cousin interrupted, laughing. “What’s a chipli uncle? Is it some kind of ageist thing?”
We gaped at him. A chipli uncle is… a chipli uncle. Who doesn’t know what a chipli uncle is? Granted there is no actual word as “chipli” in any Indian language that we know of – as a matter of fact, I think it’s something Marge invented. At least, if I remember correctly she introduced me to it.
But for those who don’t know: a chipli uncle is the guy who can’t keep his hands off his crotch and his eyes off your chest; he could be younger or older, white or brown, well-dressed or a ragamuffin, but he can often empty a room full of women by simply walking into it; he’s the one who thinks the girls love his off-color jokes and overshares about his bodily functions because he believes in frank talk.
A chipli uncle is the guy on the bus who once told me he “understood” my “psychological problem about being touched” which was shared by “many women” when I asked him to stop leaning all over me when he had a recliner seat all to himself. A chipli uncle is the guy who sneaked his hand under Marge’s sweatshirt to grab her boobs in the middle of a night on another bus journey. A chipli uncle is the guy who interviewed my friend Pops for the position of “personal assistant” and then told her most of her assisting “work” would take place at night.
When caught out, the chipli uncle will actually stand his ground and mumble a series of “sorry”s. I’ll never understand that. I find the whole urge to fondle strangers odd and disturbing but what do they think will the end result? Are there women out there who turn to their attacker and go, “OMG! This is totally my fantasy too!” And when the chipli uncle apologizes what does he think will be the response – “Oh, you’re sorry you molested me? Well, as long as you’re sorry, we’ll just call it bygones then! No harm done! What are you doing for dinner?”
A chipli uncle is the grown up version of the guy who, in his youth, used his allowance to get into a movie theater so he could sit behind a pretty girl(s), squeeze one finger or maybe a couple through the crack between the seats and poke her somewhere, anywhere!, as long as his finger made contact with her body. He’d risk personal injury, glares, brawls, shouting, name-calling, public shaming and penury for a chance to tickle some girl whose overwhelming feelings for him are disgust, rage and an urge to thrust a giant safety pin through sensitive body parts.
“How fucking repressed are these people?” Marge asked me as we giggled in disbelief while comparing war stories. “Imagine being so desperate that you get your sexual highs from poking some strange girl in the back with one finger!”
Between the two of us, we figured we’d been hassled in every movie theater in our hometown, been followed on the streets of multiple Indian cities, and groped on various highways. When we traveled anywhere in India, especially when using public transport, we automatically put on what we like to call our “Do Not Rape” outfits: loose fitting salwar kameezes with high necks, thick dupattas, and (preferably) long sleeves.
It is hellishly uncomfortable, especially in the summer when you’d prefer to wear something sleeveless or light cotton but want to dress so that in case things get really out of hand, the police and/or bystanders won’t diminish the strength of your case by casting blame on your outfit. Logically, we know we could be dressed in a full length burkha and still get felt up. Realistically, however, it’s easier to cover all your bases than expend your energy trying to educate assholes on the finer points of the emancipation of women when you’re already stressed out.
And even with that degree of armor, I don’t think either one of us has ever felt completely safe on the streets of India. Not only do I find myself dressing according to the possible character of autowallahs, taxi drivers and other unknown male passersby on the street rather than my personal inclination, over the years I’ve developed a trick of scanning my surroundings for possible threats.
A friend and I often kid that Indian women would make excellent assassin-spies because our spider senses are so advanced – nobody needs to train us to automatically assess all possible threats. We’re used to weighing our options at a subconscious level just walking down the street.
I don’t know when the humor began to leach out of me – perhaps it was when Marge told me about the time when she and a friend went to see a movie on the first day of its release and she had to make her way through the teeming crowd of would-be fanny-pinchers with piece of broken mirror.
“I could hear men go ‘ow’ all around me as I walked,” she shrugged. “But you know what? You don’t want to get hurt, you keep your hands to yourself.”
I’ve always known that molestation is a terrible thing – nothing like being groped by a stranger to teach you that – and that it’s rampant in India. But I’m so used to thinking of it as an inevitable part of my experience as an Indian woman that the sheer scale of it never quite hit me until I was listening to Marge talk about cutting her way into a movie theater.
I mean, it’s a bloody movie theater! She put on her Do Not Rape outfit (she’s almost always in those when she’s in India) and went to see a movie with a girlfriend. It’s the simplest thing in the world. And yet, she might as well have set off for the wars: donning armor and packing heat.
It’s fucked up.
I saw an ad for the Incredible India campaign in which Aamir Khan exhorts the public to stand up for visiting foreign women who find themselves being hassled. That’s nice and it’s about time. The first thing women from anywhere notice about India is that “eve-teasing” is part and parcel of the Indian experience. But Indian women are the ones who find out about it first.
Molestation is the everyday experience of all Indian women regardless of age, class or chutzpah. You could be a fifty year old woman buying vegetables at the market – and you’ll be plotting your escape route from the seller to the auto stand, strategically avoiding all the men who look like they want to touch and holding yourself on guard against the rest just to be safe.
Your mother, your sister, your wife, your best friend, your blogger – the sisterhood of Indian women is based on our everyday battle against the chipli uncle. The fact that this is possibly the nth post you’ve read by an Indian female blogger on the subject should tell you all you need to know.