Pleasant was probably the best word to describe that evening. An acquaintance had kept me waiting at the municipal grounds in Jaffna, the same city in northern Sri Lanka that is closely identified with the three decade long civil war.
It was only after an hour that I decided the wait was futile. This meant that I had a two kilometer walk back to the lodge. What happened in the next 60 minutes was beyond my wildest imaginations.
I was almost at the clock tower when a man on a scooty called me and his sweet smile made me trust him instantly. Though he spoke in Tamil, it was easy to understand what he meant. He stretched out his extra helmet towards me and offered me a ride.
With the helmet on my head now, we were cruising through the polished streets. I said to myself, "This seems to be such a great place. Strangers stop to give you a ride. How many cities around the world do this?" But who knew what was in store.
The man tried to make conversation. Just regular stuff like where I was from? What was I doing in Jaffna? He seemed nice and eager to know me. And then something unexpected happened.
He planted his left palm on my left knee (I was wearing shorts, a dead give-away that I was a tourist). He was literally driving the scooty with one hand. His hand had made itself quite comfortable on my knee, which was superbly awkward, to say the least. The first few seconds I did not know what to make of it. Then, my mind started rationalizing.
"Sachin, you know how men on this subcontinent are. They always touch and hold one another. Doesn’t mean that this man is making a pass at me."
With a few deep breaths, I gathered my composure and gently slid his hand off my knee. By then the lodge arrived and I asked him to stop. But we had left the lodge 200 metres behind by the time the scooty actually came to a halt.
"Dinner?" he asked and I said, "Will see. May be I will buy something from a shop close by"
Now, one of the things I really hate about traveling alone is eating alone most times. I never ever refuse company for meals. Food always tastes better with a conversation. So I agreed and hopped on the scooty again. Naïve about what was going on, the breeze felt like bliss. But who knew the next half hour would be anything but bliss.
The same drill occured again. Hand on knee and I slid it away. "This man really doesn't know that it is inappropriate to touch others like that" I thought to myself. Little did I know that it wasn't ignorance but deliberation.
This time the questions ranged from my age to my marital status. We stopped at a vegetarian restaurant and I settled for a plate of Ceylon parottas with gravy. The meal was a quick one and nothing special. Except a question from this stranger which almost made me fall off my chair.
"Your room is private no? Can I come in the night and stay with you?"
It made things absolutely clear to me.
His hand straying on my knee, questions about my marital status and insistence on having dinner together, now made totally different sense. This was more than just being nice to a tourist. Suddenly the entire situation seemed so sinister.
I am not homophobic. I have gay friends who I am fond of. Another man finding me attractive was also in a way flattering. However, what made me uncomfortable was this man's total disregard for my interest. Touching me and assuming that accepting a ride meant consent is what put me off.
Also what surprised me was the fear I felt running through my skin when we left the restaurant together. The lodge was three or four kilometers away. I could still do with the ride back to the hotel.
"He cannot harm me in anyway. There is no way he can force me into anything" I said to myself and got back on the scooter. On this ride, I was subjected to even more audacious words and actions. It was the hand on knee act first. Second I was told "You are a beauty."
To make myself clear, I mentioned that I had a girlfriend back home (I don't) and that we plan to get married soon. I felt this statement would make it clear to him that my choices were heterosexual. But that didn’t work.
One final action and I had to stop this drama once and for all. I noticed his left hand now making its way to his back and towards my groin area. It won’t take you long to guess where his hand was headed. Instinctively, I covered my crotch with my hand.
When his hand met mine, he acted like he was trying to scratch his back. But both of us knew what had just happened.
"STOP!" I yelled.
By great coincidence we were next to Nallur Kovil, the famous Hindu shrine in Jaffna.
‘I will stay here and click pictures of the temple. You can go. Good bye!’ I said as I tried to hide the anger in my voice, but failed miserably. I entered the temple complex and started clicking pictures without any real intention.
But it wasn’t until another 15 minutes that he left. I could see from the corner of my eye that he was walking towards me.
"Are you sure?""Yes!" I said softly but with conviction.
He finally got on the scooter and drove away while I acted engrossed in my camera. My mind was now in conflict, with questions and counter questions. It was like many people argued with each other in my head. What just happened? Why did it happen? Why am I scared? Did I lead him on by accepting the ride? But how was I to know?
The walk back to the lodge through the deserted streets of Jaffna took forever. As much as I wished it wouldn’t, the event did affect me even for the next couple of days.
Would I be equally upset if a woman had done this to me? The answer is yes!
Anyone who does not have my consent and does not care for it is unwelcome.
The incident was unpleasant even for someone like me who travels alone most times. I cannot even begin to imagine the trauma that people go through during rape and other forms of sexual violence. Be it men or women.
Sometimes seemingly small acts like staring and passing comments can be a nightmare for the person at the receiving end. And I must confess that I am guilty of having committed such small acts in the past.
It took a personal experience for me to understand this. Hope others realise the importance of consent without being subject to an experience where theirs is taken for granted.
Read the full article here .
About the author:
Sachin Bhandary, The Odd Traveller, has taken a year off and made travelling his mission. He believes that travelling is a fantastic learning opportunity and is out to prove as much by setting examples! Reach out to him through his blog , Facebook and Twitter . Happy travelling!