Devu was all of five when she understood what it was to be a woman. She was aware of her body and she knew what made her different from the boys in her neighbourhood. She would go to school with them but took smaller steps and looked down when she walked. In her white petticoat, she’d rush to the door hearing the doorbell, but hide behind her mother’s saree on seeing Kumar Uncle through the window. He’d make vain attempts to lure her with juicy tamarind and deep-fried murukku. And poor Devu, digging herself into her mother’s saree, would shut her eyes tight. Hoping that she’d become invisible. And if he got any closer, she’d rush to the backyard, squat beside Ponnamma and watch her intently, as she milked the cows.
Devu was all of six. But she learnt a lot more than girls of her age. Devu was asked to talk with her voice low. If raised, she’d be asked not to talk for the rest of the day. So that the next time she opened her mouth, she’d think twice before she uttered a word. To help her grow into a fine woman, her father would say.
Devu was all of ten. But she’d learnt how to walk like a woman. Or so, she was taught. She’d pull her skirt down a million times, so that her knees didn’t show and the boys wouldn’t stare. She took careful steps and made sure she never missed any. She’d give way to the boys as they cycled around like ugly mosquitoes. Her pretty pink shoes looked pretty pink forever, because she knew every puddle that came her way, from home to school and then back home.
Devu was all of thirteen, when she was told not to talk to strangers - come what may. She was told that strangers are bad people. And talking to bad people could land her in danger. And so Devu hated strangers. Devu hated anyone she didn’t know. Or who her father didn’t know or her mother or brother or sister or friends didn’t know. And Devu wouldn’t talk to people she hated.
Devu was all of eighteen. And she had learnt to ignore. She was taught to ignore. Because ignorance, they said, was bliss. So no matter what the strangers did or said, Devu would ignore. She’d wait to get home, lock herself up in her room and vent by crying her heart out. She felt better when she cried. Because a woman was allowed to cry, she was told.
Devu is twenty five. And there’s nothing new about her. She talks softly. She watches her steps as she walks. She wears long clothes. She doesn’t always look good in them, but she feels safe in it. The lesser the skin, the lesser the eyes and so lesser the strangers who’d look at her, she thought. But Devu was wrong.
She felt helpless that evening. In a churidaar, that left no inch of her skin exposed, she felt naked. She cringed in fear. She pulled up her carefully pinned dupatta, so that it covered her neck line and that inch of a shoulder that was shown. She held a bunch of books so close to her chest that it almost felt like she had someone to hold on to. It gave her a sense of security. She ignored the eyes that followed her and hoped to get home faster and safe.
It was half past six. And Devu wasn’t home yet. Somewhere far, in the middle of nowhere, Devu lay helplessly. With nothing to save her from the savagery. At twenty-five, Devu succumbed to her helplessness. At twenty-five Devu wished that she had learnt more. She wished, that she had learnt to raise her voice and not just ignore.