It was almost eight in the evening. Pleasant was probably the best way to describe that evening. An acquaintance had kept me waiting at the municipal grounds. 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. In most places around the world I would hardly hesitate about a two or even a ten kilometer walk at that time of the day.
But, this was Jaffna. It is the same city in northern Sri Lanka that is closely identified with the three decade long civil war. Jaffna was liberated in the 90s by the Sri Lankan army. Yet the town wears its war identity like a scar it wants to forget. This process of healing also somehow also serves as a grim reminder.
The roads gleamed and everything seemed new in this town. Anxiety crept in once I realised that there were almost no tourists in the Northern Province capital. But the strong wind from the Palk Strait somehow brought both warmth and comfort. It was with this breeze for company that I started the leisurely stroll back to the lodge.
What happened in the next 60 minutes was beyond my wildest imaginations.
I was almost at the clock tower when he called me out. It was a man on a scooty 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. He was offering me a ride.
And I accept free rides on two wheelers everywhere. Be it London or Jaffna, doesn’t matter.
With the helmet on my head now, we were cruising through the polished streets. I said to myself, ‘What the heck? This seems to be such a great place. Strangers stop to give you a ride. How many cities around the world do this?’
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.
His left palm planted itself on my left knee (I was wearing shorts, a dead give-away that I was a tourist). So he was literally driving the scooty with one hand. His hand had made itself quite comfortable on my knee. This 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 or is gay.’
With a few deep breaths, I gathered my composure and gently slid his hand off my knee. At that instant, I still did not know what was happening. 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’.
He again rattled off in Tamil. From what I understood, he meant he could give me some company for dinner. Also, that there were many restaurants down the road and he could bring me back.
Now, one of the things I really hate about traveling alone is eating alone most times. I never ever refuse to company for meals, food always tastes better with a conversation. So I agreed and hopped on the scooty again. Still naïve about what was going on, the breeze felt like bliss. But 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. People are not known for hiding their curiosity in the Indian sub-continent. In that sense, these questions were not abnormal.
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?’
He probably used all English words known to him in one sentence. And thanks to that, 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. Being all alone, that too in Jaffna, and then to have accepted a ride from a stranger, did not seem like a great idea anymore.
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. And Jaffna at nine in the evening looked more eerie than Mumbai would under a curfew. 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. Only to realise that it was a huge mistake.
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. Many people had gathered there for a late night stroll. Hesitatingly, he brought the scooty to a halt. Having had enough of this, I was okay even with walking back alone in a real curfew.
‘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.
The plan was to wait till this man left and then walk back to the lodge. It was surprising that I could still feel fear even though I was under no risk.
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?’ my Tamil good enough to understand that’s what he meant. ‘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.
Today when I write this, I am probably a bit more objective. The narrative is not against homosexuals or even men for that matter. It isn’t even against Jaffna which treated me really well in the coming 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.
Follow my journey as I travel to 12 different countries to take a challenge in each one of them. These challenges should end up in some learning for me and who knows, may be for you too J
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