Kaira and I went to the mall on a bright summer afternoon to try on new bras. The Eastpoint mall was the closest to our homes in Kilpauk and it housed one of the largest LH stores in the city. They have always had the best bras – durable, supportive, and made with comfortable, soft fabric. To feel the sudden embrace of the air-conditioning was like a scoop of ice cream on a hot pancake. Chennai was getting hotter these days and plenty of people had come to the mall to seek refuge from the raging sun. There were squealing children running around, young people milling about on their phones, couples taking photographs, and elderly people settled comfortably on benches, watching the crowd as if this was their living room. Kaira and I went straight to LH on the ground floor. We walked about the store, running our fingers over the various pieces of clothing – silk shirts, cotton wrap-around skirts, linen trousers, denim shorts. I loved being in retail stores, seeing everything neatly pressed and organized, soft music playing in the background, the snapping of shoes on wooden flooring, the clacking of the register, rustling paper bags, and muffled voices – after a pandemic of online shopping, all of it felt like a dance to old, forgotten music. Kaira signaled to me from the queue outside the changing rooms. I walked over to her with two basic, neutral-colored cotton push-up bras in hand. She showed me the ones she had. A pair of T-shirt bras, a bikini top for a Goan holiday she was going on soon, and an animal print bra that could be worn five ways.
“Confused about my size,” she muttered, studying the cup size, “so I got some in 34C and the others in 36B.”
“Help me decide?”
“Sure,” I nodded.
The changing rooms were located down a long corridor that extended to the left and to the right. The shop was clearly short-staffed because there was just one sales lady inspecting the number of items and instructing everyone to form a single queue. Typically, there would be two or three of them, but I suppose they were on the shop floor assisting other buyers. After standing in the queue for ages, the lady counted Kaira’s items and asked her to go down the hall to the left. She then took mine and pointed me toward the right. I followed Kaira quietly, careful to avoid bumping into or stepping on the toes of partners, friends and family who were patiently seated outside the cubicles, waiting to validate the sartorial choices of their shopping companions. We passed an elderly woman with a young child on the verge of a tantrum and a middle-aged man on his phone before I saw Kaira standing in a cubicle, wiggling her finger, asking me to squeeze into the same cubicle. We had done this dance before – it was impossible otherwise to come out of the cubicle and ask for a friend’s opinion. Particularly when shopping for bras or shapewear. We would stand with our backs to each other, change, then declare we were ready, turn around, check the other’s outfit and finally, make a decision.
In the changing rooms, there was the clinking sound of hangers against steel hooks, like cheery glasses of wine. Outside, you could hear the voices of people asking each other if they looked alright and for the most part, responses affirming that they looked great. I thought I heard the grandma exclaim in shock but it could have also been the sound of awestruck wonder.
“Can you hang a few on your side?” Kaira asked, handing me two of her hangers. As I turned around, I thought I felt something brush against my ankle. I looked down to see just Kaira’s wide-legged trousers in a heap on the floor.
As I lifted my T-shirt over my chest, I heard something else. The unmistakable click of a mobile phone. I turned around to see Kaira looking straight at me. She had heard it too.
I pulled my shirt down, opened the door, and rushed out, with Kaira following closely behind, having hastily buttoned up her oversized shirt. The grandmother and child were gone. As I neared the exit, I saw the man with the phone, engrossed in his device and hurrying alongside a petite woman in a pretty lilac salwar kameez. She wore jasmine in her hair, had gold bangles on her wrist, and smelled strongly of perfume. As we caught up to her, I overheard her asking him why he was walking so fast.
“Hey!” I called out, but my voice came out all uneven and weak.
He turned to look at us and as my eyes met his, I knew, without a doubt, that he was guilty.
“Eyyyy,” Kaira yelled, angrily, catching up to me. The woman in lilac stopped and turned around. She looked confused and tired.
“He took a photo of us when we were changing!” Kaira screamed to the entire shopfloor, her hair and shirt in disarray.
“Ey, what are you saying?” the woman yelled in response, rage filling her face with a crimson red.
The man who had started to look sheepish before now began to gather some courage.
“What nonsense. Don’t create a scene,” he said, dismissing us with a shoo-ing motion.
Kaira and I looked at each other helplessly.
“He stuck his hand under the cubicle door and took our photo. Ask him,” I said to the lady, tears pooling in my eyes. “I felt his hand brush against my foot too.”
“Shut up! She screeched, outraged. “Stupid girls,” she muttered as she tried to walk away.
“Chuma, loosu ponnunge,” he muttered to her to pacify her. “Va pola,” he said to her, putting his arm across her shoulder and trying to take her away.
We watched horrified as the lady obediently turned and began to walk away.
“Then show us your phone,” Kaira said loudly, gritting her teeth. Two salespersons had arrived to investigate and Kaira animatedly began to brief them on what had happened. She looked like she was ready to punch the guy. I felt sick to my stomach. By now, a small crowd of shoppers had gathered. Some mumbled “excuse me, please move to the side,” and “what is happening here?” Most of them stood in stoic silence, witnessing this drama erupt. This place of retail solace had now become the site of a scandal.
“Listen, I don’t have to show you anything,” the man said, baring a set of stained teeth between dark purple pigmented lips that were capped with a rough moustache. I imagined they would feel like the bristles of an old toothbrush if they rubbed against your skin. I shuddered, with disgust and discomfort and anger. The woman in lilac was now tapping on her phone furiously, trying to call someone.
“We heard the click of your camera,” I said to him, in what I hoped was an authoritative tone.
“Oho, ‘we’, ah?” he replied, his eyes glimmering with hope, like a light had come on. “Listen, pa,” he called the attention of the audience as if this were a street play. “Two girls, in one changing room. What were they doing there, you ask first. Ask, ask,” he goaded the crowd. I looked around and saw that the number of people around us had multiplied. Some were even holding up their phones, recording us. It made me want to cry. I crossed my arms defensively. The woman in lilac was on the phone now, complaining to someone in a high-pitched tone.
“We. Were. Trying on. Clothes.” I added.
“Madam, only one person per changing room, that is the rule,” the saleslady declared in a flat tone.
“Excuuuuse me,” Kaira interjected. “Forget that. He has something on his phone. Take it from him and check. Is that not more important?”
“Madam, if this is a personal matter, please do not cause a scene,” the saleslady continued like an unhelpful call operator.
“Personal matter?” Kaira was livid. “Are you kidding me?”
“Ask for his phone!” A middle-aged lady in the crowd urged. “How can you all not help these girls?”
“But ma’am,” the saleslady tried to respond.
“Check it, check it, check it.” A few women in the crowd echoed.
The salespersons finally obliged. After some coaxing, the man handed over his phone and sure enough, there we were, three photographs – Kaira and I, tall half-naked dryads, and our oblivious reflections in the mirror.
We waited for close to an hour as our photos were passed around the store – from the perpetrator to the woman in lilac (who, we discovered, was his wife) to people in the crowd to the salesladies to the cashiers. This was all making me feel more and more uncomfortable. I scratched at a psoriatic patch on my elbow. Some spectators came forward to express their sympathies and give us advice. “Some man took a photo of me breastfeeding in the corner of a restaurant. I couldn’t even run after him because my baby was eating. There’s no use. This country doesn’t care about us feeling violated,” a lady recounted as she balanced a child on her hip. I now recognized her as the near-tantrum thrower. Meanwhile, others mumbled something offensive about us “kids these days so shameless, this is what we deserve”. Kaira and I had no energy to pick more fights but the discouragement was evident in our eyes. Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. The perp and his wife went off to one side of the store and had a huge argument. We heard her screaming and crying. We were seated on the other end of the same floor, at the counter that was meant for the redemption of reward points. We were offered tea, biscuits and the promise of an apology and erasure of the photos if we would let things go. Kaira and I were adamant that we wanted to file a written complaint. We refused to leave or to sit anywhere that this man was within eyesight. We urged the staff to give us his name and details so we could supply these details in our report. But he was being very uncooperative, asking if he could be let off with an apology. Everyone who passed by looked at us strangely. Who had seen our photos? Did anyone have copies of them? I began to feel very self-conscious and awkward.
Kaira had been on the phone with two lawyer friends who reinforced our commitment to go to the police. We had also called our parents and a friend who was on their way to the local station. All we needed were some details. After a few failed attempts at pacifying us, the salespeople began to lose patience with us.
“But why were you both in the same room, first of all, madam? That is not allowed.” I knew they were trying to shame us into dropping the whole thing but I felt my ears grow hot.
“And taking photos of women against their consent is allowed?” I barked angrily.
“No, madam. That’s what. You both made one-one mistakes, now leave it, na, madam?”
“It is not the same thing,” Kaira spat. “This is a violation of our privacy. How can you not see –”
“What you did is also violation of store policy madam. Now just leave it, and he will delete it.”
We said nothing.
“Paavam madam, he is newly married, and you both are causing problems. It will ruin their relation, madam.”
“Just give us the details or we are not leaving,” I replied sharply.
She cursed us under her breath and walked away. A few moments later, the wife appeared.
“Hello, I am so sorry, madam, can I sit?” she gingerly sat on the edge of one of the chairs right next to me. Kaira stood facing the two of us, her eyebrows tied in a ferocious knot of frustration.
“What now?” Kaira said. “Please, do not –”
“He is a dog. A rotten, dirty scoundrel,” she said, sadly.
Kaira looked stunned, like she had not expected this to be so easy.
“I agree. So, what shall –”
“But I am pregnant and he can’t have a case against him. Please.” She began to cry softly as she patted her own belly. “It will bring such shame on the whole family.”
“Will bring? He is already shameful.” Kaira said, unsympathetic to her situation.
“Then leave, no? Why stay with him at all?” I said, trying to be kinder, knowing that it wasn’t that simple.
She half-laughed between sobs. “If only.”
“Wait, how do we even know you really are pregnant?” Kaira asked bluntly. “What if you’re just trying to save him from the consequences of his actions?”
The lady reached into her purse and pulled up her WhatsApp. She clicked on a contact named ‘Darling’ which made me want to throw up. She swiped through photographs of scans. A precious little tiny person hiding in there with no idea what a donkey of a father they had.
“I’m trying to save this one from the consequences of his actions.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kaira said, growing agitated even as my heart began to soften a little. “I mean, this is just not fair.”
“I know, it is not fair to me also but think about it, please I beg you,” she said, her eyes full of tears, before standing up slowly and walking away.
I looked at Kaira.
“No.” Kaira said. “No. We cannot let this go. Why is everyone trying to protect him and nobody protecting us? This is nonsense.”
I nodded and held her hand. I thought of the times that women rally around each other, protesting for our collective rights, even women in ladies’ compartments of trains who beat up and throw out men who dare to jump in.
How do we protect each other in this situation? Why is it that no matter who wins this, a woman will always lose?
Two hours later, at the police station, the sepia-toned air contained the same amount of tension. Perhaps less understanding, in fact. It felt like we were visiting a bunch of children playing house-house, who offered you tea, and you knew it was just a mixture of sand and water. A khaki-clad officer with an intimidating paunch sat before us, across a solid wooden desk. The was a stack of dusty files on the side and an old telephone. Stepping in here felt like we had gone back in time.
“Yes, tell me from the beginning, madam. Eve-teasing, ah?” he licked his finger and flipped through a notebook, seeming distracted. Our friend had already briefed him but as it appeared, he wasn’t paying any attention.
We began to narrate the whole incident all over again.
“So many serious-serious cases we see, madam, you really want to write about this, ah?”
“But why you two were in one changing room, first of all? You really want to write about that?” he raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, sir,” we reiterated over and over again, as the repeated questioning chipped away at our defiance.
I insisted on writing it out formally. Meanwhile, he asked for photos as evidence and Kaira showed him the photos she had taken of his screen.
“Sure, you want to submit this report? We can just call him in and give him one thrashing. Then he will be set right.”
“We want to officially record it, Sir.”
“He has a family, no? Made one mistake, but now how he will manage all this?”
“We still want to record it, Sir.”
“But he has agreed to delete it all, no? What he can do now? Nothing, no?” his tone was becoming impatient.
“Even so, Sir.”
“First of all, you two are also in the wrong, ok? This is not the rule in that shop. You also broke the rules only!”
“Sir, please, we –”
“Fine, then we will have to circulate these photos internally, ok?” he issued a thinly veiled threat. “People have to study it, no? For the case. Thinking of your comfort only, I am saying.”
A boy in cotton shorts and an oversized T-shirt delivered a cup of tea to him.
We shook our heads.
“They will all see you both together like this.” he said, indicating the rest of the police station.
We were both uncomfortable but we had no choice. We nodded uncomfortably.
“I can’t help, madam. Think about it, madam. People will talk.”
Kaira and I looked over at each other.
“Yes, we want to file a report,” she responded firmly.
“I’ll just take this then,” he said, taking her phone from her, “for evidence. Have to get a printout.” I began to write out everything from the start, as instructed. Through the corner of my eye, I saw him passing the phone around and other constables and officers looking at the photo and then looking over at us. The perpetrator was probably at home, and having enjoyed lunch was probably taking a nap while we sat here, being stripped of the little dignity we had left.
Self-consciously, I managed to get halfway through writing out the entire episode, before the officer returned, in a cloud of sweat and dust.
He stared at the papers I had written on and exclaimed,
“Oh! Hello madam, you are PhD students, is it? Or some writer-types? That is why you like writing stories, ah?” and laughed.
I wanted to cry but I just kept writing. Even though we’d been through the whole ordeal only that morning, it had been so emotionally draining that there were parts of the day that were foggy. Kaira helped remind me of the details as we finished the report.
“Ah, these are the two,” the officer said to another as he collected our papers. He responded by gesturing for him to come over and they had a muffled conversation while looking over at us occasionally, and not discreetly. I had never felt more invisible and more on display at the same time.
I could feel the sweat pool in my bra as I hunched over the desk. As we waited, the evening grew thick with muggy heat.
“Can I use your phone to order some bras online?” Kaira asked after a long silence, “I really need them before my trip.”
I felt a sad sense of resignation settle over the vulnerability I had been feeling until then. I knew it would be a long time before we went back to Eastpoint again. Things would be different for Kaira and me. But for the man who had wronged us, this would be nothing but a minor inconvenience. Nothing would have changed.
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash