Wrestling the bottom pinchers



The older I get, the more I tend to think I might be immune to eve-teasers (or they to me!). But sometimes that is strictly not true. I have side-stepped this despicable specimen of the human race for several years now by avoiding public transport and getting my own. I largely travel in the safe environment of my own comfort zone, from home to work and the odd visit here or there, these days. So election season has once again given me somewhat of a reality check.

Having just returned from following Ashok Chavan’s campaign trail in the rural hinterland, where I ran into Uddhav Thackeray, I must admit I automatically shrank somewhat as I found myself in the middle of the crush of workers surrounding him.

But the moment his eyes lighted on me and he said, “Arrre, aap kab aye?” there was an almost perceptible shift in the demeanour of those workers who until then had been eyeing me up and down, knowing I was rather out of place in that rural setting. I did not think about it consciously but I knew I was afraid of getting into that crush for the opportunity it might afford those strangers – but now there was suddenly some space, even if no one had moved an inch. So when Uddhav later sent some workers to look for me, I felt quite safe as I stood in the middle of all of them, arguing that I was there to cover the Chief Minister’s campaign and could not simply disappear with the Shiv Sainiks.

It has almost been imperceptible but over the years I have discovered a not-so-subtle difference between Sena workers (and I have slammed saffron leaders a lot in the past) and those belonging to the Congress-NCP. If Sena workers see that you are a friend of one of their leaders, they keep a safe distance from you. It is quite the reverse with the Congress types – they not only want to get close, but getting close takes ugly turns as has happened more than once to me in the past.

The first time was when Sharad Pawar was declared Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1988. I was still rather raw at my job and did not realise how one strange man who had been hanging around Pawar and listening to the conversation that reporters were having with him had followed me to my office, close to the Congress party headquarters in Bombay.

I was working for an agency at the time; it was late evening and most of my colleagues had left for the day (except the teleprinter operators and the subs seated in another room). “I have a reaction to Pawar saheb’s becoming CM,” he said as I looked up – and moved up close, leaving barely an inch between the two of us.

Fortunately for me, an old operator, a fatherly figure, who had been dozing in a corner, jumped at him with a rolled-up newspaper, raining blows on his head and asking, “Who are you anyway, that we should flash your reaction at this late hour?”  And promptly booted him out of the premises. Of course, I never saw him again.

At election rallies, there have been bottom pinchers galore but somehow they never bother you unless they see you talking to the leaders or jumping out of their cars behind them. The last time it happened was at a Pawar rally, I remember, but again I had a saviour – Pawar’s brother-in-law, Padamsinh Patil.

Patil, who is contesting on a NCP ticket from Osmanabad this election, has a reputation for being a mean wrestler and I do not know if he knew what was up as I jostled the crush of workers at the end of the rally. But I saw him throw what I thought was a quelling look at those workers and they parted miraculously, giving me right of way, when he said over their heads, “Come with me in my car, Madam. Otherwise you will be left alone to find your own way back.’’  That “alone” had quite a sinister ring then, I can tell you.

And it happened again – this week, reinforcing my impression that somehow these workers seem to derive some kind of vicarious proximity to their leaders by manhandling women reporters on their trail.

I had attended more than one meeting of Chavan’s and kept a safe distance until the last meeting when I called out to him to say I would be leaving the next morning. No one had paid me any attention until then and despite the fact that I was accompanied by fellow reporters (all male), I wondered how I had got myself into this again. I decided to ignore the outrage and the only reason I am writing this now is because I got blown out my mind at the airport the next day as this complete stranger, a youngish lad, not more than 25, who could not have been a passenger, walked up to me as I was rummaging through my bag for my ticket and said, “You were calling out to the CM last night, weren’t you?”

I was both startled and puzzled and darted a questioning look at him.

“Well, I was right there behind you!”

Huh?

So was he the offender or was he simply an idle onlooker? And why did he want to tell me?

I turned around to ask but he had simply gone.

Now I guess I will never know.

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