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Let’s talk up a change on the street

When: Sunday, 6.30pm

Where: The crowded pavement lining Park Mansions

What’s happening: Talk to Me, an initiative right in the middle of an open stretch with strangers, to begin a public dialogue that is direct and one-to-one.

The agenda: To give the gender inequity issue an interesting twist, a group of volunteers comprising boys and girls will invite a passer-by to come and sit across the table and engage in an hour-long conversation. A freewheeling conversation that will shed light on the male mindset, the role of a woman and other gender-related issues.

The scene: Five two-seater tables have been set up and covered with white tablecloths. A boy and a girl are seated across each other. On each table lies a red rose and a tent card that reads ‘Action Heroes’, as people passing by stop in their tracks or look on curiously. One of the girls walks up to a man and says the magic word, “Hi!” and hands a piece of paper that reads: “Dear Stranger, talk to me. We haven’t had the chance to get to know each other. Let’s have tea, eat a samosa and talk over the next hour. We may not remain strangers after this. We could talk about anything — our dreams, hope, fears…”

On Table One, we have a poet who has been sporting enough to be the first one to agree to the sit-and-talk request. It gets rolling on a happy note with a little poem he recites: “We are mirror to the people we meet, you’ll surely be greeted the way you greet”. Over the next hour he goes on to share with his talking partner his likes, dislikes, his definition of friendship and what makes him the confident man he is.

We move to Table Two to find a stimulating exchange between an ex-army man in tracks and a sweet-maker in lungi who have been made to share a table and talk to each other. The ex-army man asks: “What do you not like about girls?” The Sweet-maker responds: “Girls smoking! No proper Bengali girl should smoke. Also I see young girls going drinking with their daddies. How can they? But I believe this is not a time to protest against these anymore!”

At the end of the conversation, the sweet-maker tells Metro: “I felt happy that someone who I never thought I could be friends with wanted to know so much about my life.” The ex-army man says: “It was an interesting experience although we could not agree on many counts. He felt that girls invite harassment in the way they dress and I tried to change his thought but it wasn’t easy.”

If a BCom student on Table Three goes back with a better understanding of the campaign and a promise to spread the word, a college pass-out after a chat with a Class XI boy comes away feeling: “How matured a boy of his age was. He helped break the stereotype I had in my head about schoolboys his age. They can be quite sorted, too.”

More and more girls and boys stop and wait for their turn at the table with volunteers called Action Heroes.

Jasmeen Patheja of Blank Noise, a participatory volunteer-led collective committed to tackling sexual violence, has conceived the project. In Calcutta after Bangalore and Delhi for the third attempt, Jasmeen says: “I did this project for the first time with a gang of 18 students from the Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore. It included mapping out areas that were safe or unsafe and then to set up a neighbourhood-specific network. That’s when we came across this locality called Yelahanka (a street in Bangalore) that was known as an unsafe stretch and we pledged to make the rapists’ lane the safest through Talk To Me. It was a way of identifying barriers that aren’t just gender-based but also about caste that influences class or even language. We see what kind of intimacy and connection two strangers share. The idea is to turn the person on the other side of the table into an action hero by the end of the conversation.”

Park Street was the second stop in Calcutta for Blank Noise, which had carried out the intervention project in association with Apne Aap and had their first session in Munshiganj, in Kidderpore.

What started out as a light-hearted moment was the beginning of a process of slipping into a level of comfort and going beyond a regular conversation to tap into what remains buried or unaddressed in our perception of gender roles.

With more such sessions in the offing, watch out for an action hero who might approach you suddenly on the street and sit you down for a talk. It’ll open up your mind to a whole new understanding of yourself.

What difference do you think the Talk to Me campaign can make? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com