In a well-known scene in Rituparno Ghosh’s 1997 film Dahan (Crossfire), a group of men accost a young, newly married woman as she is waiting on a poorly lit Kolkata street, looking for a ride home. As the men harass her, an autorickshaw carrying two men and a woman approaches. The woman sitting inside the auto – a schoolteacher we later learn – notices the scene that is unfolding nearby and yells out to the men to stop troubling the distraught woman. She urges the driver to get closer to them; he refuses, saying he does not wish to get involved. Disgusted with their apathy, the woman decides to get off the vehicle and go help, even as her male co-passengers advise her against it.

Quite unlike this portrayal of indifference, almost all the autorickshaw drivers I spoke to displayed a keen awareness of how sexual harassment of women plays out in public spaces, particularly inside the autorickshaw. Their narratives reveal alertness to the strategies women use to manufacture safety in the outdoors and some of the provocations for men’s empathetic reactions to street harassment faced by women. A 48-year-old driver told me, “There are some passengers, mostly older men, who irritate women in the auto. We can see clearly what they do. Most women know how to deal with such situations. Some speak up, some are too scared to raise objections. Then there are other women who immediately sit beside the driver. This is because the auto driver is traceable, the passengers are not. If there is any trouble it will be from one person who is identifiable. [Do you say anything when you notice these things happening?] If the woman does not object it is not right for us to say anything. But if the women raises objection then we chime in and say, “Please sit properly.” Passengers say, ‘No I haven’t done anything.’ If you haven’t done anything why is the woman complaining, she is not mad!”

Far from the victim blaming that pervades reactions to instances of sexual harm, the drivers I interacted with expressed a willingness to believe women’s allegations of harassment and not men’s defenses. Their reasons for this range from recognising that lack of safety will dissuade women from using the auto and hence impede business to recognising harassment as a moral wrong. Thus, if this driver waits for women to register protest before reacting to an instance of harassment, other drivers told me that they intervene the moment they notice inappropriate touching.

A 32-year-old driver recounts: “If you travel on the same route every day you notice things. Passengers become familiar. I know this middle-aged man, a government employee. His wife and daughter are both very good-looking; the daughter is married. He always waits to see if there is an attractive woman in the auto already, only then does he get up. Twelve months of the year, through the seasons, he wears a half-shirt. One day I confronted him. After that, he avoids taking my auto. I also told other drivers to watch out for him.”

The particular mode of operation of Kolkata autorickshaws, which travel fixed routes, enables the creation of an infrastructure of support for women commuters. Drivers come to know where some of their regular passengers stay, who their family members are, and what professions they are in. This passing familiarity between drivers and commuters, facilitated by the social life of the autorickshaw, fosters a field of interaction in which drivers feel encouraged to intervene in encounters involving harassment as well as visual policemen who are seen as likely to inflict such harm. Thus, over time, drivers come to remember male passengers who have a habit of harassing women co-passengers and refuse to accept their business; they even create a culture of shaming the perpetrator. “There is this one man, fifty-odd years, who waits around like a greedy dog for a young woman with a developed figure. These faces I remember and never take them in my vehicle. Some of these passengers are unable to make eye contact with me because they know that I know.”

One 38-year-old driver goes so far as to keep a stick handy in the vehicle to intimidate habitual offenders and recalls compelling a younger man to hold his ears and apologize to the woman he had harassed. Most drivers also readily acknowledge that on occasion such harassment ensues from autorickshaw operators themselves: “There are some drivers too whose left arm is diseased. I ask them too: Brother, is your left elbow alright? I’m sure they don’t leave any women, so when my mother or wife gets on they must also face such things from them?”

Significantly, the cramped architecture of the autorickshaw notwithstanding, drivers admitted no doubt in understanding which forms of physical contact constitute harassment. As the narratives documented here show, the recognition of street harassment of women as harm, and hence as morally reprehensible, is premised both on profeminist ideas of consent as well as on the patriarchal understanding of women’s bodies as belonging to the husband/father. In my discussions with drivers about precisely what about sexual harassment makes it seem “wrong” to them, it was not unusual to hear the same man say that it is wrong because the woman has not agreed to such physical contact as well as because she is someone’s sister/daughter/wife and therefore needs to be given due respect. Thus, the infrastructure of support that I am identifying as made possible by repeated encounters between the same driver and passengers follows simultaneously the logic of male protectionism and ideas about women’s right to refuse sexual advances from unfamiliar men.

The recognition that some auto drivers are also sex offenders, however, often accompanies allegations of unfair blame that are collectively felt to be meted out to this professional group. I heard many operators reiterate that “society” uses these few “bad” men as examples to defame all autorickshaw drivers. One kind of strategic reaction to this disrepute entails drivers developing elaborate bodily gestures that mark the physical distance from women passengers.

It is worth emphasising that inasmuch as cities are ubiquitously sexualised, the social life of the autorickshaw includes not only street harassment but also erotic exchanges ranging from the flirtatious to the sexual. The fleeting familiarity between working-class men (drivers) and middle-class women (passengers), forged in the course of their daily travels, often affords opportunities for banter that would otherwise be rare between these two social groups. Consider the following field observation: “A driver in his late twenties tells a middle-class woman (also in her twenties) who has just gotten off the auto and is paying her fare, ‘Please give me change, if no one gives me change I will have to commit suicide!’ They both realise the sheer exaggeration of his words and burst out laughing together. The woman gives him change and he drives off.”

Occasionally, some of these interactions become flirtatious and may even lead to sexual/romantic relations, though none such encounter narrated to me crossed the boundaries of class. A 28-year-old driver told me, “In this profession, many times we come across girls who are flirty. They come sit next to the driver, talk in a sexy way, give us their phone numbers. Some drivers wait for particular girls they like, they keep track of their schedule, pick them up, drop them off. I know some drivers who have had affairs with girls they met in the auto.”

These girls are mostly working- and lower-middle-class women, employed in beauty parlours, in cosmetic shops, or as salespersons. Some drivers – mostly younger, unmarried men, but several older, married men as well – reported renting rooms to have sex with women whom they met first as passengers. I was told that a few of these encounters led to marriage.

Excerpted with permission from City of Men: Masculinities and Everyday Morality on Public Transport, Romit Chowdhury, Rutgers University Press.