>> April 13, 2020

There's a video doing the rounds on Twitter. There's an old man desperately scooping up milk spilled  on the road. He tries to scoop up the milk into a matka, over and over again. There are street dogs lapping up the milk.

I think that maybe that image is going to stay with me for a while. I hope it does- as a constant reminder that I belong to a country and society where this happens. Where it is allowed to happen and indeed becomes video content to trigger bleeding hearts like me. And since we can all agree that this is the society we live in, I think it's time to apportion blame. Apportioning blame is on the whole and more often than not unnecessary and futile but being constructive is not the goal. I am here to remember that while sure, there are specific people, institutions and systems that are responsible for the way things are - the most proximate cause of the miserable face of this society lies is in our mirrors- mine and yours. You're to blame. I'm most definitely to blame.

CBSE textbooks in my time used to have Mahatma Gandhi's talisman in the first few pages. In which he asks those in doubt to think of the image of the poorest, weakest woman you've seen. When contemplating over a decision, he asks you to consider whether 'it'll be useful to her, will she gain anything by it, will it restore to her a control over life and destiny?'. I couldn't possible restore control over life and destiny to anyone- I'm barely in command of mine. But I will remember this image. And I'll try to remember it as I go about my life, making choices and decisions that may not directly affect that man scooping spilled milk from the road in any real way.  But I'll remember him. Because if I don't, if I can forget, if I can compartmentalize, then I'm part of the problem. As are you. Not a big part of the problem, perhaps, but part of the problem. I also let it happen, just like you did. And so let's remember to ask ourselves if our choices can make a difference, will he gain anything by it, will they restore anything to him. 

Perhaps then, as the Talisman suggests, maybe some of these doubts and self will melt away.

PS: The Talisman is also great advice for policymakers- maybe some suggest it to the PM?


You Had Time

>> May 24, 2014

You like to think that the decisions you’ve made today will not manifest as regrets tomorrow. You hope, for the most part, that these numerous decisions made everyday – some big, some small, some momentous, and some painfully mundane- will not appear ridiculous in hindsight, ten days down the lane, or ten years. More often than not, sooner or later, you can always tell- and if you’re not the kind of moron who thinks she has no regrets like every celebrity ever interviewed- you can determine if that decision, all those months or years ago, was the right way to have gone. And if you try just hard enough, you can learn to surrender to the complete helplessness that is regret.

Sometimes, however, with some decisions- you can never tell. You hope, of course, that you did the right thing or you said the right lines- but like that idea that you thought was your best yet but slipped away from memory, you will never know. And while you try to go through life not pondering at length over these decisions- the ones shrouded in ambiguity, the ones on which the verdict is still out- this continuing illusion comes to a grinding halt sometimes and you feel the need to pause, and look back, and ask yourself if you’d made the right decision, if that was, indeed, the right thing to do.  And after you’ve asked yourself these difficult questions and groped for answers which simply do not exist, even as you’ve wondered how life would have turned out otherwise, and imagined all those alternative universes, you’ll come back, defeated, to the present, hoping that you’re not doing it wrong all over again.


"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

>> May 13, 2014

I have found another terrace. 
Another city-line studded with yellow lights 
from the highway beyond, and 
another song.  
Another place to call home,
if only 
for a while, 
to spend solitary nights 
asking myself 
questions, some deep, some not,
and finding vague answers
or random epiphanies
and making decisions, 
some difficult, 
some wrong.

I didn’t think I would like this place- but I'm beginning to think it’s not so bad. I could grow into it, or it'll grow into me. If you really want to know how you feel about a city, get on one of its terraces and watch the lights go out of its countless windows, one by one, like a million candles blown out in little boxes. And if you can love the city by night, you can probably tolerate it by day.


#8 Remember

>> November 21, 2013

Do you remember, how it was
when you first moved to the city?

Do you remember,
how shocked you’d been
 by their sheer numbers?
You made the slow progress, however,
from surprise
 to pity and then,
 to studied avoidance.
You learned the unspoken rules-
make no eye contact, you told visitors-
 you admonished the weak-hearted,
the ones who’d surrender
to hungry eyes and
desperate nudges.
You spoke of teaching men to fish,
unsevered limbs and lazy dole-outs,
and yet, sometimes, in moments of frailty,
your fingers jangled, looking
for loose change,
and you reached out
to gingerly drop your quota
of karmic goodness,
making sure, of course,
that nothing touches.
Still, you approved of industry,
helping those who help themselves,
you bought plastic bubble-makers
and flashy ear-rings you wouldn’t wear.
You sympathized with the limbless,
the homeless, the helpless,
you read the news,
and you remembered
the bright block-buster movies,
when you saw the blinded children.

When you first came to the city,
you watched and observed,
and learnt, like them
the tricks of the trade,
the giving and the taking,
the begging, the beseeching,
the reluctant surrendering.
And slowly, the years went by,
and slowly,
but naturally,
you stopped noticing
and wondering
or caring;
but they
are still around,
in the city,
begging and besieging,
taunting and teaching,
just like they did you.


Feminism v. “Indian” Society

>> October 30, 2013

Much against all good sense, I was recently drawn into a ridiculous spat with that markedly vitriolic lobby in twitter more popularly known as the #RightWingTrolls.  Despite the total irrelevance of feminism to the original goings-on, the conversation rapidly degenerated into feminism-bashing and name-calling, and in the course of an hour I was compared to Zeenat Aman, Meena Kandasamy and Nivedita Menon (meant to be insults, it would appear, in their scheme of things), apart from being called a feminazi, a looney libtard and oh yes, a sau tunch maal.

I only found this mildly amusing until one of the more articulate trolls commented on what he thought was my skewed understanding of the Indian structure of gender relations. I am, as he explained to me, a victim of the “aggrandizement of the ego that modern society encourages”. The “Indian perspective”, he went on to say, is based on co-operation and not conflict between the sexes. Firstly, I’m not sure what makes his perspective more Indian than mine, but then that deserves a whole other post- which is why, secondly, I must begrudgingly accept that he is, albeit marginally, correct.

Traditional society in India was based on the foundation of collective structures. The joint family, for instance, is a classic demonstration of the so-called “co-operative” basis of the Indian (Hindu?) way of life. The joint family unit functions always as a singular whole – that is, as an entity which is more than the sum of its individual members, with notions of respect, honour and dharma thrown in for good measure. Decisions pertaining to the family were traditionally made by the oldest male member (the Karta) bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. Interestingly, decisions pertaining to individuals were also taken bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. The individual or the “ego”, as the revered ancient scriptures are wont to calling it, was the least important entity in anyone’s, including the said individual’s, scheme of things.

This sense of valuing communal consciousness above “selfish”, individual concerns survives in diffused forms across the country. The scant regard, for instance, that so many in this country appear to have for the notion of “privacy” is possibly a manifestation of this inbred sense of diluted “individual” identities. While I am often shocked by the utter nonchalance with which complete strangers in my village in Kerala seek out details on my personal life, for them this is normalcy. These prying questions are both asked and answered with ease and readiness- they do not think they are being nosy, only because they do not realise that there is such a thing as nosiness.

To return from the digression- it is, indeed, possible to argue that the so-called co-operative existence is idyllic –based, as it would seem, on the bedrock of co-operation, where collective interest trumps the possibly fragmented and narrow-minded interests of corruptible individuals. Except, in real life, that’s not quite how it worked out. The “collective” interest was never really representative of the interests of the weakest links (women in joint families, or lepers in general), resulting in the subversion of the interests of the most vulnerable -simply because the disenfranchised cannot hope to make their franchise heard or accepted. This is not only a function of numbers (majority v. minority), but also a function of the burden that dharma is popularly understood to place on those who are born to the wrong caste or the wrong sex.

It was into this broad framework of social and familial relations that feminism was brought in by ego-aggrandizing family-wrecking feminists. Feminism, by virtue of its very basic demand- i.e. equality for women –appeared to wreck a social set-up that had long gotten used to subverting “individual” concerns- let alone a lowly woman’s, whose very dharma was to be a non-individual.  In a society that had gotten used to a terribly lop-sided version of the greatest good of the greatest number, feminism swooped in and appeared to destroy the very fabric of social and domestic cohesion – because it highlighted the needs and wants of an individual (who had been considered secondary for generations), which necessitated breaking free from traditional roles assigned to women in the co-operative structure. And, this, perhaps, is why the dreaded f-word has come to be associated with conflict, confrontation, needless rebellion and whatnot in the minds of ready haters.  This is, in fact, not a contradiction endemic to Indian society alone. Even the west is now waking up to this fundamental contradiction between today’s feminism and its more tangential concerns with social solidarity - in a slightly different context.

The price we pay for being practical feminists (i.e. women who actively seek out equality in professional and personal lives), is to be placed ad hominem in positions seemingly contrary to traditional values of social cohesion and co-operation. That is, if I wish to assert my right to equality etc. as a woman today, I am forced to almost wrench it out from the claws of this “co-operative society” to thrive as a person with concerns independent of the more popular masculine context. 

This is a difficult state of affairs- because on the one hand, if the so-called co-operative framework had been literally co-operative, i.e. co-opting the interests of women as it did men, feminism may not have felt the need to position itself in such incompatible terms. On the other hand,  it seems to me that the traditional framework with its focus on solidarity and cohesion might have greatly helped the feminist counter the many other problems she faces today as an Indian woman- imagine if society worked to actually support women in their individual endeavours, enabling them to become equal occupants and active participants of the co-operative structure!

More importantly, contrary to what the misinformed #RightWingTrolls like to believe, feminism is not a western construct, as much as it is a response and a reaction to a patriarchal framework. It did, admittedly, emerge in the west as an organized social and political movement, but that was only because the scholarship of women like Tarabhai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai was never allowed to be part of the mainstream “Indian” discourse.  Feminism fought several battles, and rose as several waves before it was acknowledged as a legitimate movement highlighting legitimate concerns in the West, and what’s more, it continues to do so. If anything, the core values of the feminist discourse are, perhaps, more in sync with the traditional structure of Indian society than with the more free-wheeling conceptions that Western society appears to be based on.

As feminists, we would be guilty of utter naivety if we hope to reach out to those who belong to the #Vadakayil school of thought, because we must know they are beyond redemption. It seems to me, however, that it might be worth our while to attempt to reach some sort of middle ground between the wonderful ideals of a symbiotic society and the objects of feminism- in the same way that the #RightWingTrolls might actually aid their cause by correcting their warped understanding of what feminism is to bridge the obvious gap between these legitimate concerns and their notions of Indian society and values. 


#7 Next Week

>> October 20, 2013

Next year, we’ll move to New York,
and we will live 
in a tiny apartment 
with the paint peeling off walls.
We’ll spend the evenings
sprawled on a green rug,
where you will write
and I will read,
and we’ll look around
at our things,
yours and mine,
books and memories and other
broken things
neatly stacked
on the steps of the ladder
in our loft.
We’ll walk bare-feet
on wooden floors, and drink
cheap wine for breakfast.
We’ll skip lunch
to make love on the terrace,
to the city lights and sounds.
We’ll look out the windows,
through pale yellow curtains 
and lean over
the potted blue-bells
that you picked
and I love
and we’ll watch the busy streets,
and the sparkling lights, we will
look up and feel small
and big, 
all at once
under the Manhattan skyline.

Next week, we'll  move to New York,
and we'll remember 
how, like children,
we were,
when we talked about living
in New York, and 
when we were in love.

As is wont with a heart broken like mine, I read some things over and over again.

I read them one more time, hoping that I will discover something that I haven’t caught before, some emotion that I inadvertently missed, some idiosyncrasy of yours I don’t already know so well, so bad.  I know now, more than I ever did, your favourite words and go-to metaphors. I seek solace in the way you break up your near-perfect sentences, the way you capitalize some words to personify the objects and obsessions that define you (and sometimes, us). I feel a certain warm familiarity when I predict a phrase that is coming even before you do, I seek succour in the intimacy I feel with your mind, your machine, with your “idiom”, if I may.

And as I read, as I am vindicated, I rest assured in the certain knowledge that even though everything else that I once thought infallible has been cruelly wrenched away from me now, I will always, unfailingly, have your words.


Jahajin - Fable and Facts

>> October 17, 2013

And at that moment, it suddenly came to me, as clear as the sky, that I was never going back, that I would live and die across the kala pani.

As an ardent fan of both sudden epiphanies and climactic voyages, this quote of the cover of Jahajin was reason enough for me to pick up the book. Also, I had first come across Peggy Mohan a couple of years ago, in a features piece she’d written in the magazine Open describing, with much talent, as I remembered, her stint as a translator/linguist in the long drawn POTA trials.

Mohan doesn’t stray very far from her comfort zone in Jahajin, but considering her fascinating profile, that is not necessarily a criticism.  Jahajin is, for all the stories it brings together, the story of a diaspora – a culture and community that has strayed away from its roots, and struggles to both discard as well as preserve some of the legacy (and cruelty) of a culture inherited.

The novel starts off promisingly enough, with a glimpse into the life of the charming ninety year old Deeda- and here, I felt Peggy Mohan’s prose expertly captures the essence of the old world grace and mystery of a woman with a story to tell. Deeda, in fact, has two stories to tell: one is her own, the transformation of a helpless young wife to a migrant labourer in the Carribean island of Trinidad, and the other is the fairy-tale of Saranga, the monkey princess which develops through the novel, running parallel to and eventually attempting to merge with the narrator’s own journey in the book. Mohan is at her fluid best when she is in Deeda’s voice, the narrative takes on the magical quality of folk lore and I found myself turning the pages in almost desperate anticipation to know what becomes of Deeda.

Deeda’s tale, however, alternates with the parallel narrative set in the linguistics department of a university and this is where the novel stumbles. The narrator is a linguist studying the dying language of Bhojpuri amongst the Indian community in Trinidad. And so while on the one hand we hear of Deeda’s fantastic tales of a maiden voyage across the kala pani and the beginnings of the migrants’ lives on a plantation, the narrator also frequently lapses into a recount of the evolution of the language. Perhaps because my scant interaction with Bhojpuri has been largely limited to telling anybody who will listen that Ravi Kishen is highly under-rated or playing the Bhojpuri Spiderman video on loop when I'm extremely bored, I found only some of these pop lessons interesting, and others quite tedious.

The narrator’s own struggles with identity and personal growth form the third limb of the narrative, and while a lot of it is much too disconnected, there were some  beautiful thoughts and ideas. The conversations with the narrator’s precocious cousin Dylan are often deliciously abstract, though sometimes annoyingly abstruse. Unfortunately, most of the personal introspection that the narrator is prone to indulging is not contextualised for the reader, and as the story runs through the narrator’s manic episodes or her decision to travel back across the kala pani etc., I found myself groping for some context.

Even as Mohan struggles to discard the pedantic tone of academia, Jahajin is a fascinating peek into the history and histories of the Indian diaspora in the Carribean. The journey that the migrants undertake from Calcutta to Trinidad, and the slow steady synthesis of cultures and ideas makes for very good reading. The author is, no doubt, prone to generalisation and simplification (like the utterly ridiculous moment when an air hostess on a flight to India asks the narrator what her caste is)- but the novel still comes together, mostly on the strength of Deeda’s charm and her story. If you’re willing to overlook the occasional stumbling and meandering, and are especially fascinated by the women's narratives in histories, you’ll definitely enjoy Jahajin. 

(This review is part of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge.)

(Dear Mary Margaret Mohan, you have a fascinating name and I bought your copy of Jahajin from Blossoms, Bangalore.)


The First Rule of Left-liberalism

>> March 20, 2013

It really is such a pity that the world refuses to give Mr. Rajeev Srinivasan sufficient credit for his studied understanding of the liberal arts and dare I say it, social “sciences”. Who else but Mr. Srinivasan (no doubt amply supported by his years of worthwhile contribution to social thought and debate in his role as, but of course, a management consultant) can reduce the entire gamut of the social sciences and liberal arts and those studying these to being “fascist, intolerant, and, well, with a warped world-view”?! Of course, we must also bear in mind that in Mr. Srinivasan’s universe, if you committed the grave error of opting to study English at university, or any other “exotic variants thereof” in the pursuit of a course of education which actually does not enable you to make power-point presentations on the projected growth of MNCs- you are but obviously “dogmatic and subject to blind faith”. Horror of horrors, if you actually labored under the delusion that you could benefit from the exposure to the multiple perspectives and schools of thought, and perhaps even apply some of these ideas into social and cultural development by opting for courses like ‘women’s studies’ or ‘cultural anthropology’, you are a silly emotional nincompoop, and you must immediately enroll for classes in the comprehension of “facts, figures or logic” with the next business consultant you can get hold of, whose exclusive preserve these pursuits are.

Middle class India must especially be grateful to Mr. Srinivasan- because now they can rest assured that the only way forward is to groom their sons (and daughters?) to be engineers (who will go on to become managers and consultants, of course). This will, as Mr. Srinivasan puts it, save them from the ignominy of being reduced to driving a taxi when the economy fails (the issue of dignity of labour, of course, being yet another example of “structured gibberish”), and nobody will raise any questions as to who the “experts” responsible were, you know the ones I’m talking about- the ones with “useful and employable skills”- for the hapless economic situation today (and I’m sure Mr. Srinivasan has more than a vague idea as to who these people are).

It is, I suppose, some consolation, that Mr. Srinivas admits that ‘humanists’ can be replaced by ‘leftists’ with no loss whatsoever of "generality’" – because we know then what he intends when he writes an article replete with generalizations so sweeping it would make the writers of ThoughtCatalog cry. Further consolation, also, is that Mr. Srinivasan chooses to rely almost entirely on the propositions of the social psychologist Mr. Jonathan Haidt to substantiate his piece, whose research on “the psychological bases of morality across different cultures and political ideologies” has been described by his own colleagues as "a smiley face on authoritarianism”.

At some point in the article, and I’m still at a complete loss as to where, Mr. Srinivasan makes what must surely be a “logical” leap and begins analogizing between liberals and anarchists. Liberals, he claims, are apparently born (or are groomed, thanks to their choices in education) to be utterly disrespectful and disregarding of “authority”. After first having established that the movie Fight Club is, therefore, the most telling illustration of a left liberal ideology, he goes on to enlighten us on the sad incomprehension of  “leftists” of  the lofty ideals of “group loyalty, respect for authority, and the notion of sanctity or purity”. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what he means by those three catch-phrases or their relevance to a comparison of polarized ideologies either, but he must be right, for I do not suffer from the “conservative advantage”.

Unlike the obscure "meaningless garbage" that passes for academic scholarship among the liberals, Mr. Srinivasan’s claim that “the Gang of Three” have no “no compassion for the 59 Hindus burned alive in a train in Godhra, or the 250 who were also killed in the riots” makes perfect sense. After all, for someone who appears to have little, if any, understanding of what a left-liberal ideology means (apart from his brief rendezvous with Mr. Haidt, of course), he appears to be claiming that their point of difference with those who perpetrated and endorsed the violence that was committed in Gujarat in 2002 is attributable to their “blind hatred”. In fact, he goes on to say, that it is the left liberal who cannot seem to break free from his or her prejudices, unlike the conservative who remains safely ensconced in his cocoon of “group loyalty and sanctity”.

Can I venture to say that I am a changed person, thanks to Mr. Srinivasan and his eye-opening revelations? Yes, of course. I have been fooling myself all this time- presuming to think that there are values more important than petty inclusivism- that there could be anything superior to the  "super-ordinate cause" (which, by the way, Mr. Srinivas is yet to tell us is what exactly) that is greater than me, or my gender, my caste, class or station in society. Why should it matter that variants of these very ideas- those of “matrubhumi, karmabhumi, punyabhumi”- have led to bloodshed and travesties of justice in history?  

Yes, that is- indeed- the crux of the matter. The “naïve uncompromising” leftists who continue to bring to light, in their "loud and hyper-active" fashion, the tight-fisted and blind devotion of conservatives to authority and so-called sanctity (of goodness knows what)- are the crux of the problem for people like Modi and I daresay, Mr. Srinivasan. If “group loyalty, respect for authority, and the notion of sanctity or purity” is to be the exclusive preserve of the engineers with unspeakable GRE scores (and we will never know how the two are connected), I’d much rather “evolve (myself) out of existence” and throw myself “in the garbage bin of history”, knowing that I stood for compassion, fairness and against oppression at the hands of exclusive privileged groups, close-minded sectarianism, and blind dogmatic parochial beliefs (also otherwise known  to Mr. Srinivasan as “group loyalty, respect for authority, and the notion of sanctity or purity”).


Ode on a Google Turn

>> March 18, 2013

I was always going to be a child of the Internet. Born to a father who firmly believed in the pervasive power of the Internet, it was only a matter of time before I moved on from the mere utilitarian use of the world wide web (the erstwhile favourites, Hotmail and AltaVista) to the recreational (ah, glory to the recently hormonal thirteen year old- MSN Messenger and ICQ) to yes, the most debilitating of them all, the utterly useless (just about everything on the internet). In the summer of 2004, as my friends were looking up Encyclopedia Britannica and pretending to be eighteen year olds in online chat-rooms, I would discover the medium that has grown to give me endless hours of pleasure (and procrastination)- the personal blog.

Looking back, I suppose this may have had something to do with the first blog I ever read – brought to my attention by my dear English teacher and fellow internet-junkie- Domain Maximus written by Sidin Vadukut. This was way back in the day – when Sidin was only just a young earnest Dubai-returned malayalee boy studying engineering who probably hadn’t the slightest clue about what was going to become of him- before the travails of south Indian men and IIM and the Dork series. Fresh on the heels of Domain Maximus, I would not only actively stumble upon many other blogs, some of them on themes that held a specific interest to me, though most of them were unassuming personal reflections of people from all over the world- but also discover what can perhaps be called, for lack of another word, the voyeur in me. Soon after, I would make the move to what has come to be a most intimate part of my internet experience – Google Reader. Once it became impossible to religiously check for updates on my preferred blogs every day–Google Reader was exactly what the unapologetic blog-phile in me needed.

When Google announced the discontinuance of Reader starting July 1, 2013 and I predictably joined in the collective twitter-outrage which is always #somuchfun (but, seriously, Orkut is still alive and they want to kill Google Reader?!!), I decided to indulge in some spring cleaning. On last count, I realized, I have 153 subscriptions on Google Reader, a large number of them defunct and yet a substantial number still relevant in my scheme of all-things-internet. And although I have created around ten different labels to categorize the blogs- the label with the largest number of blogs under it remains the same as it was eight years ago -  the personal blog. As it turns out, I have continued to read more personal blogs more than any other kind of blog.

What was this voyeuristic tendency I discovered as a teenager? And as a twenty five year old today, why do I return to these blogs? The most compelling reason, of course, for which I have persistently returned to these blogs has been, without doubt, the sheer literary quality – many of my favourite bloggers are published and acclaimed writers today. Literary merits aside, I have often asked myself why I persist in following so many mostly un-literary accounts of strangers’ lives – of college, professional dissatisfaction, personal achievements, failures, love, hate, break-ups and marriages- the whole gamut of personal life experiences, related day after day. Is it the mere thrill that comes with reading such intimately personal accounts of people experiencing life in ways strikingly similar to and yet so different from mine? Or it just good old ogling, a variant of the peeping-tom sickness, something I should probably rid myself of?  Is it, perhaps, something I should treat with the same degree of disdain that I usually reserve for people who invite me to play Criminal Case on Facebook? Or, am I, like so many others in my generation, just another victim of the incessant need the internet has cultivated in us- the need to remain connected, with everyone and everything, in some form or the other?

It might take a good deal of psycho-analysis to understand why- but what I figure, in any case, is that it doesn’t matter. So many of these people, from all over the world, and in so many different walks of life, have exposed to me to thoughts and experiences I could never have found on my own.  If you have a personal recollection to make, the internet will welcome you with open arms, and if you cannot write to save your life, you will still be led to believe that you’re God’s gift to the literary world. As the indiscriminating repository of all those bloggers’ personal stories and rants (though, I don’t, as a rule, read any blog with the word ‘rant’ in its title), Google Reader alongside a cup of coffee has made countless mornings of mine more satisfying.  On almost every day for the past eight years,  I have logged on to Google Reader safely ensconced in the reassurance that no matter what the internet is going to throw at me, I will always have a steady stream of my own painstakingly curated reading feed.

I stumbled upon most of my best liked blogs entirely by chance- and I stuck around, mostly thanks to Google Reader. And like all once-wonderful things from that era when the internet was still discovering itself, like mixed-tapes and VCRs, Google Reader is yet another “casualty of this new digital era”, one more tombstone in the ever-growing Google Graveyard. Twitter can tweet for all it wants- but years down the road, when I tell them about my first time, I will tell them about Google Reader.

Fuck those fucking glasses, and the nerd they rode in on!


I am the Victim and I Blame Myself

>> January 3, 2013

I’m not sure when exactly it was that I discovered that my sex made me different- more vulnerable, more susceptible to a certain kind of look, touch, interaction, and, of course, violence.

It may have been when I was twelve- standing precariously on the precipice of puberty, trying to make my peace with a rapidly evolving body- and a visiting uncle (who ironically, even today, claims to have held me as an infant as I peed on his brand new shirt) prodded at my barely there nubile breast.  It may have been when I decided that I shouldn’t bring it up with my parents- a twelve year old child’s considered decision based on sheer inability to articulate what had happened to her. It may, perhaps, have been when my period did arrive in all its awaited glory, and my mother gleefully declared that I was a “woman”, and that I was not to pray during those painful days because, as she patiently explained to me, I was “unclean”. To be fair at that age, religion and prayer were mere rituals to me, but my sense of justice-, I remember-, was acutely offended because there I was, not being allowed to do something, only because I was a girl.

It doesn’t matter, in any case. After twenty five years of being a woman in this country now, it simply does not matter when I discovered that I was “the fairer sex”, fair game for every boy and man. It seems insignificant to remember when I discovered that my interaction with the world will always be different- at odds with, even- from the way my father, my brother and my male friends experienced it. It doesn’t even matter that as I gleaned this reality of my difference, my girl-ness as a child, I did not realize that it would only be the first of many such battles I would fight and inevitably fail at.

As an independent urban twenty-something, I fight some battles every day. Heck, as the elder daughter in a mostly conservative middle class family, I’ve been fighting them ever since I can remember.  As a young girl, my earliest interaction with patriarchy was when I found it residing most comfortably in my own home. In retrospect, the battle I waged with my mother because I was expected to clean up after dinner, and my brother was not, seems almost laughably petty now. More recently, I was on holiday at home in Kerala and my mother told me about Thiruvathira- an auspicious day on which unmarried women across the state undertake fasting and prayers in the hope of bagging good husbands. Oh, I thought I was being so cocky, so with it and feminist, when I asked her if she thought there was a man out there fasting so that he may bag me, glorious and beautiful that I am.

Looking back now, I realize that these battles were pathetically irrelevant in the larger context of a deeply misogynistic society. The futility, however, of these wars I waged privately never occurred to me and I remained steadfast at the front-line, fighting for what I was convinced was a worthwhile cause. In my first year of college, when I was living with my aunt, I discovered that my younger male cousin was free to stay out after classes, watch movies and plan trips out of town with his friends, and I was not. I was outraged, of course, when my uncle tried to explain this discrimination to me using a famous Malayalam proverb – that of the thorn and the leaf, and how it didn’t matter whether the thorn fell on the leaf or the leaf on the thorn, it would always be the leaf that would be considered “damaged goods”.  And even though I was extremely indignant at being reduced to a leaf in my battle for “equality”, it was only after I went to law school and discovered feminist narratives on the patriarchy of language that I would fully appreciate the ridiculous sexism of the analogy. As a young girl, I always fought these battles with an unwavering conviction of purpose, because it was about me and my right to lead my life as I saw fit. I argued about language and age-old customs that reinforce the deification of the woman to the exclusion of all agency on her part. I believed that these lonely battles were a significant albeit small part in championing the cause of women. And, yet, as I look back, I have failed so miserably in my own liberated life, it’s shocking.

As I grew older, of course, even as I continued to wage the war at home, I began to sense the very real danger lurking at every corner in the world outside. As I championed the cause of the maid’s daughter who did not wish to be married off back home, on my way back from college I only pretended to not have seen the dirty old pervert who sat at the bus stop every day, with his penis held out in his hand, hungrily watching girls in their school uniforms.  Even as I mocked my grandmother’s favourite television serials and the distorted reality they represented, I only walked faster, holding myself a little tighter, when I was followed by a young man on my way back from college, walking past my own house and entering a friend’s, so he wouldn’t know where I stayed. 

I thought I was a rebel, one more worthy revolutionary in this endless battle as I stood outside college and smoked my morning cigarette at Amma’s, much to the chagrin of our many chauvinistic professors, both male and female. And yet, the one time when I was in real danger of physical violence, of sexual assault, when a bunch of Karnataka Rakshana Vedike rowdies barged into a friend’s house where we’d been hanging out – yes, barged right in, to that most sacred of all spots, one’s home- and  started threatening to have their way with us, taking videos of us on their phones, laughing at us in sheer delight at our helplessness, our fear- this one time, I recoiled in fear, I pleaded with them in my broken tear-soaked Kannada to leave us alone, to let us be, to let the girls leave without harm.

After college, when I moved to Bombay, I revelled in the freedom the city brought me- not only in terms of financial independence but also the more cosmopolitan outlook I knew the city afforded its women. I took cabs back home from work and nights out at two in the morning, and I dealt with my perverted landlord, my lecherous plumber and my nosy neighbours with the same irreverent attitude. I took offence at the slightest indication of what I thought was patronizing at the workplace, argued about the inappropriateness of the jokes the boys’ club in office were sometimes prone to cracking, and generally played the part of the strong independent woman I had always wanted to grow into. And yet, when the cab-driver took a route not known to me, I looked around in dread, and stared straight ahead at the road, my face set in pretend-fearlessness Even as I argued almost too passionately with a friend- who very rightly pointed out that the discourse on safety should not be lost in our frenzy to assert women’s independence, in the context of the recent rape of the student from my college-on my way back from a friend’s at two in the morning, when the auto broke down for a bit and a bunch of drunks started asking me “where going, madam?”, I only pulled my stole tighter around me, praying that the auto would start again. Even as I returned home, slightly drunk from a glorious night out of spending hard-earned money, I only averted my eyes as a guy on a passing bike jerked his hands in an indecent gesture. Even as I raged against the Salman Khan who reportedly demands final edit on all his movies, replete as they are with dialogues like “pyar se de rahe hai, rakh lo, varna thappad maarke bhi de sakte hai”, I only retreated, crouched away in crowded places so the men could pass first and I could pass safely later. Even as I complained about my friend’s boyfriend with a roving hand, I walked in meek cowardice past the fruit-wallah who broke into song every single time that I walked past him. 

After twenty five years of battles big and small, it destroys me today, right now, as I slowly and surely realize the futile it has all been. How naïve I have been waging my private war with male chauvinism- much like every other woman in this country- a war that now appears to me to be so irrelevant and insignificant, I might as well never have tried.

For every man who has made me feel a little less confident and a little more vulnerable, I have allowed another man to get away with exactly that. I remember one occasion when I did respond to a pervert thrusting his groin against me in a bus in Bangalore, when I raised my leg and kneed him right where it hurt.  I remember he moved away, surprised, even a little scared, and writhing in pain. I probably got lucky that one time; I realise that he could have responded in kind, that he could have grabbed me, punished me for my impertinence, that even if I had yelled and attracted attention, it would have evoked nothing but apathetic stares- from men and women alike. And yet, on an impulse, I ran the risk. I have, of course-since, and before- kneed, and elbowed several hands jostling my behind, grabbing my breasts, but it was always in passive defence- to protect myself, to get away from the situation.

My parents, perhaps, were justified in telling me to “be safe” and not my brother- because they spoke the risk-averse language of parents who’d rather see me safe than brave; but how was I justified – young, hot-blooded feminist that I’d deluded myself into thinking I am- in never reacting with such violent anger as I felt on every occasion, never telling the men that they could not get away with it? I did not walk up to the obscene creep at the bus stop and ask him to put it back in or suffer. I did not ask the disgusting man who followed me what he wanted and whether he would like for me to report him to the police.  I am the victim, and I am beginning to wonder, maybe, I should blame myself.

Here I am, fighting petty battles against the insidious patriarchy of language, rebelling against a matrilineal heritage that expects my womb to produce a thoroughbred Nair girl to keep the family lineage alive, and protesting the callous use of words like ‘rape’ to describe a bad interview. And there she was, fighting rape itself, fighting off six men who thought it was well within their right to taunt her because she was out and about in her city, fighting off a rusty iron rod that was repeatedly used to sexually assault her, until her insides were twisted beyond redemption, simply because they were drunk and they were men and it amused them to destroy a woman, a weaker human being, with such heinous design. Girl X has made me see the error of my ways. In staying alive and in wanting to know “if they’ve been caught”, she inspired a fearless confidence in me, and in death, she has made me realize that it will be too late, far too late, if I wait for things to change. 

It would be, I know, unfair to claim that women do not react out of cowardice- because that is not true. I do realise that the battles I have fought are not entirely insignificant, that these lonely battles every one of us women fight today are very necessary to bring the attitudinal shift that this nation needs today. Girl X, however, has made me realize that this is simply not enough. Misogyny and its various manifestations, most particularly rape, is- at its core- a power trip.  A power trip rooted in the knowledge, cultivated by generations of men and mostly women, that they can get away with it, because the woman will bear the burden of her "shame" silently. The most urgently necessary solution to this problem is, of course, reform of the criminal justice system and sensitization of the police force.  Discourses on the punishment adequate for rape are also, obviously, an integral part of this narrative against harassment of women. Attitudes may or may not change, but I do not want to be at the mercy of the mere shadow of a hope. And maybe, the first step I can take as a woman is to react against what they believe are the little things- a grope here, a leer there- which builds up to this pervasive culture of misogyny.

I realize that I may be advocating recklessness, but somehow, it seems to me that the time has come to become reckless.  To reclaim the night, the day and our streets. When the country has been gripped with such fervent indignation, when the cause is being championed by people who have thus far preferred to pretend that nothing was wrong- now IS the time to be reckless, to revolt, to tell every damned asshole exactly what I think about him when he chooses to undress me with his eyes. I may run a risk, but never has the Indian situation been more amenable to such a risk, and I intend to take full advantage of it. I am an angry woman, and I must, I need to, and I will express this anger. I am a victim, but I shall not bear any responsibility for being victimized again.

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