Friday, March 22, 2013

India Musings - I

In my last post, I mentioned my long trip to India.

What can I say? Going back to your home country dredges up deep emotions that you either never knew existed or just suppressed as you went about your daily life in a foreign country, slaving away at your job and socializing, having fun in general.
This time, the emotions were far more raw.

India, my home of several years, is growing and changing. Just like all other changing places and people, some changes are lovely and others are quite ugly.

On one hand, you see swanky new malls and multiplexes and fast food joints. There is also an aspirational youth, taking up all kinds of study and launching business ventures, making movies, music and art, participating in plays and competitions and all kinds of performances.

On the other hand, there is the ugly side of rising crime and cities that are pushed to the brink with overcrowding and pollution. The crime is truly worrying. The level of trust among people seems to be eroding with attacks on senior citizens right in their homes to the abduction, rape and murder of young children.

A few days ago, as the world celebrated International Women's Day, I was reminded of the braveheart whom a section of the Indian media had named "Nirbhaya" (Sanskrit for 'fearless') - the 23 year old gang rape victim in Delhi who shook the consciousness of the nation. There are countless other victims, some who are far younger and whose cases probably never get the coverage that this got.
While I was in Mumbai, within a span of a month, I read about two major assaults on young women, one of them was a foreigner who was raped in her own flat and the second one ended up losing her life.

Despite the outrage, the protests and some judicial reforms taking place, crimes still continue. There seems to be a tinderbox of anger and frustration that is resulting in crimes even in domestic environments. All the while, as my family members, friends and acquaintances lament the general state of affairs, we all ask the question - Why.

What is it that turns entire groups of men into gangs of rapists who show absolutely no mercy on their hapless victims? Every nation has its fair share of perverts and pedophiles but there are some places where sexual crimes have crossed the realm of explanation from mental illness to a form of social cancer. Social activists, media and politicians, joined by the general public, have all come up with explanations, the most common being the patriarchal culture that has long treated women as sub par.

All this in a country that worships Mother Goddesses, reveres mothers, whose religious epics exhort people to treat all women who are not your wife as your own mothers and sisters.

What is even more alarming is that we hear of more cases of acid attacks and other assaults on young women in the media, perpetuated by rowdies and jilted suitors.  In the past, such cases were heard of quite rarely, but somehow, these days, I see more of them spanning newspaper pages and grabbing headlines on primetime television.
Is it because the media is more aggressive in highlighting these incidents or is it the fallout of the increasing gap between the old India where women stayed home and wore traditional outfits and the new India where females are venturing out, making a statement of their own in every possible way?

Nirbhaya's ordeal and death and some other cases have truly left us deeply affected, searching for answers and solutions, and there has been a rise in anger, anger of the right kind that brings about fundamental change in society.

I was recently watching the wonderful movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", a hopeful comedy about a group of British expats in their golden years, who get a new lease of life and hope after they spend some time in Rajasthan, India. In the movie, the characters talk about all the "colors, light and joy" around and Tom Wilkinson's character makes a memorable statement along the lines of "how people here treat life as a privilege, not as a right".

Alas, in real news, you hear about stories such as these. I feel terrible for these victims. Foreigners who come to India with innocence and hopes of discovering an ancient, mystical, diverse land have not just their dreams shattered, but their psyche, too.

The Indian Paradox -

As I said before,  India has been a land of Goddess worshippers. Indian epics consecrate womanhood, motherhood and all things feminine.
However, Indian epics also extol the chastity and fidelity of a woman. Thus, the faithful and beautiful Sita of the Ramayana is made to undergo an 'agnipariksha' (literally translating to "fire test") to prove her chastity after being abducted by Ravana.
Draupadi of the Mahabharata is disrobed publicly as part of a wager and is saved by the grace of Krishna. In the end, her humiliation and violation are avenged by her husbands (yes, husbands - she was in a polyandrous marriage because of the word of her mother-in-law - read more on Wikipedia here).

The Indian Constitution gave equal rights to women from the day of its institution, including the right to vote.
Indian women have held the office of Prime Minister, Chief Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House and even the President.
There are women CEOs, school principals, professors, doctors, lawyers, film directors, singers, actresses and artists.

Yet, many have experienced molestation and violence, particularly the underprivileged sections. Many of the problems that any society faces have their root causes in culture; legislation usually falls in step with the prevailing mindset of the times.
Even with legislation that protects the life and dignity of every individual, there is the gap between the ideals that a society aspires to and the ground reality.

Indians have long lived with their troubles, making do with their own maneuvers and little getting-around tricks, never really challenging the status quo legally or culturally.
True, India had laws punishing rape and molestation and harassment of women was portrayed in cinema and protested against, but matters were only taken into the legal sphere when there was actual rape or severe molestation. Added to the already vitiated atmosphere was the notion that the woman had been "spoilt". In fact, this is the word for "raped" in some Indian languages. English has words like "deflowered", too, for a loss of virginity. Rape is one of the rare crimes where the victim is also blamed.

Girls dressed fashionably, but only after looking around to check the overall culture of the city or village they were in. Eve-teasers (guys who passed comments at girls, sometimes harassing or following them) were generally ignored unless the matter got serious. College authorities, parents and others usually kept an eye on the day-to-day happenings and had things under control.

Groping strangers in public transportation vehicles were usually dealt with loud words, slaps or protests, or instinctive maneuvering to avoid perverts (I now think many women are armed with invisible antennae, a kind of sixth sense that they use to protect themselves in crowds). Other right-minded passengers would usually rally for the victim and help her out.

Harassment was severe in some parts of India, not so much in certain liberal city neighborhoods where girls freely roamed around in jeans or skirts, sometimes even in shorts. Mumbai and Bangalore are typically considered open and relatively "safe" though crimes against women are on the rise there, too. There is no absolutely safe place in India, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

I have heard stories of young girls whose education has suffered because they were being stalked by some random dude on the street. Girls are often advised to cover up, wear traditional Indian outfits so as to not attract unwanted attention, to not chat much with the opposite sex and stick to their books and classes, be good girls and get married to a suitable guy that their parents approved of, once they completed graduation. Woe unto the poor girl if she was blessed with uncommon good looks!

Even today, dumb politicians make dumb comments such as this - girls wearing skirts attract trouble.

However, I have rarely heard of any of the stalkers being reprimanded.
Can you imagine such things being tolerated in any developed country? Stalking and harassing someone can easily get you a prison term in those places.

As some newspaper columnists have noted, Indian movies openly glorified heroes chasing their objects of affection until they said, "Yes". Real life wannabe Romeos went about whistling and leering at girls and passing lewd comments, without any thought for their feelings and reactions. While I am not saying that movies and television cause people to behave in a certain manner, they do add to the white noise of the culture that silently shapes people's minds.
Note: There is a huge difference at attracting some stares on the street for your voluptuous figure decked in tight clothing and people just ogling, sometimes just because you are dressed differently.
There is a difference between a harmless sexual look and threatening lechery and almost every girl understands that on a deep level.

Today, many Indians blame Bollywood for its vulgarity and item numbers featuring skimpily clad dancers. They feel it is contributing to fueling passions that endanger women. However, most Indians recognize that it is the woefully slow law and order mechanism and corruption in government that have led to this state of affairs. Added to it is the deeply patriarchal culture where women are worshipped on one hand and made to pay dowry on the other hand, preserve their chastity and hold up the honor of the family.

Unlike common myths, all Indians do not abort female fetuses or pay hefty dowries or, gasp, burn widows. India has a multitude of ethnicities based on language and within those are castes and communities. Different groups have differing customs and some are more patriarchal than others.
What is probably a common thread running through all of them is a conservatism - no-sex-before-marriage, respect-for-one's-elders and following the traditions of the family.

Somehow, in walking the tightrope between preserving its unique cultural identity and embracing external ideas, India is facing the loss of compassion within. There is a lot of work to be done, by every family and every individual, to cultivate respect for another human's life and dignity.
Most Indians do a sterling job of parenting and imparting values to their children but many families struggle with alcoholism, abuse, poverty or simply neglect from parents who may not be that poor.

What is a sign of hope is that Indians are standing up and fighting for their country, their future and the safety and life of everyone who sets foot on this ancient land.
New laws are being framed against child abuse and assault, questions are being asked very publicly and people are taking matters to the police and the courts.
One day, I dream of an India where people can just be who they are, without being brutalized or violated, where children and women can move about freely without their innocence being robbed and where compassion rules the day.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., we all have a dream...

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