Yesterday I spent the day in the city, running chores, meeting a friend and taking a ride in the Metro for the first time. In all the loafing I was doing, I also read an excellent article by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen on how the India story of the past decade is both a glowing success and a resounding failure when it comes to growth and development . Success because the growth rate we have been seeing is truly spectacular and failure because it has just meant more deprivations for the poor.
On another note, a writer friend Kavery Nambisan wrote a brilliant novel that was published more than a year ago and recently got its due by being shortlisted for the prize in Jaipur literary festival. The book is called ‘The story that must not be told’ and Kavery wrote this book because having worked with the poor and underprivileged as a doctor in rural as well as urban areas, she is convinced that millions of poor Indians are not going to take it for too long. We drive in swanky cars, shop in swankier malls and haggle with our maids and drivers when it comes to giving them a 500 bucks raise. The dam will burst one day and we won’t have a place to hide when they come after us with knives and chains. I agree with her. And that’s the reason why I have not commented on the Mumbai tragedy that the media is playing up as an ‘Eve Teasing’ story.
I am convinced that one is not an open and shut case about harassment of women, however much it may anger feminist friends of mine. And before I get on to explaining my stance, let me make one thing clear. As a man, I try very hard to be in a space where women are truly equal. I am saying I try, because I think it is next to impossible for an Indian man however liberated he may claim to be, to truly endorse gender equality. On an odd day, we will enter the kitchen to cook in order to help the spouse. But the cleaning afterwards is always left to the women. And often women more often than not contribute to this process of inequality.
In my own family, my mother whenever she has stayed with us after I got married has been unable to accept my entering the kitchen to make a cup of coffee for my wife. She would turn sullen about something as basic as that. This despite the fact for most part of my professional life, I have worked from home as a consultant, theatre person and writer and my wife has always had a 9-5 job. I have a sister who’s always held a high pressure career and my mother always encouraged her to be independent. But not just with my wife, but with her other daughters-in-law as well, she has had different standards. I think this story plays out in most Indian middle class families.
I have a friend who walked out on her husband because he was being unfaithful to her. It doesn’t take too much for my friend to launch into tirades against men. She has a brother who got divorced a month after he got married and has never had a partner or spouse after that. The story she gave all her friends including me was that within a month the couple discovered they were incompatible and that led to the break-up of the marriage. We believed her because that’s the friendship code.
You accept your friend and what she says unconditionally. However a few months ago I met the girl through a friend in another city. I got to know from her that her first marriage with my friend’s brother broke up because he was impotent. Not only did he want her to conceal this fact but also expected her to stay with him for the rest of her life as according to him ‘sex is not the most important thing in this world.’ More than her ex husband she was bitter with my friend for conniving with her brother and trying to talk her into not walking out.
When I started doing theatre in Bangalore one of the first friends I made was this tall, well built hulk with a frail beautiful wife, the daughter of a leading politician of Karnataka. I learnt later this guy used to beat his wife. She would take it lying down and from the accounts of those who worked with her in theatre, land up for rehearsals with bruises on her body. Later they got divorced and he got married to someone else. He would beat her up also. You may ask why did the women in his life put up with the violence? His mother had killed herself and he was the person in the family to discover her body. So everyone thought he was seriously messed up and it was ok for him to bash the women in his life. As far as I know he never went behind bars for his crimes.
I have another acquaintance in Bangalore with whom I have shared the same professional space for many years. He belongs to an industrialist family. A mutual friend of ours was invited to his house for a festival feast. She was shocked to find all the women in the family standing and serving the men and their guests as that was the rule in the house. The women in the family aren’t allowed to eat until the men and their guests have finished eating. Now this guy’s wife is educated and comes from a wealthy family herself. There is no reason for her to put up with this nonsense but she does.
I was in a retreat with other writers and this lady was waxing eloquent on how she is a feminist to the core. The whole thing made me angry not because she wants to be a feminist but because two years back she had shared with me a story when a young man from her family, a NRI, had duped an Indian girl into an arranged marriage and told her afterwards he was already in a committed relationship with another girl back in the US. He confessed to the new bride he had married her because he couldn’t withstand pressure from his mother. He wanted out within a month of their marriage and left. A year later he got back again and told this girl ‘Now I am ready to accept you.’ She told him to fuck off and according to the same feminist the girl was being too rigid by not agreeing. After all he was so handsome and well educated.
The point I am trying to make here is when men and women from our own educated and enlightened context are unable to treat women as equals, why expect it from a bunch of uneducated impoverished lot who are nursing a thousand grievances against the affluent. We engage in conspicuous consumption right in front of them when they are unable to afford basic necessities. Much as I admire the two young lads from Bombay who lost their lives, I can’t help feeling after the initial scuffle, they should have left the spot, instead of waiting for another attack to happen.
Instead of four, it may have been 40 who came back with weapons and more than two lives would have been lost. For the dispossessed, women are one more possessions of the haves that they are entitled to and unless we deal with the issue of inequality between genders in our own small worlds, precious little can be done to curb shameful incidents like these.
There’s no point in blaming the cops either. I believe the ratio of policemen to citizens in India is 17: 10000. The population is rising, there are less and less law enforcers on the road and the anger and resentment of the deprived classes is hitting the roof. Add to that the fucked up mind set of us Indians who are quick to point fingers at others but will resist one small change in their own context by not protesting against the injustice they see around them. Indians are mute spectators not only when they are on the roads and witnessing the violation of strangers, they put up with all kinds of nonsense within the four walls of their own homes.
Outside our homes we have this shockingly inept Prime Minister with his lopsided view of growth that has made our nation a smoking cauldron of hate and violence. Much as I hate the BJP, I can’t wait for Singh and his cohorts to be consigned to the dustbins of history after the next elections, for doing this to us.
It’s thanks to them that our streets are more unsafe than they have ever been.