Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A female voice

Gloria Steinem. Second-wave feminist. Famous feminist.

I hadn't attended any feminist lectures before. I hadn't been to any feminist conferences and I wasn't so sure why I wanted to hear Steinem speak. But when I heard she was here and speaking, I wanted to listen.

And not just listen. I wanted to see her too. The staff at the auditorium told me, and a few other women, that there was no room; we'd have to sit outside and watch a large television screen. But we coaxed, cajoled, complained and insisted that there were reserved seats for us. Once inside, we just squatted on the floor.

Gloria Steinem. Tall, slim, seventy-two. And yes, beautiful. And yes, funny.

She said, that she always thought there ought to be sign outside universities like Yale and Harvard, saying: "Beware. De-construction ahead."

The funniest bits, of course, were the times she quoted from her famous essay, 'If Men Could Menstruate'.

"Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.

To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps...

Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priests, ministers, God Himself ("He gave this blood for our sins"), or rabbis ("Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean").

[Do read the whole hilarious piece.]

That evening, she was speaking about gender and censorship - the many, many ways in which women's voices have been censored out of sight and mind and discourse.

We know how terrible women's magazines are, don't we? How they mess with women's minds, self-image, etc. How they can make you believe that if you aren't skin and bone, if you can't keep a man, if you don't use foreign brands of make-up, if you can't afford to wear a 3000 rupee shirt, you're worthless.

But the worst punishment such magazines mete out, according to Steinem, is that we grow contemptutous of each other other, because we are led to believe that other women want these things. Which is not necessarily true. She told the crowd about how advertisers in the US dictated content through their 'inserts'. Little notes, clauses almost, that tell the editorial staff: "Must not appear with depressing articles" or "Must not appear in an issue with large-size fashion".

Think about that. Advertisers insisting that not only will they use images of super-skinny women, but that they want nothing to do with any sort of clothing, or word of advice or attitude that may be non-skinny. That is censorship too, isn't it?

Steinem made me think from new angles. Like she herself had been made to think. She had always assumed that women talk more than men (because that's the stereotype.... there are jokes about women not being able to sit quiet, a roomful of silent women being the joke), perhaps, because talking is women's way of expressing themselves, perhaps because other forms of self-expression were denied to them? That is what she thought, until she came across research work that concluded that, contrary to popular belief, women talked LESS than men. In fact, the study found that men talked more about everything, including subjects of female expertise, like child-rearing.

Why did the opposite view prevail, then? Perhaps, because, female talk "was measured against the expectation of female silence." When you say 'more', who decided 'more'? Who decides 'women talk too much'? Probably the many generations of men who were not used to listening to female voices at all.

While on censorship, Steinem spoke about the politics of channeling (where a person claims to have access to spirits, and writes down whatever the spirit says). It seems that most women were channeling men. One of the more famous instances being that of a Columbia University professor who claimed to be writing as Jesus dictated.

According to Steinem, very possibly, these were women who had things to say, but would not be taken seriously, perhaps, but if they claimed to be speaking for famous men, they were listened to, and very possibly made successful. Few men have claimed to be speaking for female spirits. The only exception seemed to be a gay man who channeled the writer Gertrude Stein.

The other, murkier side of censorship is buried in problems such as trafficking. While all efforts are directed at stemming supply, almost nobody talks of stemming demand. For instance, people may argue about legalising prostitution, but nobody seems to think it is a good idea to fine the customer, or to discuss his role in the process.

She spoke of the revolutionary act of translating, of language and exile, the censoring of the oral tradition.

She spoke of how battering men behave like addicts and that asking a man to 'control' his aggression is like telling an addict he can have a little bit of heroin.

She spoke of the campaign to attribute an economic value to all care-giving, at replacement value, and the possibility of making such services tax-deductible and tax-refundable.

It was a joy listening to her and I could easily have sat there listening another hour, had she the time or energy to go on. Many other things were said, of course, but these are some of the things Steinem said that stayed with me:

"We are encouraged to give birth to others before we can give birth to ourselves.

Terms such as 'sexual harassment' have been given to us by the feminist movement; before that, it was called 'life'.

The art of behaving ethically is to act as if everything we do, matters."

That, above all. To act as if everything you do, say, don't do, matters.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Giving it back

Last year, around this time, I first started speaking up about street sexual harassment.
Thanks to Blank Noise's blogathon, many women's ghosts began to be exorcised - talk about it, get angry about it, start fighting it.

This year, another blogathon has been announced, asking bloggers - male, female, all - to speak up again. But not just about 'victim' experiences. Talk about how you fought back.

From the blank noise blog:

On the morning of March 8th, 2007, share with us a story (or two, or five or...) of fighting back?! When did you flip a situation so you could resist, when did you give back as hard as you got? When and how did you choose to confront? When did you become an Action Hero?

To participate:
1. announce the event.
2. blog your story
3. email us about it and we will link you right away!
email (with the subject titled: Action Heroes Online).

Spread the word.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Thumb impressions

Sarojini Nagar market. Thursday. 15th Feb.

I'd been here only two days before: getting new curtains, socks, sunshine, weird banana split. And here we were again, carrying a map, pens, pamphlets, letters saying 'Dear Stranger....'

It is a little awkward - street actions in places where we also hang out. Abby mentioned the awkwardness last time at PVR Saket, after we gave out letters to strangers, wore red reflective tape on our chests, forming a 'KYA DEKH RAHE HO?' and then, we calmly sat down at one of the open-air eateries and proceeded to order.

It felt funny. To go from 'action hero' to ordinary. To go from staring back, confronting the non-existence of the lone woman, even in 'okay' places like PVR.... to sitting down, eating. As if nothing had happened. As if, handing out folded letters to strangers was an everyday thing for us.

We'd got used to disappearing soon after the intervention, heading out for coffee, a drink, dinner. Heading away... Why did we not stay on?

Because we had, mentally, separated our own personas? - our aggressive, blank noise persona, and our normal, relaxed-on-guard passive persona?

Did we need to change that? Perhaps. At Sarojini Nagar market, again, we did.

We began with sitting at a small restaurant where we formed a little pool of bemusement as we spread out a large map of Delhi, stapled it onto a sheet of hard chart paper, wrote 'Harassment Hot Spots' along the edge, brought out an ink-pad and pens, folded letters, ate rasmalai, waited for others, and returned to the same place later.

The plan for the evening was to mark out each area of Delhi where a woman has been sexually harassed. At the same time, we were doing a variation on the 'dear stranger' theme. Instead of handing out testimonials of harassment to men, we gave a hand-written format to women, asking them to fill in the blanks, and then give them away to others.

We started thumbing the map ourselves, before approaching other women.

"Excuse me, ma'am, do you have a minute?"

"Hi, listen, we're trying to do something about eve-teasing."

"Suniye, ek minute, please?"

"Ma'am, would you please look at this map?"

"Have you ever been harassed?"

"Ma'am, will you please..."

"Half a minute?"

"Aapko kabhi kisi ne pareshaan kiya hai? Badtameezi ki hai? Jise hum chhed-chhaad kehte hain?"

"Kahin bhi? Kabhi bhi? Yaad kariye..."

"Ever? Never? Anywhere... in the bus? On the streets?"


The first ten minutes found us rolling our eyes at each other, reining in the impulse to shake these women hard.

Most said: No.
"No. I have never been eve-teased/ I don't recall any incident/ I'm not from Delhi/ It doesn't happen in my town/ I'm too large/ I'm too aggressive/ My face is so forbidding that nobody dares."


"If somebody tries anything, I beat him up."

"So somebody did try something?"



"No idea. We only travel in cars." Or "I only go out with my husband."

"What about sisters? Daughters?"


"What about when you were younger? In college?"


We rolled our eyes. One would think we were the only freaks around who'd spent half our lives being harassed.
But what made it really frustrating was that every woman who was accompanied by a man, turned to look up at him. In confusion, for permission, to gauge whether she should speak or not?

"Have you ever been harassed?"

Look at man.

"Have you been felt up, followed, commented upon, touched against your will, brushed against?"

Look at man.

"Will you please put a thumb-print on the map?"

Look at man.

But we didn't snap - "What're you looking at him for? We're asking you!". Or - "If it happened, would you tell the man in your life?" Or even - "Do you think that, if eve-teasing happens, the girl is asking for it?"

We re-structured the conversation.

"Nowhere? Not even in buses?"

"In buses, of course. But it does happen in buses, doesn't it? That sort of thing is normal."

We asked them to mark out a bus-route. That, for some reason, was easier for them.

It was also easier to deal with younger women. College-goers, or those who hung out together, without boyfriends/husbands/fathers in sight.

One girl was particularly angry; she thumbed Gurgaon a dozen times. "Oh, everywhere in Gurgoan", she said.

Another inked Noida. Another said, "In busy markets. Here, in fact!"

There seemed to be a blue north-centre-south axis. The Delhi University (north campus), Chandni Chowk, Connought Place, Nehru Place, GK-1 and 2, Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar were hotspots.

There were funny moments too. More than one man wanted to thumb-print the map; as it turned out, because his wallet had been stolen. We had to explain that theft is not really our area of concern.

One conversation was particularly interesting (and particularly long). A woman (late thirties? forties?) with a man, began by denying she'd ever been harassed. (After looking at the man, of course).

"Nothing happens to me. You see, I've taken a self-defence course."

"You have? Did you ever get to use what you learnt?"

"Yes, I did."

"When? Where?"

"There was once this man..." (pause, turn to look at man)


"In a bus. I elbowed a man. Just like I'd learnt in karate."

"What was he doing?"

"He was behind me."

"But what was he doing?"

"Nothing happened as such. Because I know self-defence."

"Was he doing... badtameezi?"

"Yes. So I elbowed him in the middle."

"Good for you. Would you put a thumb-print on the map?"

Badtameezi. Bad behaviour. Easier to deal with. Eve-teasing. Easier to deal with. Sexual harassment?

It does not happen to us. No.

The learnings from the evening were huge. As blank noise interventions go, this was the first time we had to explain ourselves. We were not standing up, mutely challenging a public space. We were not making a statement. We were engaging.

This was the idea. Mapping the city. Getting women to fill in the blanks - create their own letters to strangers, based on their own experiences. Involving them in ways that is not possible if they only look at us.

The first thing we learnt was something we'd forgotten: that it is taboo to talk about what has happened to you. That many, many women still fear the accusation (or the assumption) that they were responsible. There is, perhaps, a culpability associated with sexual behaviour, even if it isn't your own.

The second thing we learnt was that it is easier to confront, harder to draw out, engage.

The third was that even those who were hostile, were intrigued. We ran out of pamphlets and letters quickly.

The fourth was that we needed more time, more volunteers, more maps.

While we gathered round a bench later, talking about what we'd just seen and what frustrated us, a woman came up to us.

"So what will this accomplish? What are you trying to do?"

"To stop what we call eve-teasing. So many people said, 'it happens; it's normal'. Our point is to establish that it is not normal. It is not right."

"But you cannot change men's attitudes."

"We can. We can change women, at least. So that we stop putting up with it and enforce a change.... would you like to put your thumb-print on the map?"

Grinning, she held up her thumb. It was already inked blue.

Cross-posted here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chai as self

I've been told that those who do not love themselves will never be able truly love anyone else (although they often do/say things that wins them the love of others, which may then persuade them that they are lovable). Those who do not treat themselves with respect, will find it hard to truly respect anyone else. They will respect things, instead - the money one makes, the clout one has, the accent one speaks in, the contacts one boasts of... But take away all of this, and what do you have?
A person. Who deserves to be respected just for being that. A person.

And those who do not love chai do not know what it is to treat a brew with respect. With a genuine interest, curiosity, and no prejudices based on package, brand or price.

For, chai needs to be loved just for itself.
Not because it is fragrant, flavoured, exotic, from new trees or old.
Not because it can bring you relief, respite, anti-oxidants.
Not because it is strong, or mild, or just right, or vaccum-sealed.
Just because it is chai and chai is good (unless it has been treated badly).

A true chai-lover loves chai in all its colours and ethnicities, regardless of whether it can accomplish something for you or not. North-hill darjeelings or south-hill munnars; Chinese or Bangladeshi; Pakistani or Indian. In your heart, they all have a place.

For you must experiment. It is like discovering one's own moods. It is like discovering how deep your own capacity for tolerance, sweetness, change, patience is.

Chai reveals itself over time, over years. Like you don't really know what you enjoy doing, until you've done it, you never know what brew you'll take a fancy to. You might spend ten years sipping sticky-sweet tapri chai with enough milk in it to sate a new calf, but then you might go to a Chinese restaurant where they keep your (tea) cup full, and your heart might expand just a little bit with your stretching horizons.

Like you may spend ten years swearing by ginger, and eschewing elaichi, and adding only three tablespoons of tea to a large mug of chai, and that's that. But then, you might move into a new place and your flatmate might have bought a pack of chai masala and you might begin pinching a pinch, now and then, and as the spice floats up your nose, you will know that you've just been seduced by a stranger. Whom you're going to go on seeing, now and then, though you're still awfully committed to ginger.

Like you may dislike the tea-flavoured milk the villagers in Punjab serve you, but after the fifth, sixth, seventh, seventeenth cup, you will smile at the memory and wonder if you should attempt something similar at home. Because, things grow on you.

Like you never know where you'll end up, in chai or love. But if you're brave, you'll have something unique. Like my flatmate who, at university, used to start with an attempted chai, discover that it wasn't quite working, and end up using the chai in a pancake batter. Chai pancakes... ever thought of that?!

Perhaps, not everybody's cup of tea , but the thing with tea is, it doesn't need to be everybody's. It just needs to be yours.

Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Monday, February 12, 2007

A separate section for the ladies

A string strung across two trees. Half a dozen calves strung to the string. It is momentarily eerie. Almost as if the calves – child-bulls – were threatening to commit suicide. But they're only chewing the cud, waiting to be sold.

These are probably prize calves, from racing stock. Probably from the tough bulls racing up a storm barely half a kilometer away, at the Grewal Indoor stadium in Qila Raipur. Racing outdoors, though. Two bullocks were yoked together with a slim plank of wood trailing behind, attached to two motorcycle wheels. It wasn't unlike the two-wheel chariots I remember from Hollywood periodicals.

The jockey has a tougher time. At least, it looks tough. Can't be easy balancing with your feet on a narrow ledge between two wheels and your torso thrown forward on the slanting plank of the yoke. Imagine that you're half-lying, face down, hands busy with reins or a chaabuk.

One pair of bulls took a tumbling somersault in one of the races. They were a determined pair, though; within seconds, they were back on their feet and raring to race again. Except that the jockey had fallen off and the bulls didn't wait long enough for him to catch up. Besides, they were disoriented and didn't know which direction to run in; they ended up running in a diagonal across the track, with the jockey in hot pursuit.

I never saw the indoors of this indoor stadium which hosts the annual 'rural olympics' in Punjab. I wasn't there for the sports anyway, but because of the elections. Qila Raipur is a constituency and this is a good time to be at the sporting event because there are many people from various districts. I was there to speak to them, to talk politics. To hold up a straw, so to speak, to see which way the wind was blowing.

The first old turbaned gentleman I tried talking to spoke a dialect of Punjabi that I was, well, more unfamiliar with; I could barely make out his name and that he was from Toor. The second one told me he was an athlete; in the fifties, he had won second place in the district 100 metre run. An ex-army man and two-time sarpanch now (the first time, his wife won as sarpanch, which he said, was the same thing as him winning), he's making a football stadium in his village. To prevent the youth from being corrupted by narcotics.

The third one didn't say much. He was 92 years old (born 1915, as mentioned on his i-card from the Punjab Association of Veteran Athletes) and intended to participate in the next day's race for veterans. The old regulars were a little sulky about the changes in the sporting event. There was a time where the crowds were three times thicker. When there were no chairs and everybody squatted in the dust. When there was no 'security', no policemen keeping the crowds in line. When there was no loudspeaker and no running commentary and no sponsors. Most of the spectators couldn't see the 'entertainment' (songs, dances, acrobats, gymnasts) because at least twenty photographers and camera crews blocked the view. Also, because of the determined young men holding placards saying Parle-G insisted on positioning themselves right behind the performers, so that the sponsor's name was in each and every frame of the cameras.

I had just begun to talk to a couple of elderly farmers sitting on a parked scooter when a small crowd gathered around. This is not unusual; I'm used to crowds gathering around anybody with a notebook or a camera in most places. But this time, it felt unusally unpleasant. Our conversation was interrupted by a stocky, high-spirited sardar who'd been in one of the races. He'd won the first round and was aggressively conversational. I asked him if he was having fun. He said he was and so was everyone else and then he laughed. For some reason, the whole crowd burst out laughing too.

I turned to look all around me. For the first time, I noticed that it was all men. Not a single woman or child. And they were all laughing. A sliver of anger shot through my head (causing an immediate headache that lasted the whole day).

The anger had been simmering for the last few minutes, actually; ever since an anonymous hand touched my backside; anonymously buried itself into the crowd. For the last few minutes, I had been trying to tell myself that it may have been an accident. But the anger was waiting to take over from denial.

The bullock-racing sardar went on with the fun theme. How some people found fun in bulls, some in horses, some in kabaddi and some in watching... everybody had their own 'shaukh'. This caused another burst of laughter from the crowd.

I turned to ask the people on my left – what was so funny?

Another round of mirth, but less sure of itself. Some of the younger boys broke away from the fringes of the crowd. To my right, a young man spoke up. Began to answer the questions I was angling to ask; he seemed to know why I was here, and what to say.

Instinctively, he sensed my anger. As I stepped away, he apologized indirectly for the crowd. "There are no positive-thinking people here, madam. All negative-thinking. I think you should go inside and watch the races."

I told him I was not keen on the races. I needed to talk to people.

He told me that there was a separate section for the ladies.

And there's always one needed. Isn't there?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The unexpected garden

Jallianwala bagh... I had not expected to want to visit it.

Just like I do not wear white khadi to show support for Gandhian thought, just like I do not use prayer to reaffirm faith, I do not usually visit martyr-memorials to remind myself of the freedom struggle. Overt nationalism makes me uncomfortable; as if we were trying to prove a point about our self-worth. Besides, patriotism leaves me with strange questions (What is a legitimate nation? Are we a legit nation? Are we the nation we promised ourselves we’d be? If we have failed ourselves, do we have the right to de-nation ourselves? Why/why not?).

But the taxi driver, on the way back to the hotel, pointed out the sign; Jallianwala bagh, he said.

And I asked him to stop the car.

I had not expected to find that particular song float through my head...‘aapki baat, baat phoolo.n ki’…

But I had not expected to find flowers either. Flowers were the first thing I saw in the bagh (it really is a bagh now, though there was no garden at the time of the massacre. What was called Jallianwala Bagh was simply a space, about five and a half feet lower than the surrounding streets, with houses all around and only one narrow entry/exit, and was almost a dump, used occasionally for meetings and public gathering. The land was bought off at least 34 different owners, after 1920, to build the memorial, and later, the landscaped garden).

I went through the same narrow entry/exit, where General Dyer had once led his troops, past the spot where the soldiers knelt to fire, past fading geroo-coloured walls which neither beckoned nor imposed, past a sign mentioning timings – different, for summer and winter – where I noticed that I had only a few minutes to look around.

Rows upon rows of flower-pots. Snap-dragons, daisies, pansies. Yellows, purples, whites, pinks. A rose-patch. Neat hedges.

And constant music. Patriotic filmy songs. As it happened, the one playing right now was apt - ‘is mitti se tilak karo, ye dharti hai balidaan ki; vande matram…

I had not expected to be moved.

Perhaps, it was not the song. Perhaps, it was the amar-jyoti (eternally burning, courtesy Indian Oil) that stood trembling before me. Or, I before it.

Perhaps, it was the late winter afternoon and the setting sun and the five white-bearded men sitting on a stone bench, all in a row. Perhaps, that was why I had gooseflesh.

Or perhaps, it was because of the now-covered well that I couldn’t see the bottom of, from where 150 corpses were pulled out. One shudders a little near it: the air is cold there; the very smell is cold.

Or maybe, I was moved because of the kites. Almost every tree had a torn kite stuck it its branches. Some dead trees. Many dead kites. Maybe, it was the sad poetry of it.

But I had not expected to struggle with awkward tears.

There is a little museum inside, full of portraits and explanations. Dr Kichlu and Dr Satyapal, already old men both, who were arrested and deported. Their arrests were what sparked off the protests that led to the Jallianwala bagh meeting.

But I spent the most time with Ratan Devi’s portrait.

Ratan Devi, widow of Chhaju Bhagat, who had gone to the meeting at Jallianwala Bagh. When the soldiers opened fire, Ratan Devi began to worry, to cry with fear. Her husband did not come back. She decided to go and look for him, although there was a curfew from 8 pm onwards. Once inside the bagh, she found his body and she asked her sons to bring a charpai, to bring the body home.

But it was already 8 pm. Her family did not show up. One after another, she asked people to help her carry the body home. But nobody was willing to risk their own lives, to bring home the dead.

Ratan Devi decided to wait there, not willing to leave her husband's body lying there alone. She thought herself lucky when she managed to find a bamboo stick, so she could keep stray dogs off the body. Where she sat, there were injured people. Still alive. Writhing in pain. Three men. A buffalo. A twelve-year old boy.

She asked the boy if he was cold. If she could cover him with a shawl or something. The boy asked for water. There was none to give.

All through the night, she sat there, guarding a dead man, listening to the dying. There she sat, until half past five in the morning, when her family showed up with a charpai. And she said - what she went through, that night, only she knew or god did.

Outside, the dying sun allowed itself one last burst, glinting against the silhouette of a woman sitting on the grass. All I could see was a shock of white hair on a faceless old woman and the sounds of screaming, running children.

I had not expected that.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Link, link!

This is about freedom. Fottal gives you free space and let's you be what you want to be. It's an intriguing question: what, indeed?

And this one is about Sarnath Banerjee. Do visit, and find out more about The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers

Monday, February 05, 2007

The UP mess

One of the newspapers recently had a letter (to the editor) on page 2, where a concerned citizen was asking: when will UP learn?

Sooner or later, I knew that discussions around Nithari would turn into one of those bhaiya-bihari bash-fests. Usually, I resent this when it happens, because I know that not all is wrong with the states of UP or Bihar. I have such sweet memories of traveling (eating, living, talking to and about people) in these two states that the picture is neither black nor bleak, in my mind.
And yet, when I began to dig up info, there was no escaping the fact that Uttar Pradesh has a worrying track record (although other states are hardly clean). According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the total number of crimes against children in India was 14,975 (2005), marking an increase of 33.8% over the previous year. There were 3518 cases of kidnapping and abduction, marking an increase 10.1%, of which 21.3% were contributed by UP alone.

It was Uttar Pradesh that also has the dubious distinction of the highest number of child murders, a 29.4% of a total of 1327 cases (not including infanticide).

Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are together the top contributors to crime against children. Child rape has also on the rise – by about 13.7% - with 4026 cases reported in 2005.

Unfortunately, the conviction rate simply does not keep pace. It stands at only 35.7% for crimes against children (across India). Which means that about 65% of the people who've killed/raped/otherwise harmed children are walking away scot-free.

Like a friend pointed out, if the purpose of legal punishment is deterrance, there's not much to deter a would-be criminal. Is there?

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