Monday, February 22, 2010

Cities, changes, anger,

Something has been changing and yet, what has?

I write this in the context of my involvement with Blank Noise and my experience of having lived in two different cities with diametrically opposite reputations where women's safety is concerned. Delhi was known as the big, bad wolf. Bombay was known as the best deal possible. Over the last decade, through visits, through media and through the lived experience, I've had a chance to compare and contrast how safe one is and - sadly enough - how mythical and transient the notion of safety for women is.

In the last year or so, after I moved back to Bombay, I found myself swinging between two extremes. Or rather, I found myself trapped inside a triangular box of behaviour patterns in public spaces. I was either super-confident and barely thinking about myself as a woman in a public space. Or I was worried, super-conscious of the fact that I was a woman and unbearably aware of how I was dressed. Or I was just plain angry.

I have written before about rampant harassment in this city under the guise of massive crowds that are in a constant rush to get somewhere. I have written about helplessness and bottled-up anger often being misdirected, and the worry that one may be over-reacting: after all, the push, the shove, the brushing against could be an accident. How do you prove that it isn't? And yet, the more I travel by trains, the more I walk on crowded streets, the more convinced I am that a lot of the touching is not accidental. Often, I have been caught in a huge crush of people who are trying to go up a narrow stairway, while another crush of people is trying to come down the same stairway. Ninety percent of the time, if I am surrounded by women, I notice that I am not being touched or pushed around.

The sad thing is, that ninety percent of the time, I have begun to manipulate my ascent on the stairways and down platforms so that I am surrounded by women on all sides.

I find this deeply saddening because, in the first flush of confidence after being in Blank Noise interventions, having understood the problem of street sexual harassment as well as street social dynamics better than I used to, I had begun to believe that there was no need to sequester or segregate myself.

It is true that I am no longer feeling as vulnerable as I used to feel. I have learnt to stare back, and to use the simple act of looking as a deterrant, a weapon of self-defense. I have learnt to enter spaces where there are very few women, or none who can afford not to be there, and to walk in with a straight back, a challenge written on my face. But on the other hand, I find that I still have to use this weapon a lot of the time. If I begin to relax - for instance, read a book in a public space, within moments I find that strangers are starting to walk past a little too easily, a little too close. If I were to close my book and look directly at them, the men automatically step back a little or put a few more inches between themselves and me. I feel like I am in a constant state of battle, unable to drop a physically defensive stance.

Of course, this is not true of all public spaces. But it is true that I cannot allow myself to feel safe in this city. Where I live used to feel pretty safe. This is a distant suburb that has gotten heavily populated only over the last decade. I had never had a problem finding transport and had never really been harassed or stalked in my neighbourhood. But recently, late one night, the driver of the auto I was in suddenly slowed down. I asked why and he said someone was flagging him down. Two men on a bike caught up with the auto rickshaw. I told the driver not to stop. The men bent their heads and peered into the auto, staring at me, as they vroomed past.

I found myself wishing that they would fall and have an accident. And was promptly appalled at the violence inside my head.

But increasingly, I find myself bubbling over with a powerful kind of rage. I have - and I am deeply ashamed at this - picked up stones from the street and hurled them at a bunch of boys. It was the day before Holi. I was sick and tired of having things thrown at me, hurtful things like water balloons and chunks of ice. The next time I felt water on my shoulderblades, I whirled around, grabbed the nearest stone I could find and threw it back in the direction the balloon had come from. I bent to pick up some more stones. Two or three seconds later I realised the boys were kids - perhaps between the ages of ten and fourteen. I was sorry, of course. I still am. But one part of my mind was unforgiving. It was saying: 'Fine! So let them learn young'.

Tonight I was talking to a friend, a girl who was so nervous about being at the station in a knee-length dress (with black stockings on underneath) that she called a male friend and asked him to stay on the phone with her until she boarded a train, ladies compartment, of course. I began telling her that I wanted to commute with a long, fat lathi. I would walk out of the house with the lathi held in both hands, horizontal, so that nobody came too close, and on railways bridges, I would keep whirling the lathi like a professional fighter. The image of me as a lathial-ninja was funny and we both had a good laugh about it. But I find myself lapsing into such aggressive feelings that if, one of these days, I am touched on purpose and I catch hold of the guy, god help him.

In Delhi, oddly enough, I never felt this much rage. I don't know why. Perhaps, because the harassment was of a more persistent verbal kind. Perhaps, because I rarely took buses. Perhaps, because whistling or staring or being 'proposed' is annoying but is not such an immediate physical violation like unwanted touching. Perhaps, it is just that in Bombay, all frustrations feed into each other - the violation combined with a lack of physical space and privacy, which mingles with a sickness that comes from incessant crowds and actual filth and garbage and pollution.

On the other hand, I had accepted a circumscribed lifestyle in Delhi. At least, partially. I had accepted the fact that I would not go out late at night unless somebody was going to drop me home. I had to ask friends or even reluctant friends of friends to drive an extra fifteen minutes for my sake. I refused to accept party invitations unless I was certain I could ask this of someone. I rarely spent any time alone except at cafes or bookstores, or whilst shopping, or traveling. I wore western clothes but carried a wrap or jacket if it was a strappy dress.

In Bombay, I don't have the option of being alone, but if there were empty and quiet spaces, I think I would be more open to being there. Or maybe not. After all, I begin to get nervous walking about in Fort or Parel or Nariman Point or Versova or Khar after ten at night. And it is equally true that I have been out in Delhi at midnight and felt perfectly safe, surrounded by friends, women friends, all of us dressed up and in high heels.

The other frustrating thing is the overcrowding. I have been traveling mostly in the first class compartment for Ladies because I cannot find the energy and strength to fight my way into the chaos of the general dabba. After 11pm, the second class ladies' compartment which is adjacent to the first class (24 hour ladies) is converted to a general one. The men come trundling in. Even if there is some room in the general converted compartment, all the ladies insist on trooping into the first class. This is a daily affair and I have made my peace with it. I don't even like this business of second class and first class dabbas and it makes me queasy even bringing up this issue of who belongs in which class, much less fight with some poor harassed woman at midnight, three sleepy little kids in tow, asking her to get off and go travel with the men, or to walk further down the platform to the second class (24 hours) ladies.

What I find sad is the utter ghettoisation of men and women with regard to each other. Most women would rather risk being caught ticketless or be fined for traveling in the first class than get into a train compartment with a lot of men traveling in it. And if I find myself the only woman passenger in the first class ladies dabba, I take the trouble of running to the end of the platform to get into the second class ladies compartment. In fact, I have witnessed fights in the ladies compartments where one lady accuses another of not having a first class pass (based on her dress and appearance, of course, on which another post, another day) and the other lady promptly replies: 'Well, thank god for the second class women's presence or else all your first class women would have been robbed or raped'. What kind of culture is this? How is this a safe city, then? How much safer than other cities?

As soon as the Delhi metro web gets wider and stronger, as soon as the late night trains begin to run a little later, Delhi will end up becoming a safer city. Women's safety has so much to do with infrastructure and so little to do with 'culture'.

How safe women feel is finally just a question of numbers. I notice that, in Bombay, if a woman is traveling alone in a train, she is always looking about in a nervous way. The moment another woman enters the compartment, she breathes a deep sigh of relief and smiles in welcome at the new passenger. If two or three more women board the train, all of them feel safe. If one woman is wearing a short skirt, she appears to look around, unsure of herself. If she spots another woman wearing jeans or a sleeveless top, she feels confident.

The train doesn't change. The city doesn't change. The time doesn't change. The clothes don't change. But the women's experience of the city, the train, the time, their clothes changes - through the simple fact of them being out there in greater numbers, in all their diversity of dress and make up and profession.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

one take on love

Here is a piece I did for Valentine's Day and here is where it appeared.

We no longer understand. Those of us who were nourished on a carb-rich diet of the Bronte sisters and Yash Chopra, along with vital supplements like Tagore, Gulzar and Bob Dylan that were steadily poured into our blood. We understand the brave new world of new age romance no more than our grandmothers understood email.

Yet, we use the same language: love, longing, loss, despair. Young people meet each other, are attracted, call each other ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ – or the new politically correct thing: ‘partner’. They commit. They have kids. And one supposes that there must be love in the frame. No reason to disbelieve their ‘I love you’s even though we live in a world where Valentine’s Day has become a bit of a joke with half the world protesting the crass commercialism which has reduced it to greeting cards and online offers to ship bouquets of roses; and the other half intent on buying the cards, the balloons, the diamond pendant (which is supposed to make sure that love lasts forever), and the super-soft Rs 299 teddy bear holding a red velvet heart. On several campuses, it has become ‘sad’ for a young person to be seen without a love prop. Those who do not receive roses buy them and pretend they were gifts. Those who have nobody to buy cards for, buy them anyway, and pretend to be on their way to meet a mythic beloved. Very Calvin-n-Hobbes, except it isn’t comic.

But let me not delve into the Hallmarks-isation of love. What of love itself? How do young people romance each other, minus the props? Ask a teenager and he looks at you suspiciously. “What do you mean ‘how’? Like, I mean, like everybody else. I guess.”

Everybody else would include women like me who grew up dreaming of strapping young men with the mind of a Yeats, the body of a farm hand, the temperament of a Heathcliff, and a propensity to stand under windows, singing about the moon paling beside one’s own face. We, who dared not actually do anything more than dedicate a song at the school fete, or created an acrostic in his name, hoping he would have the sense to crack the code. We, who talked long hours into the night on the phone and could not wait until it was time to step out of the house so one could meet the beloved and talk some more over coffee. Endless cups of coffee, long walks, frequent glances. We, who suffered heartbreak alone, without breathing a word even to a best friend. We didn’t die of heartbreak, of course, unlike heroines in nineteenth century novels. But we weren’t afraid of impossible longings. Nor did we feel panic at the prospect of our teens slipping by without having a ‘partner’ .

But we too have adapted and evolved. New age romance is no longer about borrowing books or quoting romantic couplets. One signs up instead on a Google group that focuses on love poems and dips into the treasure once in a while, and emails a poem to the person one is interested in.
We write SMS poems. We sometimes send text messages saying nothing more than ‘Hi’ or ‘Just’. Just to say hello. Just to say I’m thinking of you. Just to say you’re in my heart. And once we hit ‘send’, we wait, phones clutched to our chests, wondering what sort of reply will be sent back.
If we were born a generation ago, we’d have hit the writing desk and dashed off a five-page letter. Or sent off a single pressed flower in an envelope by registered post.

If we used to make dates at art galleries; we now make dates to go to the mall and listen to new records together at a music store. Or to play a round of Counter-strike. Different medium, but the message remains the same.

Or does it?

I asked a friend and fellow-writer, Manisha Lakhe, who promptly dissed present-day romance as ‘a commercial break in a TV show’. “Romance is dysfunctional today,” she says. “Maybe because people don’t read books. They watch TV so the attention span is low.”

Is love is now a much fast-food phenomenon now: a fly-by-night operation rather than a lifetime of work? After all, a generation that is seduced by advertising lines such as ‘Why wait?’ is not likely to be seduced by the idea of longing and patience. Nobody waits for love to be consummated beyond a few dates – maybe a few weeks, maybe months, certainly not years.
Yet, a corner of my own heart refuses to believe that teenagers nowadays are that much different. The generation that was brought up on online gaming and doesn’t know how to use a pager probably uses the same basic tools to romance – words, making eyes, cafes.

Or perhaps, the change runs deeper, linked to the ways in which Indian culture itself has changed. Love in the 2000s, some people say, is more like pornography, less like erotica. And capping everything is the pornography of money. Lakhe confesses she was horrified when she met a young girl who was accepting gifts of diamonds from not just her dad, but from the boys she knew. “She did not understand why I was horrified. Her attitude was: ‘They like me; now let them work for it’. In my time, only 'bad' girls were like this. I’m not exactly the Grease generation, but still, there was some sort of honour.”

Notions of honour in love have also changed. To show someone you love them, you buy them things; take them out to fancy places. And when they have agreed to be your lover, you focus your energies on finding a nook to neck in – coffee shops or clubs or water-fronts. Nobody bats an eye. And if you break up, you go to the same places with a new person, and still, nobody bats an eye. It is now kosher to be in love with A today, B, tomorrow, C yesterday.

Ten years ago, even in the metros, this wouldn’t have passed for romance. You wouldn’t have described a dalliance as ‘being in love’. Now, of course, we don’t talk of love if we can help it. We say we love a movie, a film star, a Parsi dish, an outfit. But we describe all romantic, quasi-romantic, or a barely sexual association as the prosaic fact of being ‘in a relationship’. Love is now a matter of a status update.

Besides, thanks to Facebook, one doesn’t need to confront the person you want to dump. No need for final goodbyes or having to witness tears. A male friend who doesn’t want to be named admits that he has broken up with somebody on the phone – “distance not being a factor, she trying to avoid me” – but it has never gotten to the point of simply changing one’s Facebook status from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘single’.

It is now possible to track one’s friends’ love lives on social networking sites. I have seen friends go from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ to ‘married’ and from ‘in a relationship with X’ to ‘in a relationship’ and finally, back to ‘single’, along with that awfully jagged tear in that tiny pink heart.

Perhaps, that is all it is – a public signboard on which you can now announce your happiness, and your heartbreaks. Love comes, and goes. And perhaps, we have finally learnt to deal with it without making too much of a fuss about it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

That sure is a lot of crores

This is a Rs 14,296-crore (Rs 142.96 billion) scam and the Gujarat government has no right to 'donate' public wealth to a private player in this dubious manner," Gohil said.

Elaborating on the issue he said that with a meager investment of Rs 381 crore (Rs 3.81 billion), the hitherto unknown Swan Energy will walk away with Rs 14,296 crore. "Starting from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to top officials of Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, energy department and chief minister's office are involved," Gohil claimed.


The full story here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Had been in a taxi recently and ended up feeling quite literally as if I'd been taken for a ride.

The taxi driver told me he'd agree on a fixed rate if I preferred but I insisted that he use the meter. I had not come southwards, to town, for weeks and remembered that the base rate had gone up from Rs 13, but wasn't sure what it was now. The taxi meter showed a base rate of Rs 16.50, and then went whizzing up and up from there on.

I, of course, had no way of being able to contest that the meter had been tampered with, so at the end of the journey, I took a deep breath and paid what he asked for. THEN, he asked for an extra Rs 60 for luggage. All I had one one black bag. The pre-paid taxi stalls at the railways usually charge Rs 5-10 per bag. So I argued. However, I had made the mistake of giving him a thousand rupee note already. The taxi driver just pocketed it, and refused to give me back the correct change.

I found myself seething. I threatened I would call the cops. He just stood there, smug, and said, 'Go ahead then'.

So I took down his taxi number. Then, it struck me that the taxi may not be his, and I would only get the real owner into trouble. So I asked to see his license. He either didn't have one or would not show me one. All he showed me was a traffic police document, a fine receipt, which had a name but no identifying photo. I took it down anyway.

I tried called 100 but the line was busy for a long time. So I let it go for the moment. But I went online the next day and I googled the Mumbai RTO and went to the website. Came up with a complaint form, filled it in the details of the incident.

Then I went into town again this weekend and realised that the base rate for taxis is only Rs 14, not 16.50. It made me madder still. I was considering dropping into the RTO office, even if it cost me more money to go there and back than I have lost through being cheated. But I just wanted something to be done to that lying, cheating bully of a cabbie.

But just last night, I received an acknowledgement of the online complaint from the traffic cops. I don't know what this means - whether it will translate into action or not, whether the right person will be punished in the right way, or not. But I have to confess I am feeling pleased. It feels good to just have been heard by someone who is in authority, who is in a position to do something about wrongdoing. And then, I began to think about how much conflict could be avoided if only the police could accomplish this minimum - to listen, and to acknowledge.

I know that resolving stuff takes time. I know the cops don't have that much time. There are accidents and traffic management and speeding vehicles and drunk drivers and godknowswhatelse to contend with. And I know not much can be done, considering it is the taxi driver's word against mine. But even if that driver just gets hauled up, gets told off, as long as he knows that he cannot get away with cheating people so easily, I will be satisfied.

But I have also been thinking about the things that are told to us about cops - inefficiency, complaints, corruption and so on.

How many of us even bother to complain about something? I very nearly didn't, because everyone else seems to be shrugging it off and saying 'kuch nahin hoga'. My brother was the only one who urged me to at least try calling the RTO. And I am so glad I did. Because it has been established, finally, that - Kuch karoge nahin to kaise hoga?

What can the traffic cops do to stop cheating by taxi drivers if we don't tell them? They cannot be expected to randomly start harassing someone on suspicion. Even if they do catch someone doing something wrong, the passenger has to file a formal complaint, if they are to do things the right way. Sure, some cops accept bribes from people who violate traffic rules as well as those against whom some complaint has been filed. But it is not like nobody is trying to do anything about it.

I have been getting text messages from the Anti-Corruption Bureau, saying that if a Central government employee asks for a bribe, call on so and so number. How many of us make those calls? How many of us are even willing to call 100 or go online and get some information about which might be the right department to go to if you want to file a complaint?

The problem, of course, is that we are all people in a hurry and would prefer that the cops just slap around the guy who's been bothering us, rather than us taking the trouble to sit down and compose our thoughts and sign an official document. Essentially, we want the cops to act as bullies on our behalf. And once they start doing that, there's no end to it. Whether it is beating up a man who is harassing a woman, or forcing poor people out of their homes to make way for a new big-bucks project, or encounter deaths. It is mostly an extension and escalation of the same principle. It essentially stems from our unwillingness to do our own share of work to keep society clean.

The trouble begins, for us, when we find that we aren't the only ones with such expectations of the policing process. Other communities, other demographics, other wants. There is an eternal conflict of interests in society and the cops are supposed to be on everyone's side. It is not an easy place to be and I wish we'd remember to remember that more often.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Mandir banega?

'The only chance I see of a temple being built here (Ayodhya) is when Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister.” I was perplexed by his expectations of the young Gandhi. “Think about it.” he said solemnly, “The locks were opened when the Congress was in power; the idols were installed when the Congress was in power; the Babri Masjid was demolished when the Congress was in power. Maybe we will have the temple when the Congress is in power.'

Rahul Gandhi, are you listening? Are you worried? Are you amused?

Separetely, the above comment is from a piece on Indian Muslims, post Ayodhya, and it appeared in Caravan magazine recently. While the piece is interesting, I can't help feeling just a little frustrated by the maleness of it. Women are almost completely absent from the picture.

This is something I come up against time and again. Muslim women are almost the most visible image whenever someone chooses to write about Islam and the contemporary political problems surrounding it. Photos of faces with just the eyes showing. Or photos of smiling little girls trying to study. Or ordinary young women walking past in burqas. A lot of the issues that dominate this big question - the question of Muslims, often a minority, in present-day democracies - are also about women. The veil. Family laws. Education and political leadership. Mobility and independence.

But when it comes to the actual political-racial debate in the media, nobody seems to be talking to women. Is this because Muslim women simply do not exist as community leaders? Can they only hope to be Muslim women leaders, no more? And if this indeed is the case, isn't it time someone brought that fact into the conversation?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Those who belong

Odd term, this. Indigenous. It means native. Natural. Innate. Those who belong to a place.

And in this world of ours, those who belong, those who have the most right over land and resources, if indeed any of us have more of a right over a given territory than any other person - these people are the ones who seem to be getting the worst deal.

According to a UN report:

In Australia, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his non-native compatriot. The life expectancy gap is also 20 years in Nepal, while in Guatemala it is 13 years and in New Zealand it is 11... While indigenous peoples make up around 370 million of the world’s population – some 5 per cent – they constitute around one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people. Every day, indigenous communities all over the world face issues of violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, abuses by military forces and a host of other abuses.
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