Friday, October 26, 2018

Repairing what's broken

Respect is hard. I don't just mean that it is hard to win the respect of others, or to hold onto your self respect. It is also hard to lose respect for people you've held in high esteem.

To see the names of men you looked upto, whose face, voice, writing were familiar, and then to hear stories of sexual harassment. Trousers dropped, unwanted touching, hints to female colleagues that they owed sexual favours. At such time, your instinct might be either to recoil or to disbelieve. To say that you never want anything to do with these men, or to treat women with suspicion: What (or who) is driving these MeToo stories?

I think it is time to reverse the question: What's driving men to denial? Why do they respond with defamation lawsuits instead of apologies?

The answer is loss of respect. Men may lose jobs in a few cases. But even if they continue their work, once named as sexual harassers, they may not command unstinting respect. The silence of women is a curtain that shields men from shame and mistrust. The accused men could pretend that they treated all women with respect, until some women dropped the curtain.

A society where women are not safe at work, on the street, at home, is not a healthy one. It needs healing. So, the question is: how are we going to heal ourselves?

First and foremost, we must stop investing in silence. Silence protects wrongdoers, be they corrupt politicians or sexual harassers. It allows them to go on doing what they do, emboldens them to do worse. Silence makes victims feel isolated. Silence ensures that justice is never done. It disables freedom and hobbles democracy.

I've learnt several things through watching the MeToo movement unfold. I saw that women who work in media, both news and entertainment, are among the first to speak up because they know how and where to tell stories. They belong to solidarity networks and associations. Some of these associations are female-only, which helps if the broader professional association refuses to act on their complaints.

81 percent of India works in the informal sector. Most women can't even prove that they were ever employed, much less that they were harassed or assaulted by a particular supervisor. Women who work in garment factories have told reporters that they are not safe; there are no committees even when there is a regular workplace. Construction workers, agricultural workers, mine and quarry workers would have said MeToo if they could. So, the second urgent step is to set up formal associations for each sector and ensure that the leadership is 50 percent women.

I've also learnt that people can be predatory whilst being fine writers or ethical journalists or fine musicians. When we re-evaluate our opinion of a man, we can collectively pressure him into fixing his behaviour, making amends. We don't have to pretend that his work is rubbish in order to do this.

But how to we get men to behave? Well, for starters, we could handle them a bit like we've handled girls for centuries. By frowning on their attempts to cross the lines of propriety, by pulling them aside and whispering that everyone is watching. By saying that if they go on like this, nobody will ever want to hire them or even marry them. By calling upon them to preserve their own self respect, because if they don't, others can't treat them with respect either.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Grave matters

The paths of glory, a poet has said, lead but to the grave. What the poet may not have imagined is the path that leads to the actual graves of famous writers. Certainly, Thomas Gray would have had some experience of inglorious pathways. Nineteenth century England was no stranger to rubbish dumps and the poet would certainly have corresponded with the occasional turd, an open sewer, or a bit of bone sitting quietly in narrow alleys. One must go down one such a lane to reach the grave of Meer Anees, one of the most celebrated Urdu poets.

This part of Lucknow is not unlike the ailing heart of India's grand old cities. The streets are narrow, the houses crumbling, and infrastructure is rather hit and miss. To visit Meer Anees, you'd make your way to Chowk, and then to a small, elegant mosque called Tahseen wali masjid. You'll find a book shop at street level (and dark whispers of a campaign to force the owners out of business through the persistent dumping of rubbish above) and then a lane as narrow as the waist of a beloved, though less perfumed. You'd do well to send word to the descendants of the poet before you found the grave.

Anees was buried on private land and though a considerable tomb has been built, it is encircled by a metal fence and the door leading to it is locked. Apparently, “anti-social” elements had begun to frequent the place, so locking up was the simplest way to keep them out.

What made me really sorry, though, was that there wasn't a signboard in sight to point tourists and lovers of literature in the right direction.

On my first visit to London, I had very little money and not much time to look around. However, I was determined to take in a visit to Charles Dickens' house. The writer had shaped more than just my literary tastes; he also gave me a moral view of the world and, in that sense, his work finds a home in me. Even so, I wanted to see one of the houses he lived in. It was listed on the tourist map and there were at least three street signs pointing the way. But more than three were not permitted by the city and, to my dismay, I realised that a fourth sign was desperately needed.

After wandering in circles for an hour, I nearly gave up. No passersby helped; many seemed not to know who Charles Dickens was! Eventually, I stopped to buy water at a department store where a schoolboy came to my rescue.

In India, we tend not to preserve writers' homes as living monuments. The houses are inherited by families who can't always afford to preserve them. Even so, it would be useful if the state put up a few signs that informed and encouraged visitors who came looking for the city's cultural heritage.

At any rate, a culture that celebrates poetry is neither built in stone nor buried in stone. It is found half lying in a bright yellow kurts, smoking a cigarette with the mosque to his left, garbage dump to his right, and couplet by Anees on his ready lips.

I have now forgotten the verse he sent up into the overcast afternoon. But another will serve just as well: 
Ahtiyat-e-jism kya, anjaam ko socho Anees
Khaak hone ko ye musht-e-ustukhwan paida hue

Worry less about this body, Anees, think of what comes after,
This bag of bones was meant to be ground into dust.

First published here:

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The in-law as threat

Growing up, I never heard anything about who belonged in the kitchen. My mother didn't stay any longer in the kitchen as was necessary. She put food on the table though. And books in the library. When she visited home a couple of times a year, she remembered to take small gifts of cash for her own mother.

My grandmother was in the kitchen a lot. She never went to school but even from her, I never heard anything about women and kitchens. She was hoping I'd become a doctor or a bureaucrat. Future in-laws were never mentioned. In all my years of schooling and college, none of my teachers – male or female – ever hinted that girls belonged in the kitchen.

Still, now is a good time to think about kitchens and women's place. At this fine moment in our nation's history, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat and current Governor of Madhya Pradesh has been telling female students that they must cook tasty daal to appease their mothers-in-law. In fact, they may as well start right away by helping out in the hostel's mess kitchen. While she was at it, she also advised girls not to cut their hair short, else the in-laws wouldn't let them into the house.

These threats about in-laws' acceptance are real to a young girl. She knows she is not welcome, beyond a point, in her parents' home. She may be needed by a husband – for sex, for labour, for the care of the elderly – but the home is not one she owns. It is place she occupies cautiously, taking nothing for granted. One wrong move and she will be accused of breaking up a family. One wrong haircut and she might be turned out. Anandiben Patel's reminder to girls of their tenuous position in the world is not the last thrashing of a dying philosophy. It is the ogre of patriarchy crushing the few heads that are starting to hold themselves higher. Instead of reminding young girls of the hard battles fought over the last two centuries by our foremothers – for the right to own and inherit property, to not be the legal property of fathers and husbands, to be educated, to earn and enter professions formerly barred to them – Ms Patel seems to be saying: There's no climbing out of the abyss of the past. In the kitchen, without a wage, is your destiny.

I'm not sure what Anandiben makes of the government's official campaign to “save” daughters (that is, not kill them before they are born nor immediately after) and to educate them. Perhaps it is with her blessings that the Barkatullah University, one of the bigger ones in the state of Madhya Pradesh, announced a three month 'Adarsh bahu' (ideal daughter-in-law) course, allegedly to “prevent families from falling apart”.

Such courses are polite reminders of a woman's “place”. This place is nowhere secure or familiar. Nowhere she's mistress of her destiny. Instead, she must first imagine a future in which her life is organised around husband and in-laws. Then the university offers her training so she may bend to a politics intent on stealing her freedom and the fruits of her labour. A 'bahu' is many things but above all, she is a worker in a job that she cannot easily quit. The most common advice given to a bride is to work hard and pose no challenge to members of her marital home. An ideal daughter-in-law fits in like sugar in a cup of milk.

There is no such thing as an ideal damaad (son-in-law), of course. No university teaches sons to adapt to in-laws; they don't have to live with them or meet the expectations of strangers. They visit like honoured guests. The men who do live with their wives' parents are often derided, either because they are not earning enough to move into an independent home or because they must do what women do: adjust, fit in, not call the shots.

In every family, there is potential for friction, for stress and emotional harm. But who carries the greater burden of trying to avoid friction by ridding onself of one's own personality and constantly pleasing others? Indian women, especially married women, commit suicide in great numbers. Over 36 percent of the world's female suicides are Indian.

That's worth thinking about as our leaders ask young women to please in-laws and future husbands, what are they asking? Older women, especially who have themselves drunk deep at the fount of power, ought to have the grace not to tell younger women to toe the line. Instead, they ought to be telling them to chase dreams, to grow into the fullest possible version of themselves, to not shy away from conflict, to not bend backwards for anyone, lest they break.

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