Monday, March 9, 2015

The great Indian disease

It was international women's day yesterday. It is and should be a celebration of everything we are. So cheers to us! It's nice to have a day dedicated to us (just as it's nice to have a day dedicated to fathers and mothers and children...and so many more). This time, per my promise to myself, I want to write about something I feel strongly about. It is my story. But I am sure it's not just mine alone.

The Jyoti Singh rape incident in Delhi (a.k.a. "Nirbhaya" or fearless, or India's daughter) was not the first rape in India or in the world. But the news of it had done something to me even before it spread like wildfire and created a storm like never before. The morning after, when I woke up and read about it in the paper, I gagged at the horror of it. The feelings of rage and anguish rose within me like bile, that I had to will myself to control it and go to work and continue leading "just another day". Throughout the day at office, my mind kept going to that morning newspaper. By the lunch hour, the news was already picking up like wildfire across the online world, and the topic came up amongst the five of us having our lunch together.

We were two women and three men. The discussion went from a quick recount of the incident to what needs to be done to the rapists (who hadn't yet been caught then) and to ensure this does not happen again. My other woman colleague was fairly quiet during that time partly because I think she hadn't read the morning paper that day. So it was mostly me and the three men talking. At one stage of the discussion, we talked about what kind of punishment needs to meted out, not just to bring justice to the victim and her family, but also as a means to dissuade and prevent crimes and atrocities on women.

Then one of my colleagues, someone who I had worked with for several years and have respected for his fairly balanced views on most things, said something that stunned me. He asked, quite in genuine curiosity, why rape should deserve a punishment any different from other crimes such as robbery or even tax evasion. What is wrong is wrong, he said. I tried to explain why it's not like robbery or tax evasion. Why it was not even equal to murder, but worse than that. I explained how in case of a murder, unless the murderer is a complete psycho, there is a motive - either in offense or defense - to take the life of someone else. However in a rape, or a sexual assault, I questioned, what is the motive. It is driven not by a sexual need or a surge of passion. But it is driven by a need to exercise power. And the victim is often a woman that the assaulters think they can exercise power over. And they do it in any way that they can do it. And they do it any time that a chance presents itself. All of these were points of view I was trying to put across, but I realized I was not getting through. I tried to explain how women feel like they are easy targets, what the feeling of being "commoditized" for the body does to us.

At one stage, one of my colleagues asked if I thought all men were like that. I tried to explain that was not so. I wanted to explain that for all the hundreds of wonderful caring sensitive men we came across, coming across even one man who disrespects a woman, just because she is a woman makes for a terrible terrible experience. However, he was too agitated to hear any more. We all broke from that lunch break, returning to our desks, quite shaken (I definitely was). A little later, another male colleague sitting right next to me started reading out something that came up on his WhatsApp. Midway through I realized it was a joke about the rape. My eyes stung.

I felt helpless. Because I knew all these men were wonderful thinking, feeling people. But I couldn't help wondering about their reaction. Do they really know what it is to walk in women's shoes? How many of the men have had the women in their lives tell them when they have been physically assaulted? If the men knew, would they get any close to the sense of why I felt the despair and rage that I did? That I still do.

Being an Indian is truly wonderful. We are so unique and varied in so many ways. And living in India as a girl and woman is amazing. It means a massive lot of positive things. We are a democracy and a free country and that itself makes it possible to achieve the things we do in our country. I grew up in Mumbai and was brought up in a liberal minded family and had gender equality ingrained in me right from my childhood by my parents. I studied, played, commuted, travelled, worked shoulder to shoulder with both genders. But somewhere along the journey, I realized there is a difference and I wondered why being a girl felt awkward, felt quite sick sometimes. That realization started early on when as a little fifth grade girl going to school by BEST bus an old man would everyday rub his dhoti-clad balls against me. Wherever I would be sitting or standing in the bus, he would find me. I was naive enough to think he wanted to pee so badly that he was trying to control it by holding it against my body! As I didn't quite know what happened then, I didn't tell anyone. After a few days, I just stopped taking that bus.

Age makes us wiser, and tougher. So subsequent bus journeys across the city of Mumbai meant dodging various tactics for bottom-pinching, breast-grabbing by the palm, a "subtle" breast touching by the elbow (this is a favourite) or claws of men. I could see that whatever possible, whenever possible, however possible, men want a piece of it...anything for a feel of a woman's flesh. You can randomly ask any Indian woman / girl who has travelled and commuted using public transport. Every one of them would have faced it.

A little older and as I started traveling by local train in the eleventh grade, a man jumped into the train compartment I was sitting in at VT station one afternoon and pulled out his stuff and start shagging right there in front of me. I was alone in that compartment and almost shat bricks myself. But when I started moving toward him yelling loudly at him, he scampered outside desperately trying to tuck his treasures inside his trouser. Another time of getting bottom-pinched hard at another peak-crowd train terminus staircase had me slap the cheek off the guy who did it. Even as city-bred girls in Mumbai, we were learning to fend for ourselves in ways that we could.

But if I grew more alert all along, there were times later when during long distance bus journeys from Mumbai to Pune and back, when somebody from the back seat would try to finger his way between the seats to feel some flesh. So again, screaming and yelling on the bus journey to just tell a man to keep his hands to himself. This may sound familiar to those who watched that girl passenger in that Indian flight who recently video shamed the man who was groping her from behind her seat. If we had mobile cameras then, we'd do that too.

This is not to say traveling by public transport is the only bane. Each of us has a personal story of atleast one creepy uncle (or some male family member) who has spent a better part of his lifetime devising techniques to feel up or to rub against girls and women of the family.

Some women put up a fight. Many just bear it and go about their daily lives. But the key question for all of to ask is - If we are such a great nation, why is this so rampant? At times like this, I have often wished we would stop with the whole sham in our country of calling women as goddesses. Women don't want to be a goddess. We just want to treated as a human being. Where our body is not made for the visual and tactile pleasure of sick men. Where we are able to go about an otherwise simple uneventful task of commuting from point A to point B instead of it being ridden with so many hazards to the female body and to the female psyche.

In wake of the recent controversy related to the Jyoti Singh documentary, a lot of questions and debates arose. Without getting pulled into the controversy, I strongly believe that we need more sharing of this disease - of attitude, of mindset - that we have. It is endemic to our society. If those of us who grew up in cities face the sickness, we always think of what it is like in other remoter areas of the country. We have achieved one thing in India - We have this disease that is truly free of age. Or of religion. Or of geographical location. Or of caste. Or of socio-economic status. I didn't get gang-raped in that bus. Or stripped and raped and hanged to the tree. Or assaulted and burnt alive. But I feel the same pain that each woman goes through.

We don't just need more documentaries out there. I also believe each of us - men and women - need to ask the women and girls in our lives. What is it they have faced - what does disrespect mean to them.

And I also believe we need to make sure that as we hear of more horrors and sicknesses, we don't closet the girls and women in our lives to lead more "protected" lives. Because by insulating them from these sicknesses, we are actually feeding the virus. As that virus will then realize that it is winning. That it is conquering through fear, what it always wants us to do. To keep women indoor and unseen. When that defense lawyer in the documentary talks about a woman as a "flower" and how that same flower can be used for worship or can land in the gutter - we need to be aware that by keeping all the women and girls at home, we are feeding into this sick mindset.

We are not the only country where this happens. But we need to do what we can to rid our country of this disease.


  1. As you rightly pointed out at the beginning of this writeup, the episodes that you've experienced is probably not uncommon (unfortunately!!!). Each incident you narrated brought back harrowing memories that I experienced in conventional Tamil Nadu and Secunderabad. It is atrocious.
    While the lessons I've learnt along the way are perhaps helping me raise my daughter's awareness around herself; I do question why does any child need to be taught to protect her integrity! Shouldn't every child simply revel in blissful innocence! Aren't we - the society - here to shepherd our younger flock for our own societal well being?
    I agree we as a human race are plagued with a virus; we are sitting on the edge of the tree-limb and hacking it.
    It is rather evident that even capital punishment does not change the mindset in these creatures (yes, creatures because they 'appear' to be living beings and nothing more). Unfortunately, we will still be reliant on a very slow propagating education system and hope in a few generations time there is some possibility to see the proportions of human beings to creatures changes for the good.

    1. You're right Sathya. The very dangers we grew to deal with, fight with, are the ones we are trying to make our children aware of. But in an otherwise civil life, these dangers shouldn't even have a place. We all need to play our role in eradicating that virus. Afterall, we are the antibodies that can fight that virus