Arise Goddess Kali

I was going to write an end-of-the-year rant about my pet peeves within my smug little existence, trying to detach myself from the rape-protest drama in Delhi. Horrible, brutal crime, I told myself but I now live in New Zealand so should not be worried with what happens back home. I am safe here, I can wear what I like, do what I want, go out at any time of the night. I live alone, am independent, no one judges me. Sweet as. I was wrong. So, so wrong. This innocent young girl’s death has made me angry. Mad, stomping angry.

The last time I went to India, in 2010, men stared at my breasts as I walked the streets. Fully clothed in my khadi salwar-kurtas, not making eye contact with any unknown males, I used to go about  my work with men still coming up right in front of me, their eyes on my breasts. Then there was the time when a male bus passenger rubbed his penis against my shoulder as I sat in a crowded bus. He went on even as I slouched further into my seat contemplating whether to yell at him and make some noise or just let it go. That was my default setting. Like so many Indian women who grow up in India. Make yourself as inconspicuous as possible and even if you have to protest, think about it first because everyone, even other women, will turn around and tell you it is your fault. I mustered all my courage to yell at him and while he backed off slightly he yelled at me to ask what he had done. The implication being that I was just a mad woman to shout at him to stand straight and not lean against me; it is a crowded bus. How could I have asked him to keep his penis to himself and not on my shoulder? Is there a Hindi or Marathi word that a decent woman can use in public to describe the organ? If I’d spoken in English then I would have immediately been ‘modern’, further implying deterioration of my morality. Now I am in New Zealand. No catcalls from Indian men gathered at the end of each street, no one rubbing against me, groping me or staring at my breasts. In reset mode. Procrastinating any reaction to a young, innocent girl brutally raped, keeping it out my mindspace. Then she died. A life full of hope snuffed out. So I got mad, stomping angry. Mostly at myself. Somewhere in the comfort of reset mode compassion and empathy for my sisters was deleted. Besides, my intellectual snobbery stopped me from engaging in any discourse against the death sentence and stoning that the many Indians were calling out for. But now I want to plunge into it.

So I’ll start by arguing against the death sentence and stoning that so many Indians are demanding for the rapists. Stop; think. Did these six men just drop from the sky or are they a part of the Indian society? Where did they get their attitude towards women and violence? Or the idea that they could get away with such a brutal crime; that the police might not do anything? Indian governments of all ideologies have sanctioned rape in the name of suppressing rebellion and uprisings. When did middle class India last check the human rights record of the Indian Army against Kashmiri and North-Eastern women? Or the police raping tribal women in the Red Corridor? Or was it okay to use rape as a weapon for the safety of the rest of the Indians? The Culture Of Impunity and disrespect for women is not an aberration but ‘normal’ behaviour. So who deserves the death sentence? Indian soldiers? Indian police? Fathers that rape their daughters? Husbands that rape their wives? Brothers that rape their sisters? Politicians? Or we the people? For turning a blind eye?

Now let’s look at the prominent women who reacted to the rape.

Stoic Sonia-ji remained silent as per usual. Only to come make an appearance on television reading from the teleprompter.  Fake much?

Then there was Sushma-ji. The keeper of the virtue of us Hindu women said if the girl survives then she will be like the living dead. Not, (read subtext if you can through her boring lecture) because she had lost her intestines but because she was raped and would have no honour left.  Sushma-ji may I remind you that once upon a time you wanted all advertisements for sanitary napkins removed from television because they were a bad influence on us innocent Indian women. Perhaps we should have stayed at home five days a month and continued using old sarees to soak up our menstrual discharge? This way we would have been safer ya?

And finally Jaya-ji. The distress is genuine but to believe that because we worship so many goddesses Indian men actually respect women in real life?  Oh Jaya-ji, you are so naive. Only in our Bollywood films and only after we’ve had an item number in skimpy clothes and the man has tamed her and ‘saved her’ will the heroine find redemption in treating him like god. Only then will he respect her in return.

Overall the larger issue of the treatment of women remained unaddressed. What is it that makes Indian society treat Indian women shabbily? Here is one explanation. This is the story not just of one child who died after rape but many more who die before they are born, many who suffer because of insufficient dowry, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and abuse from institutions that are meant to protect them. Women like us and those not like us. This is the story of everyone’s attitude towards women as victims of sexual assault. Lawyer Flavia Agnes tells among other tales how the doctors examining a rape victim in Bangalore were more interested in the elasticity of her vagina than finding forensic evidence.

As India moves towards more economic liberalisation, with good or bad effect, society is bound to change and with that the Indian democracy. Which means we have to let go of the old absolutes of culture, tradition and religion that kept us rigid and inflexible; not reject them but adapt them.

For that to happen there has to be a revolution with a new leader. Not Narendra Modi, not Rahul Gandhi, not Anna Hazare, not Arvind Kejriwal and not Kiran Bedi. Not any of the right or left wing politicians but the people. The people will throw up their new leader. Before that will arise Kali, once again from the people, the power of the people, especially of the women. Because it is the women who will destroy the men who worship her then rape her before giving birth to him and nurturing him again.

Beauty, politics and ‘our Indian culture’.

On Sunday evening I attended the Miss Indianz beauty pageant. Of course I went for the cheap thrills and because I had a free ticket. I am totally against beauty contests. They degrade and objectify women firmly placing them within the patriarchy. Did anyone see the sketch of an Indian man going into spasms when he sees a scantily clad gori rolling out chappatis on A Thousand Apologies? That is the ultimate Indian male fantasy. That is what beauty contests do. This is not to disparage the young participants. Mostly sixteen and seventeen, the ‘follow-your-dreams’ drill indoctrinated into them, they were obedient Indian girls probably unaware of feminism or the post-feminist world or that the right to vote was hard won. I seriously doubt if they know who Arundhati Roy/Vanadana Shiva/Medha Patkar are. They were merely showcasing Indian culture!

And wherever there is showcasing ethnic culture the politicians turn up. To smugly revel in the multicultural nature of our Aotearoa New Zealand. So Phil Goff, Chris Carter and Rajen Prasad were there. I’d seen Chris Carter the previous evening at the Ethiopian New Year celebrations. Him, Ashraf Choudhary, Farida Sultan and Helen Clark, lots of grateful refugees even more beholden in the presence of the MPs  and funky young Africans who want to represent themselves. Multiple identities and all. tyipcally Chris Carter mentioned, the pan-African-New Zealander website as if it would not have happened if these people had not been supported. Nuredin, one of the founders and very articulate, emphatically told me they did not want government funding or bureaucrats appropriating them. They wanted to do this themselves, as they deemed fit. Imagine another showcasing of culture in the hands of government officials!

Not that Miss Indianz is there yet. But Rajen Prasad promised more ‘celebrations of Indian culture’ when he got into parliament. That is before he removed his jacket and walked the ramp.

Utterly, utterly vacuous.

Someone tell him Obama he ain’t. And, if as he says, he is a novice at politics, then he should maybe get Sarah Palin’s speechwriters or John Key’s spin doctors to do his spiel. Or it does not matter because the copy-paste ethnic Indian media is beholden to him anyway?

The phrase ‘Indian culture’ was thrown about so much at this event it was like vomitus after excess indulgence. I know, terrible analogy but the words have lost there meaning. What does Indian culture mean? Whose Indian culture? What version? Should not there be a discourse to argue about and qualify this phrase? Different meanings for different people ya? And all legitimate ya? Yet this singing-dancing exotica that ghettoises the ‘ethnics’.

At least that is what was showcased at the pageant. Out of the seven finalists in the talent round, one did her version of Stupid Cupid and another spunked out in a coconut bra. The rest all did Bollywood dances! Even the girl who came out dressed in a nine-yard saree. Ah, I told my colleague, she is going to do the lavni, Maharashtra’s folk dance. Instead she just did a Bollywood version of the lavni. As if there is a dearth of lavni songs-even from Marathi films. (Seriously I wanted to shout Jai Maharashtra!) Then an entertainment item had very young girls opening their legs wide open and shake the pelvis. Our great Indian culture! Such dance steps so normalised now that perhaps neither the parents nor teacher thinks it is sexual? Or I have a dirty mind? 😀

I guess we are floundering in the whirlpool of mediocrity letting others, especially politicians and bureaucrats, decide what our culture is. Popular culture is one thing and fine in its place. What about other aspects? How and where do we create spaces to integrate into the mainstream and develop ideas coming out of that? Or do we remain the performing monkeys that come out once a year for Diwali/Lantern Festival and go back to the ghetto after that?

The Nats have no clue about the multicultural demographics in this country and putting Asians on the list does not mean anything. On the other hand Labour is stagnating and talks only to those community leaders that are subservient (or invite them for dinner or whatever). And all men too!

So how does one assert the need for creative spaces and cultural interaction? Move out of the ghetto mentally. Take charge. Ask questions. Have a dialogue. Democracy does not mean just voting. And being a minority does not mean just feeling perpetually grateful. We are more than ‘our Indian culture’ (as defined by others). Be brave. That’s all I can say.

And to end this classic lavni from the Marathi film Amar Bhupali. 🙂