The Woman Who Sold Us to Australia

“Virat Kohli has shown time and again that he is capable of great cricket. But a man’s skills can hold only for so long against the malicious influence of an unlucky woman. Think about it: every poor performance of his has happened in the presence of Anushka Sharma. Coincidence? I THINK NOTTE!

Team India should give Kohli an ultimatum: either break up with this woman, or we will kill her. NH10 style. Anyway, I don’t think their castes match.”

– The Stupid in India

City Chicks in Sarees

It happens a lot less than people would have you believe. Once, young women moved from their babyhood swaddle straight into sarees, worn around the knee with the aanchol or pally wrapped tightly around the waist. Then there came the intervening modernity of dresses, but most Bengali girls still graduated to the saree fairly young, and once there, didn’t switch loyalties for the rest of their lives.

Now, I’m surprised if I see one person below forty in Bombay’s streets wearing a saree. The times, they have a’changed. To be fair, though, there’s a class element to the city-saree. Most of the cleaning ladies in my neighbourhood wear sarees. Their employers seldom do. Is it because sartorial modernity is considered the premise of the better off? Would employers raise their eyebrows if their maids suddenly turned up in something as innocuous – and eminently Indian – as the salwaar-kameez, much less something a little more ‘western’? I haven’t had the chance to find out. However, I have noticed that one can get sarees for much less than a salwaar-kameez set, and certainly a pair of trousers and a shirt. So perhaps the cleaving to the traditional, though enforced by one’s cultural capital and form of labour, is also perhaps propped up by one’s financial capability.

This sudden nattering about sarees has been brought on by the #100sareepact. Did anyone else know about it? Now, I don’t even own a hundred sarees, and given that I mostly work from home lately, I doubt I’ll wear the ones I do have. But this sounds like a fun project, and so I think I’ll participate by adding old pictures of myself in sarees. Because memes are for modifying, right?

weddingmorningsaree

This is today’s picture. It’s my wedding morning, and I’m wearing an inexpensive red-bordered golden-yellow saree bought specifically for the messy wedding-morning rituals. This saree was a yard too short for my generous frame, so first we tried to make do by wrapping it a la Mumtaz, with a tiny pallu. That didn’t work. So then we unwrapped the whole thing, and began the first wrap from the back, instead of the front. This time, it was draped to all the adult women’s satisfaction. There’s a lesson in this process, and it is this: flaws hidden are flaws acceptable, as long as the show goes visibly on.

As people familiar with Bengali/Indian weddings will know, there are two throne-like chair at every wedding venue, one for the bride and one for the groom. They are usually overstuffed and damned uncomfortable. However, since I was doomed to spend the rest of day demurely adorning this chair, I spent the morning making damn sure the chair knew who was boss.

Victimising the Good Men

There has been a lot of noise in India lately about the banning of BBC’s India’s Daughter, forcing the house to release it virtually on YouTube (which promptly blocked its viewing, at least in India). NDTV, a channel that was originally supposed to air the show in India, registered its protest of the ban by keeping a still image of the documentary’s title on its screen for the entire duration of its run-time, while messages condemning the ban flowed steadily in the footer.

Naturally, there’s another side to this. Certain self-identified feminists have supported the ban, claiming the documentary would only serve to encourage more violent crimes. Others have claimed that the documentary tarnishes the image of all Indian men, reducing them to the (colonial) stereotype of the brutish pervert. There was even a poorly-doctored series of emails on Quora yesterday, ‘confirming’ that such stereotyping is now a global phenomenon, encouraging sexist and racist discrimination against bright young Indian males, innocent of any crime. [UPDATE: further developments in that matter here.]

This morning, I saw a more personalised take on the matter on Facebook. Here it is:
Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.24.32 pm

It breaks my heart to disagree, but disagree I must.

My school was a little more than an hour’s commute by bus from my home. I began to be regularly groped when I was in Class 4/5. And by ‘regularly’ I mean every time I was on the bus. This continued till highschool, by which time I had become an expert in stealth war, standing on a molester’s foot and then lifting the other leg off the bus floor so all 50 kilos of me was crushing his toes. I was also groped by uncles, friends of the family and my own ‘enlightened’ friends – although naturally not all of them.

It incenses me that someone might want to stop the exposé of our culture’s pervasive sexual repression, perversion and gendered entitlement – that has plagued me and my friends/classmates from when we were too young to understand what it was that was pressing against us in a crowded bus – because of the off chance that it might make the wonderful men in their lives look bad. I mean, I have a father who did a lot of the ‘maternal’ raising of me when I was a baby because my mother had to be at work by 7AM. My husband surpasses every single goddamned expectation a woman can have of a man who loves her. And I still will not yield to protecting the reputation of the Indian patriarchy.

One, because men who step out of their traditional gender privilege – not as a special favour, but as a way of life – are no longer part of the problem.

And two, because Indian patriarchy is so far from deserving such protection, that the horizon isn’t distant enough.

Little Red’s New Coat, Road Dahl

I was speaking to my mum on the phone today, when my dad came on the line specifically to tell me that he read my post reproducing James Thurber’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and that he enjoyed it very much. My mother added from the background that it was delightful.

It’s a bit unsettling at first to know one’s parents reads one’s blog, but I’m quite kicked, really, to play parent, and introduce them to new things, the way they introduced them to me once. So here is an excerpt from another re-telling of the Little Red fairytale, this time by Roald Dahl. It’s a favourite of mine, despite raising contemporary concerns of gun-violence, the fur trade, and encouragement of cruelty to animals.

The action below begins after the wolf has eaten Red’s grandmother, and is preparing to eat Red once she arrives.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
Roald Dahl

Wolfie dressing up in Granny's clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Wolfie dressing up in Granny’s clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
He quickly put on Grandma’s clothes,
(Of course he hadn’t eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma’s chair.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said.
“…But Grandma
what a lovely great big furry coat you have on.”
“That’s wrong!” cried Wolf. “Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.”

"Bang bang, she shoots him dead." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“Bang bang, she shoots him dead.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

"My lovely furry wolfskin coat." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“My lovely furry wolfskin coat.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

Little Girl and the Wolf, James Thurber

little-red-with-gun

NOTE: On the one hand, a tale of cynical ’empowerment’. On the other, a possible advocacy for NSA’s ‘good guys with guns’ fallacy (or in this case, ‘smart kids with guns’ fallacy, recipe for an even greater tragedy). Either way, this is James Thurber’s all-American two-paragraph version of Little Red Riding Hood.

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(MORAL: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

A Quick History of Prostitution in Bengal

From “Introducing Phulmoni and Her Sisters”, Dangerous Outcast, the Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal,Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, Calcutta: 2000.

In his 4th century B.C. treatise on governance, the Arthashastra, Kautilya laid down rules and guidelines for the interaction between prostitutes, customers, and the state. Prostitutes were recommended to deal with customers is specific ways, and punitive measures were defined for defaulting or aggressive customers. Prostitutes paid taxes (worth two days’ earnings) like other skilled professionals. Their work was not a crime, nor a sin. Indeed, in Chandragupta Maurya’s time, their skill at making people relax and converse was recognised and used by the spy/intelligence system.

Centuries down,in the 1200s, we find anonymous Bengali poets extolling the beauty and grace of ‘the courtesans of Bengal’, concluding rhetorically, “who would not be bereft of his mind, to behold [such beauties] as the Bengali baranganas?”

NOTE: Some Hindu lawmakers, such as Manu, decreed that prostitutes belonged with thieves and blackmailers, and any Brahmin consorting with such criminals should be punished. However, as A. L. Basham points out, in medieval India at least, this stricture remained largely theoretical because brahmans – guardians and promulgators of Manu’s sacred laws – had their identity and very real economic existence tied to various temples, and temples had hundreds of prostitutes on their staff.

From rhyming record-keeping traditions, we find that prostitutes continued to be major partners in social and cultural festivities and royal expeditions in Bengal in the 17th century, as evident from the following description of the entourage accompanying a prince embarking on a journey:

Alim, pandit aar jyotish, ganak
Nana jantra, raj-beshya, gahon, nartak

(‘Learned Muslims, Hindu pandits, astrologers, astronomers; various musical instruments, royal courtesans, singers and dancers’. Please note that ‘dancer’ here is a male person.)

Such laudatory reference to prostitutes and eulogistic descriptions about their life style – which continued in Bengali literature from the medieval period till the early 18th century – indicate a continuity of certain societal values as well as of state patronage which allowed the prostitutes to enjoy a [relatively] privileged space in society. Their task as the cultivator of the arts, especially, provided them with avenues for participating in the wider society through cultural and religious events. For example, Vaishnavis, depsite their non-normative sexual behaviour, were welcomed to religious gatherings at caste Hindu houses, especially rich ones that could afford their musical/spiritual services.

In the prevailing anarchy of the early years of 18th century Bengal [the British were making inroads, the Portugese and French were establishing control at port-towns, local administration was in turmoil, attacking each other], faint silhouettes of the courtesan of yore were to be found among the free women living on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society – the singers and dancers from the lower castes; the Hindu widows who joined Vaishnavaite ‘akhras’ or clubs and were free to choose their male partners; and the so-called fallen women (those deserted by their husbands, or seduced by lovers to be abandoned later) forced to eke out a living after having been discarded by their families. NOTE: Not all of them could be strictly called professional prostitutes, since they made their living by being flower-sellers, milk-maids, barbers and so on, but their economic freedom gave them greater social flexibility than the average ‘mainstream’ woman in contemporary society.

Around mid-18th century, the depradations of the Marhatta raiders (known as bargis), created widespread anarchy in the countryside with the abduction and raping of women. In accordance with the conservative norms of Hindu society, families seldom took back these unfortunate victims, since they were considered ‘polluted’.
Then the disastrous famine of 1770 hit. It wiped out a third of the population of Bengal and forced the survivors to sell their children to survive. One could see boats filled with children coming down the river for open sale at Calcutta, stolen from their parents, or bought perhaps for a measure of rice. Many of these women and children ended up at brothels, or as personal slaves in rich households.

NOTE: Female Domestic Slavery: Indeed, a boom in slave traffic happened all through the 17th and 18th centuries, carried out mainly by the Portugese pirates from Arab settlements in Africa and South-west Asia, leading to the importation of large numbers of black women slaves (known variously as habshis or kafris in local Bengali) to serve in Muslim aristocratic households in cities like Dhaka, Murshidabad and eventually, Calcutta.

Rich Hindu families, too, had maintained dasis or female slaves from medieval times in Bengal, as evident from contemporary Hindu rules and regulations formulated by the 12th century Bengali lawmaker, Jeemutabahana, who laid down meticulous rules in his Dayabhaga as to the distribution of these dasis, along with immovable property, among male heirs of the family. According to Maheshwara, a later commentator on Dayabhaga, and interpreter of, Dayabhaga, the female slaves were used to satiate the lust of the household’s men, and whoever they loaned or gifted the women to.

Throughout the late 17th and 18th century, however, ‘kept’ women or mistresses had a social acceptability they later lost. Officers and lawyers of the courts of this period, when introducing themselves and their colleagues to some newly arrived bhadralok used to describe them in these terms: “This gentleman has built a pucca house for his mistress”. Building a pucca house for a mistress was considered a sign of honour and prestige.

The restrictive and punitive attitude adopted by the British administration in the 19th century was in sharp contrast to the permissive and accommodating policies pursued by generations of rulers in pre-colonial India, although the latter subscribed to the same patriarchal values that compelled the British to accept prostitution for their soldiers as essential. The British, however, introduced a moral dimension by attaching a stigma to prostitutes, and banishing them from society.

Sophisticated official measures like the repressive Act XIV of 1868 accompanied aggressive campaigns by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok against prostitutes’ participation in socio-cultural activities. These were accompanied by systematic psychological assault through verbal violence-abuse that were aimed at reinforcing their inferior and degrading position in society. Over the years, these abuses and sayings became a part of popular culture in Bengal – building up the stereotype of a blood-sucking vampire, out to fleece ‘unwary’ and ‘innocent’ men.

NOTE: Some English settlers – particularly senior officials who did not want their underlings ‘distracted’ or sympathetic to the local culture via local women – concurred. “The climate is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of this great propensity to sexual intercourse, the results of which prove generally so unfortunate to my countrymen”, one of them wrote. “The Hindoostanee women (under this denomination I class both Hindoos and Moslems)… form a cluster of delights, to the temptation of which it is not surprising if we see men, in other respects prudent, fall the victims.”

Capt. Thomas Williamson claimed in his East Indian Guide and Vade Mecum that prostitutes were part of a ‘debash and crafty’ Indian mechanism to trap and devour young officers: “Nothing can be more dangerous than this irregular indulgence; it never failing first to drain the purse, and, in a few days or weeks, the constitution also.”

In conclusion, Sumanta Banerjee sums up the situation thus:

Even in the state of comparative freedom enjoyed by the courtesan, she had to cultivate skills mainly for the entertainment of the male. But significantly enough, the cultivation did not remain confined to skills of sexual entertainment alone. It embraced the fine arts-music, dancing, painting.

In contrast, in capitalist society, like other wage workers in a system that thrives on intensification of the division of labour and specialisation of skills, the prostitute, also, is pushed into a strictly defined narrow space. She is condemned to the exclusive role of a specialist in sexual entertainment. Stripped of all emotional and intellectual attributes, she becomes the female body – an input required at one level in the long line of the production process in a capitalist society. Reduced to a source of purely utilitarian needs, her body is expected to produce the regular nocturnal fantasy of pleasure that deceptively fills up the vacuity of the soul of the alienated worker who comes to her as a client. She represents the ultimate in alienation in a capitalist society. The alienation of one section of the exploited feeds upon the alienation of another.

Same Old Spilled Blood

This morning, I woke up at 5:30 to be greeted by the news of brutal police assault on Jadavpur University students just three hours prior. One person is in coma, female students had their clothes torn off, and about 30 students are in hospital. Here is a video of part of the violence, and here is a post about it.

In many ways, universities are sites of violence. Mostly, this violence is bloodless, and at an abstract or structural level, teaching young people to think in certain ways that either serve or superficially disrupt systems of power (the government, the market, social mores). In India, however, the violence on campus often takes a more literal form. Inexpensive state-aided universities are where many meet experience diversity for the first time. They meet and socialise with people from different backgrounds, conflicting, discomfiting, debating, resisting, and melding with one another. In a country that offers as much diversity as India to this scenario, this makes the university an institution of great political potency. It is little wonder, then, that most university admins in this country choose to remain authoritarian and ‘traditional'; it provides them with a sense of stability and control, in the face of a community whose very essence, at least superficially, is change.

Generally, this works more or less successfully, because Indian authoritarianism prefers the ‘blind eye’ approach to the ‘ferret and punish’. Students can party, but not too loudly; students can drink, but not too much; students can smoke, if they are willing to pretend secrecy; and students can screw, if they pretend they’re not even holding hands. When students break this unspoken covenant, the administration responds either by ignoring them till they fade, exhausted, or by assaulting them till they drop, destroyed. And then things spring back to their usual form, for life, for all its violence, has great elasticity.

Occasionally, however, this elasticity should be resisted for as long as possible. Life must return to normal, but that must not mean aiding the obscuring of uncomfortable facts.

This is the third (or is it fourth?) time I have witnessed police brutality on campus. The last time things were this bloody, cops had been sneaked into campus at night to disperse a 24-hour non-violent student sit-in. Same story this time. Here’s a brief summary: today at 2AM, the police put about 30 students in the hospital, tore clothes off female protesters, arrested about 40 students, and threatened further violence if the sit-in wasn’t dispersed.

The following is a compilation of the timeline that I’ve managed to construct from online sources.

28th August: during the ongoing festival Sanskriti (note irony), a second year student from the Department of History was allegedly dragged inside a hostel and molested by a group of people within campus premises. Her male friend – not a JU student – was beaten up.

29th August: she gets in touch with the VC. He says that (a) he will need 15 days to act on the matter, (b) she should stay home for that period for ‘security issues’, and (c) he would’ve installed security cameras but students would protest. (NOTE: students did indeed protest, during my MA years, to security cams. Details on that in a forthcoming post.)

1st September: she lodges an FIR at the JU Police Station, identifying one of the alleged molesters. Police remains inactive.

5th September: in support, the university students organise a protest rally to Jadavpur Police Station. Same day, two alleged representatives of the University admin. pay the alleged victim a visit at home. They refuse to show identification and question her clothing and sobriety on the night of the alleged assault. This is a violation of the Vishakha guidelines that assert that there should be no external pressure either on the victim or the accused during the investigating procedure.

8th September: students organised a protest rally to the VC’s office, demanding to know the Uni’s victim-blaming stance. The ICC (Internal Complaint Cell), charged with the investigation, refuse to make a public statement. The students’ rep to the ICC, also the GS of AFSU, (Arts Faculty Students’ Union), resigns from her post in protest, citing a biased investigation. In response, the students decide they will not let the ICC leave campus till they’ve opened dialogue on the matter. Finally, three student reps are allowed an audience with the ICC. The ICC denies bias, and urges the students to not sensationalise the matter by speaking to the media.

9th September: speaking to a daily, an ICC rep. claims she was assaulted (kicked, strangled) by students while leaving the building. Students, however, claim that they had only formed a human barricade, and that un-uniformed men arrived to provide protection to the ICC, and they assaulted all students, irrespective of gender.

10th September: students decide on an indefinite sit-down at Aurobindo Bhavan, the uni admin. building. Later they decide to petition the Chancellor to set up an independent investigative committe, since the ICC has violated the Vishakha, attempted to pressure the alleged victim, and is accused of bias. The VC states he will ask for police intervention on campus. Police does arrive and attempts to intimidate students sitting in.

Jump to 17th September: news breaks that after a week of protest, police were brought into the uni tonight at around 2AM, with men identified as TMC goons (not sure about the authenticity of this identification). They assaulted the sit-in brutally, landing some 35 students in hospital, including one who is reportedly now in coma. 40 more were arrested. The RAF (Rapid Action Force) was also visible, and the police has threatened further violence if students will not disperse.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 805 other followers

%d bloggers like this: