Thursday, February 12, 2009

Comprehension Refuses To Dawn

It's something that has happened everywhere that I have ever lived or visited. It's something conducted with stealth and co-ordination akin to a secret service operation. It's something everyone does, and everyone knows that everyone does this, and yet we all do it in secret. If we see someone doing this openly, we try to persuade them to do it under some sort of cover so that it is not seen by others. And I have never understood why.

I'm referring to the act of putting underwear/innerwear out to dry. People who have otherwise had a very evolved outlook on life have advised me on how I should cover underwear with a towel so that people from outside can't see it hanging with the other drying clothes. It is most puzzling and it throws up certain questions:

1. Why are people embarrassed about underwear?

2. Is it shameful to wear underwear or to go without it?

3. If it is assumed that wearing underwear is a desirable quality in people, isn't washing underwear necessary for reasons of hygiene?

4. Since washed underwear cannot be worn while it is wet, should it not be dried?

5. If wearing and washing underwear are respectable pursuits, why is drying it a covert activity?

6. Why does it reflect on the respectability of a household if drying underwear is as visible as other clothes?

7. Wouldn't the sight of drying underwear reassure you that the nice family you were visiting believed in both wearing and washing their underclothes?

Tangentially, let's look at the concept of underwear itself. It is being used, rather brilliantly I believe, by the Pink Chaddi campaign to make a point about loose, forward, pub going women like myself to the Sri Ram Sena, the self appointed guardians of my womanly modesty and yours. It's bright, it's fun, and it has had quite an impact because of the very nature of the campaign. It has also evoked some inexplicable reactions among some other well-wishers of Indian women.

I read a post by Sagarika Ghose of CNN IBN arguing that this campaign would somehow render the whole argument against this kind of corrosive moral policing frivolous. Some others have called it vulgar, a brash idea brought to life by a few westernized apostates, something a 'truly Indian' girl would never do. I have difficulty understanding these arguments. Why should this campaign prevent other less 'frivolous' engagements with the issue from coming to the fore? If anyone genuinely wishes to make a point, chaddis are not going to drown out his/her voice. Let's face it, most of us did absolutely nothing to address the issue before the inventive chaddi brigade. And it is equally restrictive and dangerous for us to undermine someone else's debate because it does not go along with what we construe as serious.

The reason I believe that this campaign was necessary was that I didn't see anyone else doing anything remotely meaningful about it. Apart from a few newsroom discussions and indignant editorials, nothing happened. A few men were arrested and let out on bail, so that they could begin making threats again. There was a gaping chasm, a complete absence of the meaningful debate that is supposedly being threatened by our frivolous underthings.

As for the argument that most of the 'real Indian' women cannot relate to this sort of action and that it is not representative of that constituency, the loose and forward pub going woman is as much of an Indian as the exemplary woman of Pramod Muthalik's fevered imagination. This may be a campaign by a miniscule elite educated and westernized section of Indian womanhood. But since it is this very demographic and its way of life that is under such vicious attack, isn't it only fair to expect a response out of it?

So yes, the next time you come to tell us that we belong at home, that you get to decide how we should live our lives, the next time that you froth with indignation at our way of life conveniently before major elections, we will treat you with the contempt that you so richly deserve. We will throw at you the humble chaddi which, for all its disrepute, has more reason to be proud of itself than you do.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Her Story

Once there was a little girl. She was a fanciful kind of child, and she liked nothing better than to listen to her grandmother spinning yarns on lazy afternoons. At one such session, her grandmother abruptly interrupted her story and admonished the little girl for shaking her legs while sitting. The little girl protested, "But Dad does it too!" Grandma replied that it was alright for him because he was a man. The little girl could not understand how she knew, but she knew instantly that Grandma was wrong. Maybe it was because she had heard her Dad tell one of her aunts who had tried to sympathize with his son-less state that in his eyes, each of his three daughters was as good as ten sons. The little girl kept shaking her legs.

In time, the little girl grew up to become just a girl. She started noticing that people on the streets looked at her differently when she walked on the road. Their eyes followed her, bothered her, made her feel like she was under some kind of spotlight. She hated every instant of it, so she decided to cover herself up and make herself invisible. She wore clothes which could have accommodated her twice over, she wore dull colours, she did everything she could do make herself invisible, and yet they never stopped looking. She envied her friends who wore shapely clothes and riotous colours, but never had the courage to follow suit.

Then came a day when that selfsame grandmother told the girl to wear jeans, because they flattered her more than the gunny bags she usually wore. The girl realized that she need not be ashamed if people looked at her. She wore colour, and she was happy. She wore well-cut clothes, and she was pretty. She felt sorry for all the women trapped in the faraway realm of Talibanistan, who were beaten in public for showing the teensiest bit of skin, as though their very physical existence was somehow shameful and needed to be hidden. She felt secure and thankful for the country that, for all its lascivious eyes, did not seek to put her away in a corner, deny her being and make her feel like she was less of a person than any man.

The girl grew into the woman who laughed aloud without fear when she found things funny, earned a living through her own hard work and also earned the luxury of doing what she wanted in her free time. When she had her first drink, it was not really a momentous occasion, mostly because she had never thought of this as something proscribed to her. She danced when she was happy, and her friends danced with her. She held hands with the one she loved, because it made her heart sing. She was free, unfettered and proud. She was the daughter her Dad had been so proud of.

Then some people decided that the woman was not how she should be. She did not hide her face anymore. She did not cower at their sight anymore. She did not cast her eyes down when they spoke to her. And she spoke back. She made them feel less sure of themselves, no matter how many times their mothers told them that they were special too. They could not deal with her, so they beat her up. They hit her, shamed her and laughed at her. They pushed her back into the box and labelled it culture, because most people had no idea what culture was. They felt secure because she could no longer undermine them, could no longer make them feel less.

Some people saw her in the box labelled culture, and came towards her. She looked at them hopefully, because they looked like they had power in their hands. They looked at her for a moment, refusing to meet her eyes. In that instant, they betrayed her. They talked in serious voices, while shutting out the sound of her voice. They quickly agreed that she belonged in the box-labelled-culture. She was less than a person, she had no mind, of course she didn't know what was bad for her. She would drink her liver into oblivion if given half a chance, she would corrupt the spotless minds of the boys on the streets by holding their hands and the country would descend into chaos if she didn't bring up another generation just like the one that had shamed her.

And the woman was silenced. Her country turned into a repository of culture, a culture of silence at the pain of death. She trained her daughters to keep quiet, stay out of the way and never talk back. They were told that shame was their raiment, that honour resided between their legs and not in their conduct, and they were too base, too stupid and wicked to preserve it without the instruction of their fathers. The colour went out of life once again, the country withered into a cultured shambles, and she still kept quiet. She heeded every instruction of the guardians of the box-labelled-culture and she had no need to think ever again. After all, she was a woman, not a person.

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