One of the most annoying things when I travel through small-town India is the obsession with choli-art.
Every single restaurant and hotel will have a series of paintings of busty Rajasthani women with low-cut cholis and diaphanous chunris.
The sheer levels of ignorance about costume and lifestyle, apart - having lived amongst the choli-wearers of this country for nearly fifteen years, I should know - what's annoying is that all these women are fair-skinned, busty and sedately happy.
They are shown as peacefully gazing into the desert, with an old bearded, turbaned man playing a musical instrument, in the background. They are shown whispering coyly, amongst themselves. They are turning wheat into flour, on a very primitive chakki, or drawing water from a well, or walking gracefully with pots of water on their heads.
What bothers me is that this romanticization of rustic lives is such a mockery of the truth. Women in rural north-India are often in purdah. They wear thick cotton veils, or else their saree pallus are drawn over their heads and down to their shrivelled bosoms. With precious little to eat, there's precious little likelihood of developing a cleavage. And there's nothing thrilling about having to walk miles for water, or chakki-peesing (as Dharamendra so unforgettably put it).
On this trip, one painting in my hotel room disturbed me no end.
One of the women's bust had beem disfigured with red colour (gulaal?), made to look like a gash, with blood dripping down to her navel. There were two darker, pointy daubs, on the choli (meant to represent nipples, I suppose).
In another place, I'd have ignored it as just another disfigured painting. Here, it bothered me.
Madhya Pradesh has a badly skewed sex ratio. In some pockets of Morena and Bhind, it even drops down to 600-something women for every 1000 men. Infanticide, foeticide, every form of female-cide is rampant.
Also, Madhya Pradesh has one of the worst records of violence against women. One activist even told me that there were more rapes each week, than there were days in the week. As we spoke, she broke down as she told me of the 13-year-old rape victim who'd committed suicide in Shivpuri, recently.
This particular activist has worked long in the field, combating violence against women. She wanted to handle the case, before the victim killed herself.
The story was something like this:
The victim was from a so-called lower caste. Her mother had remarried, didn't have any children from her second marriage and the victim's step-father loved her mother and the kids unquestioningly. However, he couldn't change the fact that he was a poor man.
The victim was first harrassed and then 'kidnapped' (raped, really) by a local guy, who had political family-connections. The mother filed a report with the police, to prevent a tragedy, but to no avail. Finally, the girl was returned home, and a case was filed in court.
A lawyer, who often takes up cases relevant to violence against women (let's call her S) took up the case to defend the rapist. Sorry, accused rapist. S is not just an activist-lawyer, incidentally. She also holds a post, and is a member of the same political party, with which accused-rapist has family-connections.
It so happens that the case was decided against the victim, and in favour of the rapist. Sorry again, accused rapist.
It is also rumoured that lawyer S got the victim to sign a document saying that she had run away from home of her own accord, that her family mistreated her and that she wanted to stay with the accused-rapist. The rapists' family threatened the girl, asking her to withdraw the case, and promising that her rapist would 'marry' her, and she might as well, because her 'life was ruined, anyway'.
The 13-year-old victim and her family triedto put things behind them, and decided to move away, to another area, another house. Here, some local boys started harrassing the child again. Again, she was 'kidnapped' (raped, really). Again, a police complaint was filed.
Guess who took up the case? Lawyer S.
I am not aware of the details at this point. No one was being forthright; no one knew, perhaps.
But at this time, the accused rapist (the first one) came back to this child and offered to 'keep her' in his house, because 'what other option did she have?'. He also accused her of being 'that kind of girl', because why else would this be happening to her, a second time?
Lawyer S wasn't being particularly helpful, I suppose.
So, this child told her mother she'd had enough. That there wasn't much to live for anyway. And then, she killed herself.
I've heard other stories. Gruesome, gruesome, stories that leave you feeling sick at the heart. Sick of it all.
And especially sick of choli-art.