Friday, October 28, 2005

The crap corps

I'd been reading; I'd been listening - with my usual mixture of reactions ranging from 'but how?' and 'don't tell me, not again!' - to the whole French 'women are crap' controversy.

And I was thinking, I'd like to meet Mr French. No, seriously. I would. I have no understanding of how a mind like that works. He is as much a curiosity, to me, as a dinosaur. And I want to see how men like him look; the kind who think - and say - that women are crap.

Then I read about these women. And I thought, maybe Mr French should meet all these women.

Better still, we should let Mr French meet Judith Miller. Or Maureen Dowd.
Or both of them.... Together.

Or all of us. At once. Then, he would truly be neck-deep in shit. Or crap.


On another note, I remember going to the Indian Women's Press Corpsfor a press conference (no, it was not organised by, or for, women exclusively) a few months ago. I was wondering why there should be a separate press club for women. So I was given some literature (they have a library too) to read. Turned out, it was set up more than 10 years ago.

I cannot find links to the essays from the founders, but the idea was to start something that gave women journalists a space to call their own. Their own watering hole. Their own chill zone. Their own cheap (relatively) eatery. Or (what the hell) their own bitchfest, for times when they needed it!

The Press Club - which is to say, THE Press Club - was/is a male bastion.

It needed storming, no doubt, but sheer numbers were not doing the trick. There were too many women journalists out there who felt left out of the 'club', even as they sat there. It was 'not a place for women'. Women journalists drinking/smoking publicly raised eyebrows. Tip-offs weren't shared with women. Women's issues weren't being taken up. There weren't enough women editors around. etc.

Now, I don't know whether all these factors are reason enough to have a separate press club. Nor do I know whether it makes a difference to the profession. But I have to say that I like the place.

There are some 350 members. It is a small-ish place and gets very packed during press cons, but it is cool and smells nice. The garden is well-kept. People are polite. Any random member whom you don't know from Eve, smiles at you. The food is good (so I've heard, with special praise for the biryani.)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to THE press club for another press conference.

And I was appalled!

Everything was falling apart. Spit-marks on the staircases, corridors smelling of sweat and piss, paint flaking off, male journalists talking LOUDLY - not on the phone, mind you, but to each other, across the hall - while the poor panelists (who had paid to use the facilities, incidentally) were trying to ignore them and finish their speeches.

The receptionist downstairs was rude. People hanging around outside leered. Everyone wanted my phone number, and being in the 'fraternity', it is hard to refuse. It is also hard to hang up on the 'fraternity' when they call you late at night on a Saturday. Not to share a tip-off. Not to pass on info. Oh no... but to 'just chat!'

And no, I do not like gender-based segregation. I do not like 'women-sit-here; men-sit-there' kind of places. And I do think that segregation is too high a price to pay for equality.

But if I'm ever taking membership, I know where I'm headed... towards the, umm, 'crap' corps.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Sophia and Savitri

A few days ago, I came across this report in the Asian Age (no link available, though I know it appeared in the Delhi edition, on 20th or 21st of October) about some luncheon club started by St Stephen's alumni - a sort of old boys' network, intended for the specific purpose of 'networking'.

One of the founders apparently said (I forget the exact wording of the quote) that it was restricted to those who graduated in the 70s and 80s, because those who graduated before were too old to matter and those who came later weren't yet important enough.

I distinctly remember the use of the word 'important', and I distinctly remember that I reacted with a hoot of bemused laughter.

You graduate from an 'important' college, and you want to 'network' with only those people who are 'important'.

Of course, I always knew that this is how it is, but I was both taken aback and wildly amused by such an unashamed admission of ego and socio-economic snobbery.


Driven by this report about old boys' ganging up for the sake of 'importance' , I decided to run a check on my own alma mater. To check on just how low my importance quotient was.

Google told me, first thing, that Sophia Girls College, Ajmer, is ranked a B++ by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

This isn't so bad, actually.
Because I was wondering whether my degree was going to be worth the paper it was printed on. Nobody I know (barring fellow-sophians) has even heard of the university, and every time I mentioned Sophia College, people just assumed I was from the more hip college of the same name, in Bombay.

The girls there pronounced the name as an indulgently westernised 'So-fi-aa'. We stuck to a humiliatingly ordinary 'So-phee-aa'.

But what I was really worried about was the ranking given to Savitri College.

I would have died of horror and humiliation if Savitri College ended up with a better ranking, because the Savitri girls were matched equal to us in all the cultural and sporting events (okay, so they were better, sometimes... but we founded our own theatre club, so there!) and they used to darkly suggest that except for our proficiency in English, the Sophians - Sopheeians - were worse off, in every other respect.

And we, we who spoke in English, trembled inwardly at the possibility. Could it be...?

What was even more galling was that both So-phee-aa and Savitri were affiliated to the same university, and that it was rumoured that Savitri actually got more grants and concessions from the government, because it was Hindi-medium for the most part. (I can't vouch for this)

As it happens, to my immense relief and satisfaction, Savitri is ranked lower. They are only a B+, while we are a B++.

Left to us Sopheeans, they wouldn't even get a B; we think they're quite average, and a C+ is about all they deserve... which probably means there are no Sophia girls on the NAAC board.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


ok, blog plugging time.

This is my unabashedly Opinionated brother.

Genesis of a drawstrung nation

This is absurd.

Whether the news is true or not, whether the alleged fatwa is justified or not, is secondary. What intrigues me is the bit about 'salwars' being Tamil gear... Tamil? Since when?

It's really quite intriguing - this mad scramble across the sub-continent to claim the unobstrusive salwar as 'traditionally ours' and hang it round women's pelvises.

I ran a search on the genesis of shalwaar (also of salwar), and found little historical information, though I did find several idiotic claims that it was of 'Indian' or 'Pakistani', 'Punjabi' or 'Muslim', origin. Much marketing of this piece of baggy sackage (there's no other apt term for it, really); while some speak of it's in-betweenness, others hint at it's genesis and the journey thus far.

Now, I'm no authority on traditional garments (though, we really should stop writing 'salwar-kameez' because it is pronounced 'shalwaar' and 'qameez', as in 'qatl' and 'qayamat'), but I do know that shalwaar-qameez is about as 'Indian' or as 'Muslim', as aeroplanes or T-shirts.

Let's go back a little. Let's go back 20 years.

I'm in primary school. I'm wearing a blue-green shalwaar (churidaar, actually) and it's my birthday. This is rural Rajasthan. Everyone is gawking. NOBODY wears shalwaars here. Not our teachers (all wear sarees) and not the students (all the girls wear skirts or frocks or, if the family's daring, pants).

This is the first time I'm spending any length of time in the costume either. My mother tells me, after school-hours, she found me wandering about with the kurta tucked inside the churidaar, pant-shirt-style.

Fast-forward 15 years.
I'm in high school. Everyone wears shalwaars - the Mallu Bio teacher, the Rajput kindergarten teacher, the Tamil Maths teacher, the Gujjar Socio teacher. they're not calling it 'shalwar-qameez' anymore. They're calling it 'suit'.

Fast-forward 5 years.
I'm in college. We're wearing 'suits' for formal functions, 'suits' for photo-sessions, 'suits' for karate practice (some girls wore shalwaars topped with with T-shirts), 'suits' for shopping.

The college administration approved. The hostel warden approved. Jeans were barely tolerated. Skirts (with shorts underneath) were acceptable only on the sports' field.

A year later, in Bombay, I attend a Bajrang-Dal-organised workshop for young girls. They talk of the 'outsider race' (read Muslim). They talk of denigration of women's status in society. They ask the girls to wear bindi or tika, as a symbol of their 'Indian' identity. All the girls are in shalwaars. ALL. Most of them are Maharashtrian or Gujarati.

I ask, casually - why?
The girls look surprised. "It's 'our' dress. What else will we wear?"

This dress of 'Muslim' origin, they say. This dress of 'Indian' origin, they say. This dress of 'Pakistani' origin, they say. This 'punjabi' dress, they say.... even (allegedly) this dress of Tamil origin, they say?

Go back 50 years.
My grandmother is not in shalwaar-qameez. She's in a gharara. She is wound into sareescape by my grandfather, with his nationalistic fervour - one India, secular India, free India... and one national dress - the saree.

Fast-forward 50 years.
My grandmother wears nothing but shalwaar-qameez. My aunts too. My neighbours too. And (wonder of wonders, she who wouldn't be caught dead in the garment, 5 years ago) my ultra-hip mother too!

Go back 60 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
A punjabi woman, on both sides of undivided India. Of both communities.
And oh yes, the Punjabi men too! Of both communities. They called it a shalwaar for men as well, until it became unfashionable and we started calling them simply pyjama.

[I have to interject - pyjama is not correct. It is silly to call everything 'pyjama' when men wear it. They can choose between shalwaar, churidaar AND pyjamas of various cuts and shapes.]

What they're wearing is very similar to what Afghani, or Pathan, men wore. The costume today is sometimes referred to as a 'pathan suit'.

Go to Saudi Arabia. Go to Egypt. Go to Morocco.
Shalwaars, no. Muslims, yes. T-shirts... maybe. In Iran, pants, head-scarves and T-shirts are more common than shalwaars. Even in Saudi Arabia, underneath the abayas, you won't find too many shalwaars.

Go back 100 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Possibly the Pathans. Possibly the Turks, though their version is more like 'harem-pants'.

Go back 1000 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Probably not us. Probably nobody.

Go back 2000 years.
Go back to ancient India.
Go back to Harappa.
Go anywhere in the world.

There are no shalwaars.
There are no aeroplanes either.
Nor any T-shirts.

Fast-forward to now.
My domestic help does not wear shalwaars.
"People laugh... They look at me like I was wearing something odd. Nobody in the family wears it." This one is from Rajasthan. The last domestic help lady wore only shalwaars. She was Haryanvi.

What makes a shalwaar Indian?
What does the wearing of a shalwaar-qameez make us? Good 'Indian' girls?
How did it get to be this way? How did the shalwaar worm it's way into the moral good books of an entire nation?
Correction. An entire sub-continent.

By being what it is - comfortable? Even, cyclically trendy?

I don't think so.
It isn't just about comfort. It is also about being covered up.
It's about a drawstrung modesty.

Sarees are alright, sort of. But try wearing a saree 'sexily'. Wear it with a strappy blouse, or without one altogether. See how many 'Indians' approve.

Shalwaars are acceptable because they're non-threatening. And that's how we like our women, don't we?
Not slavish. Just non-threatening. Not disembodied, just non-physical. Not invisible, just non-visible.
Non-out-there. Non-this-is-how-I-am. Non-look-if-you-want-like-I-care.
Oh, yes, we like our shalwaars.

Lucknow, 2 years ago.
My mother cuts up her transparent sarees to make shalwaar-kameezes for me. Now, I'm still wearing shalwaars, only they don't quite hide my body away.
My aunt refuses to take me out to the market. "Are you out of your mind? What do you think? This isn't Bombay... ".

I used to wonder, in fact... why did Bombay's young women not take to shalwaars with as much enthusiasm? (IMHO, the shalwaar-related fashions were a disaster over there.)
Now, I think I know why.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

This day, that day

I often wonder what karmic contract oversees our mornings.

What stipulates, for instance, that one morning I will get up and be greeted by an empty gas cylinder, instead of the usual chai. And that, another day will begin with an hour of non-stop ranting and scolding from people whom I've done nothing to offend.

Which is what happened.

I was up bright and early (okay, so my weekday sunrise happens at 8 am... to each her own dawn) trying to call up a certain urban planner, to fix up an interview.

I had only introduced myself when the dam broke, so to speak.

The good lady refused me an interview, first-off on the grounds that I worked for a media group that doesn't 'report' but only 'supports' our editors' friends (very vehement, vitrolic emphasis on 'Frrrriends', virtually spitting out an explamation mark every time she used the word).

My plea, that I wished to understand the issues, and considered it my duty to speak to as many experts as possible - esp those with contrasting views - fell on deaf ears. To be honest, I didn't even get to make the plea. At least, not in one go.

I would say two words, be interrupted and listen to the good-if-angry lady, for fifteen minutes. How her clients' side of the picture was never represented.

Then, I'd say another three words (inclusive of articles and pronouns) and be interrupted again. Then, I'd listen to complaints about the media being biased, how my story was 'unconstitutional', how we were conducting 'trial by media' and how she couldn't care less, and would never speak to our group, in particular. And why didn't I just go speak to my editor-in-chief's 'Frriends!'
"Go to them! Go! Go to Mr R... Go to Mr D... Go!" she seethed.

She said that the activists were all being paid off. And that she could prove it. I asked her to, but she didn't want to meet me.

She asked me to ask myself - why was this issue being raked up now? At this crucial juncture? She insinuated that my bosses had sent me sniffing on the track on this story because they (or their Frrriends!) had vested interests. I did not tell her that the story was my own idea, not my boss', and that I had not even heard of Mr R and other names she was throwing at me faster than I could grab them.

I tried intermittently - three words at a time - to ask if she'd agree to an emailed list of questions, if she found it too painful dealing with me, in person. Unfortunately, she declined. She apparently didn't even want to share the same bit of newsprint with Mr R and Mr D.

She didn't want to be spoken of in the same breath as those "jokers". Several times during the conversation, she referred to various prominent people as 'bast**ds".

I was torn between hanging up on her, and reminding her that she was speaking to the media, and would she please watch her tongue? Suppose I had a recorder on, all this time? Did she realise I could, techinically, (for, although she said she didn't want to talk to me, she did speak a long, long time) put her words in print?

But there was also this bit of my mind that said this was just vented steam. And since I'd called her, maybe it was all part of destiny's preordainment - that the steam should burn my face.

Maybe it's just bad karma. Maybe, in a previous birth, I had been rude to a young journalist, first thing in the morning... Maybe this was payback time. So, I politely thanked her before assuring her that I would do my best to do a balanced story.

But yesterday.....

True, I awoke to find an empty gas cylinder, and - like always - it was left to me to tackle the crisis (read: lift gas cyclinder, carry downstairs to the re-filling shop, carry back upstairs... where are the boyfriends when you need them, I ask?).

True, I might have pulled a muscle and a half.

Also true that I am an unpleasant sight before my first cup of chai.

Especially when I trudge into daylight with a cylinder (okay, so it was a small cylinder that holds only 3-1/2 kilos of LPG, but so what?).

But then.....

Riding beside me, there are two tiny pre-schoolers, three-year-old (or two-and-a-half?) boys, in a cycle-rickshaw (closed up like a cage, for their safety). Neat uniforms, slicked hair, hankies pinned to their breast-pockets.

They look at me and whisper something to each other.
They smile. I smile.
I wave. They wave back.
Then, timidly, one of them mouths -

I stare, open-mouthed, while one giggles to the other and repeats it -

And I cannot stop laughing for the rest of the morning.

What was that about karma, again?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Stand up, be counted

It's taken me three days to compose this.
To snap out of this spell of fatigue caused by people who like to call themselves educationists but .... oh, look at all this evidence!

I've just been reading and re-reading all the different blog-posts about this nasty business of I I P M and their silly legal notices and the tasteless comments on Rashmi's blog and the overwhelming reactions - some funny and some serious - from all around me.

And what I'm really bothered by is Mr AC's pony-tail. I admittedly know nothing about his institute - never having been interested in the least - but I have problems with his having a pony-tail because I've always stood up for long(ish) hair.

Correction - men with long hair.

I have a thing for long hair because men who sport pony-tails symbolize something... don't ask what. Just something that none of the boys had in my backofbeyondschool-days. Or it could also have something to do with the fact that all the pony-tail-sporting men I know are cool, honest, talented, charming and down-to-earth. So, in all my naivete, I really believed that a guy who nurses a pony-tail can't be a twit. He could be smart. He could be smart-evil. But he can't be petty. He can't be sub-ordinary.
Or so I thought.

Now, I'll have to change a whole chunk of my philosophy towards hair and do a rethink about my systemofonthespotevaluationofmeniknownothingabout.


Anyway, Gaurav Sabnis, I have never met you, and I don't know if you have a pony-tail, but hats off and wish you all the best etc.

Rashmi, ditto.

Monday, October 10, 2005

time to Help

The South Asia Quake Help blog (for news, information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts) is up here.

Do what you can!


In another language, I've said before, I have a special bond with Allahabad.

This time, I discovered some of the reasons why I like Allahabad.

I like it for the way in which its crochety-yellow buildings turn black with age and disrepair, but somehow, stay dignified and upright. Like they were going to snap at you if you pointed out that they needed a facelift.

For the way in which the wooden doors in the old quarters refuse to be varnished.

For the town's refusal to be jump-started, kick-started or made-over. It is sleepy, unashamedly so, and needs much convincing before it stretches, or even turns over on its side. The glassy malls will come. But they'll come one wall at a time. And behind the glass-fronts of new shopping complexes, the backyards will often remain stolid brick.

For its resistance to impatience, for its quick tempers and imagined slights.

For chalk-notices near cinema halls, like "Cycle Stand. Rs 2. You can watch any film, anywhere."

For its butcher-shop called 'Murga Mahal'.

For the prominent notice on the railway platform saying "wishing you a safe and happy journey AT ALL TIMES" (in large, bold type)

For its old men who do not let go of a conversation, easily, because it is not polite to say abrupt goodbyes. Because you don't just walk off when there's nothing else to be said - you dither, you turn around and repeat a few things you've already made clear, you explain why, you nod in comprehension of why, you say 'yes, then, ok, I will, won't you' and such meaningless phrases a few times.

For its old men who man stores, and cannot find the bill-books because they cannot find their spectacles, and they cannot find their spectacles because they cannot find their spectacles.... And for the way in which I do not drum my fingers on the counter, seething with impatience, because it would not be polite to do so. For the way I keep my head bent, and resist the temptation to push their spectacles into their hands and tell them to hurry.... Besides, where is the hurry?

For its old hotels where they don't have telephones even in the most expensive rooms, and the most expensive rooms overlook a busy market-street.

For its snazzied-up trains, with plug-points for laptop and phone chargers - infuriating sockets that no plausible plug could ever fit into, without serious amputations.

For its STD booths where you still wait, in queue, while the young man ahead of you hogs the only STD line, cootchie-cooing away, in a low voice, back turned to your deliberate glare.

For the way in which the town lurks behind the lips of honey-cheeked girls; the way in which university students can speak unaccented English but let their mothers' accents pepper their Hindi.

For its clingy, just-short-of-slimy pujaaris, playing the caste card as often as I blink - the originals who inspired the filmi stereotype.

A town with such habits as you remember seeing only in the cinema of the 80s. A town of slow rhythms and garish tastes. A town resigned to itself...How can you not like a town whose face is as flawed as your own?

Friday, October 07, 2005

A trip, alone

Aloneness is an inviting thing.

Especially to essentially small-town people, driven to the big cities. People who have learnt to seek silence in too-much-noise, solitude in too-much-crowd, simplicity in the relatively-sparse, familiarity in the old-abandoned-rundown.

We are those who had to teach themselves to look for richness in women's figures, excess in overflowing monsoon-streets, lushness in embroidered floor-rugs and companionship on barsati-terraces.

Aloneness is a inviting thing to us.

Even at 3.15 am, breathing deep in Delhi's dew-grey 3.15 am aura.
Even at 3.45 am, on New Delhi railway station, it is a special thing.

Even when I step onto the stillness of platform no. 1, and find it lined with bodies - so terribly asleep, they could be dead. So covered are the faces, so careless these exhausted bodies, that the sharp whistles, and the cries of the 4 am-shift sweepers - "Up! Up all!" - are a relief.
In a minute and a half, these faux-dead, these refugees from nowhere, are stretching. As I see them sleepily move their baggage, I shoulder mine, and move to the tea-stall to drink machine-coffee in a clay kullad.

Even when I cross the bridge to look for my train and am followed by the freshly-awakened louts who whisper "where, madam? All alone?"... even so, the aloneness is welcome.
There is relief in the fact that I alone am irritated. Not a brother, father or male companion who will feel duty-bound to beat up the louts. Not a mother, sister or female friend who will take offence and look fearfully over her shoulder, or whisper angrily about the insolence of it all.

Even when I am the only woman in sight and every service available is simply passing me by. The newspaper-wala doesn't offer me any newspapers. The chai-wala doesn't offer me any tea. The lock-chain-wala, the book-wala, the polish-wala, the biscuit-chips-wala, the anda-bhurji-wala - they all ignore me, as if I did't exist.
Under my breath, I whisper 'patriarchal so-n-so's!', but I do not mind so much.
In cities, being ignored is a luxury. Somebody NOT trying to sell something is a luxury.

I check my weight.

Two men who look like they've been here forever and are in no mood to go anywhere, tell me that the weighing machine doesn't work. They are sitting on the machine. I ignore them and fumble for a coin, while they vacate their haunt; the red-n-white wheel stops spinning; I drop the coin.

The cardboard ticket stumbling out tells me I've put on 1.5 kilos; it also tells me, on it's reverse face, that happiness is waiting for me, after a long journey. I amusedly think that at least one part of the machine works. I know where these new 1.5 kilos come from, where they will settle, refugee-like... in relief camps of the stomach, for a month, in abandoned mills of the hips, for a year... nobody knows what will happen to them afterwards. Who wants to think beyond a year?

And I think, stupidly, of the weight of happiness. And whether there's some scientific principle at work - weighted means? Laws of averages dictate that chocolate is directly proportion to... subcutaneous depression is inversely proportional to.... other factors - like money, social network and anorex-quotient - being constant....

And, in the train, I think about a question I've thought about for ages: Why do small towns have talented sexologists, above all othe fields of specialisation? And why do they advertise so aggressively on walls and fences that border the railway line?

In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, Dr Prabhakar Jain, it seems, is the new toast of those challenged in the bedroom. His name is plastered across three districts -Gwalior, Bhind and Morena.

He welcomes all sorts of problems that I try to translate, out of sheer boredom: namard (impotent, I think?), niyogi(?), nakaam (useless? failure?), niraash (hopeless), charm-rogi(what does this mean?), gupt-rogi (sexually-diseased... but gupt is actually 'sexret' or hidden. strange, isn't it, that anything sexual is also secret?), sheeghrapaat (sheeghra meaning quick, paat meaning falling...? Yes, I know; I do not have an immediate career in translation)

And across all these advertisements, the word SEX keeps guard, like a large, blue-uniformed watchman.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Kebab dilemmas

We (my immediate family) have a rather tenuous relationship with religion.

Like a now on-now, now-off affair between lovers who really don't see eye-to-eye and are a little mortified at the prospect of a lifelong marriage-type commitment... but since they can't see where else they could go for relief and familiar acceptance, they jsut stay.

And so, whenever confronted with the ridiculous, the mad, the incongruous, the false, the stretched-to-limits-of-incredulity in our religion, our reactions range from a shrug to a laugh.

Often, I try to examine my own, and my family's, attitudes to the religion we were born into, to study the multi-pronged fork with which we stab at it, and the social sabre it uses, in turn, to stun us into conformity.

When inviting distant relatives over for dinner, my mother spends several hours agonizing over the choice between veg/non-veg. This is as much a mehmaan-nawaazi dilemma, as it is a religious one.

It is serious stuff because, culturally, if there's no maas-machhi on the menu, our guests won't feel honoured. Mutton or chicken or both are expected, sort of, when you call people over.

On the other hand, there's this business of halaal and haraam. You have to make sure the meat-shop is a Muslim guy's shop.

This is the part where I suffer horribly because, if the butcher isn't obviously muslim - wearing a cap, a beard and a checked lungi, and a big chalk sign somewhere saying 'halaal', how am I to know?

In Delhi, with new, swankier kebab-shops opening up where the names are cosmopolitan and the shopkeepers rather suave, clean-shaven people, I have no way of knowing halaal from haraam. And I refuse to find out. Besides, I don't care. Why should I ask?

But my mom points out that it might bother our guests.

I point out - we don't need to tell them.

Mom points out - but they may not eat, if they suspect it's not halaal.

I point out - not my concern. Let them go hungry.

Mom points out - It is our concern. The food will go waste.

I am silenced, at this point.
My solution to this is simple though - let's just not call people who're so touchy about their meat.

Mom say - it's not a solution at all. You can't escape family.

But later, as we finally eat our suspect-halaal kebabs, mom muses - But what do these people do at MacDonalds? Do they ask for halaal burgers?

And I try to recall a single instance when somebody has questioned MacDonalds' burgers' halaal quotient. I can't.
I see plenty of burqa-clad, head-scarf-donning women at MacD's. I see Arab men. Nobody kicks up a fuss. Yet, these same people do kick up a huge fuss when it comes to the neighbourhood butcher-shop...

And I completely fail to understand - why?

I've heard Mohammad (the prophet) himself ate without kicking up a fuss. He ate with tribal chieftains who weren't necessarily his followers. He ate with Europeans, Greeks. I can't imagine him checking with the chefs.

But then, they say that religion is not about Mohammad alone, not anymore. Religion is never about its origins, its prophets, its holy books. I'm still trying to figure out why.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

When cabbies ask for kisses (auto-maton-6)

Mid-day has a report - cabbie asks tourist for kiss - which, while it is all rather pathetic, brings back scary memories from four years ago.

The time when I worked for Mid-day and took my turn at the shifts - early morning, afternoon or late-night (the newsroom referred to them as 'mourning', 'bakra' and 'graveyard' shifts respectively). The times when I set out of the house at 3.45 in the morning. Or took the last train home, at about 1 o'clock at night. The time when I began to see that Bombay is only as safe as its crowds. Give it a moment of alone-ness, give it a deserted stretch of road, and it can turn into as much of a male beast as Delhi was rumoured to be.

Four years ago, I took an auto-rickshaw home, from Andheri station to the east where we lived, near Mahakali.

I forget whether I was on the graveyard shift, or not. The details are rather fuzzy in my head, but I remember working late, and it was nearly midnight, or way past. I remember being exhausted and taking the first auto that agreed to take me.

I remember being calm until we hit the flyover and two men started giving chase, on a bike. They were shouting - I couldn't hear what, but I remember the fear. They ordered the rickshaw-driver to stop. They tried blocking his way, driving him almost off the bridge.

To my horror, the driver slowed down. He turned round in his seat, leered and said, "Shall I stop? Shall we wait for them?"
For a fraction of a second, I was tongue-tied. But not long enough. I told him, "If you stop now, I will kill you. I really will."

It is an entirely different matter that I wouldn't have known how to begin carrying out my threat, or whether I made any sense at all, but the driver turned his attention to the accelerator. Which was not a good idea either, because he was clearly drunk. But he seemed to be the lesser of two evils.

The men on the bike were riding parallel to us, now. They cursed, kept trying to get the auto to stop, but when the flyover met a junction of the road that was slightly busier, with a little more traffic, they gave up and left.

I couldn't breathe yet, though. Now, I had the driver to contend with. I wanted him to stop and get into another auto, but he would not slow down, not even at traffic lights. So, I held my silence and prayed.
Then, this man began to talk. "So, what are you?"
I did not want to antagonize him right now, so I decided to talk to him as long as he kept getting me closer to home. "What do you mean?"

"What do you do?"
"I write."
"You what?"
"I write for a paper. I'm a journalist."
He laughed outright. "You're lying!"
"What?" I was surprised at his disbelief. "Why should I lie?"
"You don't look like a journalist."
"Why? What do you think a journalist looks like?"
"I don't know.... Not like you."
"What do I look like then?"
"You look like a bar dancer," he turned to look at me and almost drove off the road, in his drunk grinning.

I swallowed this with mixed reactions. Did he mean to compliment me or was he suggesting something? "A bar dancer, hunh? What do bar dancers look like?"
"They look like you."
"Oh!" I didn't know what else to say. I looked down at myself - long checked kurta, loosely clasped vagrant hair, loose salwar, flat kolhapuris, no jewelry, no make-up. Bar dancer?

He drove for a while longer, then began again. "So, which bar do you dance in?"
"I told you - I'm not a dancer. I work for a paper."
He laughed again. "You're lying. Come, tell me the truth."
"But I did tell the truth."
"Really? Which paper do you write for?"

He looked into the mirror, unsure now, of whether I was kidding him or not. Besides, we were nearly home. My relief was giving me courage.
So I said, "Why did you say I look like a dancer? You know quite well that I don't."
He grinned again. "I know. I just wanted to say it."

My building's gates loomed large and so did two sleepy watchmen.
I began to take out money to pay him, but the driver said, "Give me one kiss, before you go."
I just stared at him, stupefied. "Why?"
"One kiss. You don't need to pay me, if you like."
I refused and tried to thrust money into his hands but hut he was not listening. "You must give me one kiss before you go."
"Are you out of your mind? Take your money and leave, before I call the watchmen."

The man tried to start up the auto-rickshaw and begin moving again. So, I stepped out quickly, flung money into the passenger-seat and ran, not stopping until I stepped inside the gates.

I didn't say anything at home. Once safe at home, food, sleep and exhaustion took care of the fear. (If you ever read this, mom, it was all a long time ago. No point getting upset about it, now).
I did not mention this because it would serve no purpose. I did not know the auto's number, and wasn't sure if I even wanted the driver arrested. He was drunk; and he did save me from the bike-riders....

If I had mentioned it, it would either have been translated into diktats, like "No more coming home late/No more going out alone". Or, I would have been forced to ask the chief/ editor to excuse me from the mourning and graveyard shifts. Which, I refuse to do. I never have asked for gender-based concessions when it comes to work; don't intend to.

Why am I bringing it up, now?

Because I am thinking of bar dancers and auto-drivers who ask for kisses.
Because a lot of times in Bombay, taking the last train home, I have felt safe only because there were dozens of confident, loud, bar dancers in the ladies' compartment, who would not stand by and watch - I am reasonably certain - if there was trouble.
Because Bombay's 'safe-for-women' tag is not a universal deal; to a lot of women, it is a myth. Because Bombay's sex ratio is also quite skewed. Because I have data that suggests a direct link between the lack of women and the growing cases of violence against women.
Because it is far enough in the past for me to laugh about it, a little. Because the world is so crazy, that I'm even a little sorry for poor auto-drivers who must be so desperate for kisses that they ask complete strangers, and I wonder if they ever get kissed, at all? Are bar dancers the only ones who agree to kiss them?
Or just... because.

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