Sunday, January 29, 2012

Class conflict on the Virar Fast

Over a year and they haven’t faded — two tiny scars on my right hand, caused by another woman’s hands. Both of us were trying to get into a local train and she was both impatient and aggressive.

Trains are the rather choked lifeline of Mumbai and commuter fights are routine. I don’t mean squabbling about who gets to sit down where. I’m talking about petty violence — an elbow in the ribs, a shove, a slap, plenty of speculation about the incestuous and bestial relationships in our families.

But what troubles me the most are the nightly first class-second class confrontations. Around 11pm, one of the three ‘Ladies Only’ coaches is de-reserved. Or, like the Mumbai ladies say, “It becomes gents”. Around 10.45pm, men start to pour in. Women commuters choose to get into the adjacent coach instead, which is ‘24-hour Ladies Only’. This is also a first class coach.

Now begins our nightly drama. Most women scrambling in don’t have first class tickets. Those who do have legit tickets are forced to stand, even at that late hour. They get cranky. They get resentful. They get ugly.

They assess each other’s clothes, bags, burqas, kids. They sniff, and say things like: “These women, they just get in, don’t they? How many do you think have a valid pass? But here they are! And we’re such idiots. Paying extra money to travel in comfort. But what for? We stand and they sit.”

They do sit, rather shamefacedly, afraid of being exposed. Some are so embarrassed that they stand near the door, faces averted. Some brazen it out. They say things like: “We have valid passes, okay? Who are you to ask us for tickets?” Or, “Well, the ladies became the gents so what do you expect? It is the railways’ fault.” Or, “We aren’t regular commuters. It was a family outing, and with the kids...you are also a woman. You should understand.” Or, “Shut up, b***ch.”

This can lead to either an all-out slanging match, or a shrug and a remark directed at another first-class passenger: “These second class people… No point talking to them. No manners.”

The scary thing is that everyone seems to have a class radar whereby they can identify first or second class passengers. In case someone gets it wrong, there is an outraged splutter. First class passengers offer proof, angry at being mistaken for ‘them’. Their eyes seem to be asking: “Why? Do I look like I’m second class?”

On the other hand, there’s the silent outrage of ‘second class’ passengers. I remember two incidents of loud ‘class’ confrontations clearly. One woman had shouted: “Be grateful for us. If we weren’t here, robbers would enter this precious coach and all you first class people would get mugged.” Another night, another woman had snapped: “Are the seats made of gold in this coach?”

They aren’t. The seats are cushioned though. For first class bums, I suppose.

And to think that all this unpleasantness can be avoided. The metro in Delhi doesn’t have first class coaches. So although there is overcrowding and discomfort, we are not constantly gauging each other’s ‘class’, nor humiliating each other.

I’m hoping the new metro lines in Mumbai won’t have class distinctions. And I hope the older trains will also be rid of first class coaches. It might mean more discomfort for a few of us. But if we are to move towards a better world, if we want to build ‘world-class’ cities, then we must try to minimise social resentment. And how can we avoid resentment when some bums have cushioned seats while many others don’t? 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Incident

A tribal person set out from home to encash a cheque, after working hard to collect tendu leaves. He was ‘picked up’ allegedly by the Chhattisgarh police.

While he was in lock-up, the police said, he used a bedsheet (or perhaps a shawl, or blanket) to hang himself. Then the police were saying that he was caught by the CRPF and tortured nearly to death. The post mortem report has mentioned injury to the genitals. Some constables have been suspended.

Funny, isn’t it, the way these incidents play out? The police explanations… if they must make fictions, can they not come up with something more creative than ‘Hung himself’? Although it is sort of amazing — the speed at which some people grow weary of life whilst in custody. It makes the imagination boggle to think of the kind of misery a man must feel in order to injure his own genitals before hanging himself. And what sane woman would put foreign objects into her genitals before contriving to slip in the bathroom and hurting her head and spine?

On a serious note, what are these cops (or those armed forces guys) thinking when they put out such blatant lies? They must know that forensic and medical science will give them away. They must know that questions will be asked if someone dies whilst in custody. Or, do they not know any such thing?

... Perhaps they are thinking: this wasn’t part of the deal.

Read full piece here

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My colony has a fancy western-sounding name and, while constructing the illusion that we were buying into something exotic, the builder has installed statues vaguely modeled on Venus de Milo — nearly nude white female forms, arms missing.

Then one day, our statue was found dressed in a nightgown. But perhaps some poor person badly needed a nightgown, so the statue was bare again. Soon enough, somebody had dressed it up again, in a man’s shirt. I often wonder at the people who did that. I doubt they were worried about the dignity of our fake plaster-of-paris Venus. It hasn’t been molested (as far as I know). And I doubt they care about women looking at it. Maybe they were worried about the effect it would have on men who must also look at real, breathing women.

But surely, they don’t believe that every male that happens to be exposed to the female body is psychologically damaged, that he will turn into a rapist and killer?

Perhaps, they do. 

Some people believe that even when it is clothed, the female body can turn the male into a damaged, dangerous creature. The Andhra Pradesh police believe it causes sexual assault and blames ‘fashionable’ clothes. I suppose they refer to clothes that draw attention to women’s shapes, or exposed skin. A teacher who heads a committee to combat sexual harassment also believes that women are only safe in sarees with long-sleeved blouses.

I’ve often wondered why we don’t put these theories to the test. Does a human female body make the male want to attack it? Do clothes — any sort — prevent sexual attacks?

A good place to start would be a society where women don’t wear any clothes. From what I hear, such tribes still exist. From what I hear, sexual assault is virtually unknown there and when it occurs, the culprit is usually an outsider — men who don’t belong to clothing-less societies themselves. Such societies are not very different from us. They marry, bring up kids, worship. The only thing that’s missing is clothes. And, perhaps, the constant fear of assault or humiliation.

Another good place to test this theory is a society where men and women are totally covered up. Is sexual assault unknown? From what I hear, no. Women’s relationships and economic choices are severely curtailed. And yet, they confront accusations of soliciting male attention.

As for our society… but that brings us to the difficult question — which part of our society? Every year, schoolkids dress up in clothes from all over India as a sort of patriotic stage shows: Look, ma! So much diversity! 

Well, diversity means that we show our bodies in different ways. Our women wear sarees without blouses too. Or woolen shawls, backless cholis, dhotis, ghoonghats. Or jeans.

For the last few years, I’ve been part of a campaign against ‘eve-teasing’ or street sexual harassment. One of the projects we run is an exhibit of clothes donated by women who were harassed or molested. The diversity of the collection speaks for itself — sarees, salwars, men’s shirts, sleeveless tops, long skirts, school uniforms, jeans. I personally donated a saree with a sleeved blouse.

Perhaps, the police force (and all University teachers) should see the exhibition and maybe they will acknowledge the daftness of their attitude. Or perhaps, we should all just stop wearing clothes. I don’t know if it will help us become a rape-free society. But we might at least become a society in which we stop blaming the victim.

Read published piece here

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mouths, food, lip service

So, it is a new year, and I hope it is a good one. Many new things are happening. For one, there are so many new babies. At the time of writing this, our estimated population was 1,180,282,734 (according to the population calculating system at medindia.net). By the time I finished typing that sentence, it went up to 1,180,282,747.

It’s quite freaky actually. Try sitting still and staring at the numbers as they go up, up, up. Each minute adds 29 babies. The exercise is kind of hypnotic, and pointless of course. But imagine a new baby popping up in the room every other second. Here’s a baby! And here’s another! And one more…

And the question is: what are we going to do? They’re not numbers. They are all real, squalling babies. They want milk. Soon they’ll want roti and daal, rice and meat, eggs and fruit. We must think about how, and what, we’re going to feed them.

My grandma used to say that if God has given you a mouth, he will also give you food to eat. Which, I thought, was a bit rich, considering how many people die of hunger in this country. But even grandma, despite her faith, didn’t wait for God to fulfill his responsibilities. She actively fed as many mouths as she could and, sometimes, a few more than she could afford.

On a national scale, there are (at this moment) 1,180,283,395 mouths to feed. Some of us can afford to feed ourselves. But there are hundreds of millions — children, old people, sick people — who cannot take responsibility for feeding themselves over several years. And there are hundreds of millions of able-bodied adults who cannot find jobs, nor land on which to grow their own food.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to tell them: “Sorry, but we have no land to give you, not for food, not for housing. You were just born too late.”

Because currently, that seems to be our approach, as a nation. The government, as a representative of our larger collective responsibility, is required to interfere only in a crisis. Like, it might step in to save a malnourished infant, or distribute free food after a natural disaster.

Currently, we don’t ensure that every Indian has enough to eat. True, there are schemes. We have mid-day meals for small children in government-aided schools. We have the promise of 100 days of employment, in the villages at least. The state offers grain and sugar and kerosene at subsidised rates for the poor. (Now there are attempts to give cash instead, although the poor aren’t so happy with this arrangement. A hungry person needs a food guarantee, not a cash guarantee.)

However, we have not yet addressed the basic question: Do all Indians deserve to eat? Or do we believe that some of us deserve bottled water and broadband and truffles while some of us starve?
We must answer this question. Before we blame the government for crippling the economy through food subsidies; before we talk about how people may become lazy if they eat; before we discuss how farmers will be impacted, we must answer this question.

The National Food Security Bill has already been introduced in Parliament. Before it becomes law, we must answer this question. Because this Bill stops short of offering food security to all. There are problems with its categorisation of the poor. But it can be redrafted so that we move closer to the ideal: Food as a universal right. Because every citizen — all 1,180,285,856 of us — need to eat.

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