Friday, August 20, 2010

Spectator Sport

It was the summer vacation my last year at high school and I was in spending a few weeks at my Grandmother’s in Kolkata. On the evening which this post is about, my aunt and I were at Gariahat shopping. A young man who looked like a college student had been following us around for a while and then it happened. I was “eve-teased”. I told my aunt right away and she asked “Are you sure he did that ? He looks like a boy from a good family” and I replied “Yes. I am absolutely certain”.

She suggested that we give him another opportunity to be sure that I was right in my assessment of the "incident" and give us the chance to catch him in the act if I was. A few minutes later, we had reason to accost him, beat him with our bare hands with my aunt was livid enough to go at him with her umbrella berating him as she did for being a common lecher while pretending to be a student. He kept repeating “I’m sorry. I won't do it again”. As far as I could tell, he did not appear particularly contrite but was definitely taken aback by this unexpected attack by two women in a public place.

Soon enough, in true to form Kolkata fashion an audience had gathered around us in a circle. Several men suggested that we let him go because it was his first mistake – I was not sure how they could have known that to be the case.Yet other men said that he had been punished enough and we should stop now. But for the most part people (men and women) asked us “What happened ?” (clearly all that my aunt was saying in her rage to the man and his reaction to her accusations was not conveying the message clearly enough to our audience).

Some went as far as to wonder “Are you sure he really did something ?” or ask " How bad was it ?" (suggesting that us two women had recently exited a lunatic asylum and had got it into our deranged brains to beat up a random guy walking down the street minding his own business. If the lack of our mental faculties  was so painfully evident, they should have called the authorities to strait-jacket both of us to prevent further destruction of life and property. Instead they stood around watching and asking these questions).

Not one man or woman said anything in our support - let alone demonstrate it in any useful way. Some stayed in the side lines and bemoaned the state of society where a young girl duly accompanied by an aunt was not safe from the undesired attentions of street side Romeos. They were the first to walk away from the scene anxious not to get involved in any of it. It was clear they held both my aunt and I in very dim view - just the kind of women that Bengali "bhadralok" should steer clear off. Imagine causing such a racket over a small thing like "eve-teasing".

After a while both my aunt and I stopped from sheer mental and physical exhaustion. Anger and the public mockery that my humiliation had turned us into was enough to want us both to vanish without a trace. The young man got up, collected his text books that had fallen out of his bag. He walked away and so did we. The audience left with as much haste as they would exit a movie theater when the closing credits start to roll. I would imagine it had been a "paisa vasool tamasha" (spectacle worth the money) for all of them - and it didn't cost them anything.

When we got home, my Grandma flew into a panic fueled rage when she heard what had happened. She gave my aunt a mouthful for setting a bad example and behaving “like that” in public. What’s a young girl going to learn ? Next time a man does something to her (clearly this would hardly be the last time - she seemed confident of that at least), she’s going to try and beat him up and only bad things can result from that. Is that my aunt wanted to see happen to me ? Did she not know that women from respectable families did not call unpleasant attention to themselves in public ? I hated to see my feisty aunt, my hero be treated so unfairly but it was just not the time to argue with Grandma.

We had to deal with her withering statements disapproving of our conduct for a good hour before she finally stopped. She agreed it was hard to not become furious under the circumstances but should we not worry about not stirring up even more trouble. What if the guy had decided to strike back – he was over six feet tall and well built – what would we do then ? What if he had followed us home an decided to extract a revenge even more horrible ? No matter what there would always be crowd around us inquiring into the details of the incident and do nothing. Had we considered any of that ? Had my aunt taken leave of her senses ?

She decreed that for the rest of my stay at Kolkata I was to be accompanied by an uncle (if not both) each time I needed to go out somewhere. I asked my Grandma if she wanted enlist their friends as well – I could go out boldly with a dozen men forming a phalanx around me. Should I still get “eve-teased”, I had a better chance of fighting back. She was not in the least amused.

I did not fail to notice that my uncles (both my aunt's brothers and her husband) did not compliment her on her courage. They look just as concerned as my Grandma. I was disappointed to see that. Is that they best they could do - say nothing at all ? It took my some years to understand their predicament. They could not realistically take on all the bad guys that we would meet in the world outside a la Superman. With their limited resources, the best they could do is to keep us out of harm's way

To that end, they accompanied us whenever possible, ran errands for us when it was not considered "safe" for us to do so. Refused to let their teen-aged daughters to go out wearing clothes that some pervert on the street may find provocative - the list was endless. These are the men in families just like mine who believe they are doing their best to keep the women out of harm's way. While they mean well, they also enable the crippling cycle of fear, diffidence and dependence among women and there is a steep price to pay for all of it. That was my life growing up in India - a life that I have in common with most Indian women I know.

That incident has some of the most remarkable parallels to my experience writing a post (including the comments and emails it provoked) some time back about the lack of freedom for women in India and my hesitation to return there from America specially with a young daughter.Some of the  commenters reminded me of the audience that had gathered around my aunt and I at Gariahat many years ago.

They were those that convinced that I was over-reacting and nothing had really happened - India was not nearly as terrible for women as I made it out to be. Some were passers by with no desire to take sides one way or the other - it happens in India and around the world - maybe it is a little worse in India. No big deal. Yet others acted like men often do in India - go into full-throttle denial of the issue itself so they can continue to feel like "real" men. They focus on assembling a battery of evidence to show how India is no worse than any other country instead of being positive agents of change.

However, those closest to the subject - Indian women remained largely silent or vaguely dismissive. Their own experiences did not match mine though I was probably right and somewhat justified in my concerns and opinion on the subject. There was a welcome difference too - in the on-line world some were able to take a position on their own and stick with it - it was refreshing to see some solidarity from the sisters for a change. What I remember most vividly about that evening is the general attitude of the women in the audience – there was no sense of sister-hood with me (the victim) or my aunt (my defender). They mostly wanted to know the scoop – like it was some great mystery that only I could reveal unto them.

The subliminal message being that I had done something to cause this to happen and had it been them, the same man would have not reacted nearly the same way had it been them. Something was inherently wrong with me - what else do you expect with a firebrand aunt like that - and I was merely suffering the consequences of my less than satisfactory upbringing. They were so glad not to be at the receiving end of unwanted attention that they had forgotten that it could be their turn the very next moment.

None of them paused to think why it is that a man suspected of picking a pocket could  even get killed at the hands of a mob without any questions being asked but when it came to a woman being molested, a trial by fire was needed to prove she was justified in making the claim of harassment. It did not bother them that men could minimize or even deny what they had to go through when they had no right or business doing so. It did not strike them as ironic that they were participating in this kangaroo court proceeding alongside men - that they were their gender's worst enemy.

I had felt that evening, that the eve-teaser was probably a better man than any other male in the audience. He took the public beating and the abuses my aunt hurled at him without protest and left without a whimper. As much public sympathy he had with the men in the audience, he could have well used it to his advantage and tried to turn the crowd against us. Other than my aunt, not one woman assembled there to watch the tamasha felt the indignation a woman should - to realize that was as heartbreaking as it was frightening. As far as I was concerned my aunt was the only woman who had a woman's heart and soul.

When I wrote that earlier post, I was disappointed to see very few female readers come up and voice their opinion on that post. If that knot of people around the three of us in Kolkata was a petri dish in which to observe Indian society in a test environment, so was the post. While a lot of time has passed between the two events, fundamentally very little has changed. In a sense I was alone with a circle of spectators once again.The tragedy of the Indian woman is not about the men out to exploit, abuse and manipulate her when they find her in a vulnerable position, but it is the lack of solidarity with other women. We are a people divided against ourselves in more ways than can be counted but the price of women being divided between themselves in the face of so much social atrocity is possibly the highest.

In this country, every American woman (black and white) in my acquaintance who has been a single mother herself or knows someone who has been one has gone out of her way to help me in any way they possibly can. I have yet to see an exception to this rule. These are the women that made my life in my single parent days relatively simple. My experience in India had been the exact opposite - my marital status turned me into a social pariah almost instantly. Yes, there were exceptions to this rule but not nearly enough in number to make it a comfortable social existense for one such as myself. For this reason alone, I had been able to work it out for J and I so far away from family - far more comfortably than I was had been able to in India.

My friend A, who has spent half his life in Europe and America and the other half in India, wrote this to me back in the days when I was dithering between staying back in India to raise J with the support of family in surroundings I was familiar with and taking the plunge into the unknown in this country :

"America is country of second chances, there is no stigma attached to failure (and I mean in a social sense). You will find it very liberating in your situation and it may be worth all the trouble. India is a great place to live - people are warm and friendly but only as long as you don't "fail". Once you do, the facade falls off and you see people for who they really are. From what I can tell from talking to you, you are in a state of shock at the difference. Don't be. Accept it as a chance to find out who your "real" friends are. When you come here, you may have no friends at all but you will get by with the help and kindness of strangers".

It was good advise and I am glad I took it.

A lot has been written about the position of women in India and the endless list of impediments on their way forward. Much can be accomplished merely through cultivating a sense of sisterhood - you would think the experiences they have in the public space would make this easy. Class, social and economic status mean absolutely nothing to the average "eve-teaser". Every one is just a female gender - for better or worse that should facilitate a stronger sense of kinship between women but surprisingly enough it does not. 

That aunt is close to sixty now and on most days completely wiped out after babysitting her three grand-kids. My daughter will be a teenager soon and had I been back in Kolkata, I may have needed to do for her what my aunt once did for me - that is a sobering realization.


Chevalier said...

Thank you for writing this. I've been through the circular firing squad of sanctimonious men & women in India, and by now I'm no longer angry - I'm contemptuous. Having said that, this self-destruction, the lack of the feeling of sisterhood, is NOT limited to India. Women are judgemental everywhere, because the disappearance of the sisterhood is the easiest way to keep enforcing patriarchy (for e.g. see the Mommy Wars, remember what happened to someone like Hillary Clinton).

In any case, I'm really glad you've found a support system here in the US. Kudos, and let's hope we pass it onward too. :-)

ggop said...

Hate victim blaming and I'm not surprised by the subliminal messages you get from the deafening silence.

I've seen Indian guys argue on this topic by asking questions on how many women were groped in the subways of New York etc. (It happens everywhere line of thinking)

I remember people would squirm and avoid eye contact if you raised your voice or caused a scene. Its just a tamasha indeed!

Anonymous said...

Hello Heartcrossings,

First of all, congratulations are in order -- now you can proudly walk into any Indian gathering with your head held high; after all you are now an honest woman -- somebody's 'Missus' and you will find that every Indian (male and female) is only too happy to make your acquaintance. :)

About Indian women being their own worst enemies, you've already said everything I can think of; and you've said it far more eloquently then I ever could.
This has baffled me for a long time -- why do women, Indian women in particular, fail to stand up for each other? I have seen mothers-in-law manipulate and harass their daughters-in-law. In theory, they ought to remember the time, not so long ago, when they were themselves anxious brides trying valiantly to fit into and be accepted by a new family whose members were often inclined to be judgmental and critical. But they don't; in fact they are often instrumental in ensuring that a new bride has a difficult time adjusting and fitting into her new surroundings. I think Indian women are socialized to believe that men are inherently better, more valuable and more important. They are also raised not to question or challenge men and the patriarchal customs that they represent. Any woman who does so is basically taking on the combined might of centuries of 'tradition' and societal conditioning. No wonder people react so harshly to non-conformist women. Like you, I have often defended myself against street harassment, with results that were similarly disappointing. I think Indian women understand from a very young age that to challenge social customs, and deeply entrenched ways of behavior and thinking is a futile exercise and that its better to conform to socially accepted ways of behavior; no matter how unfair they may be. Its tragic and shortsighted but I don't see it changing anytime in the foreseeable future. Indian society is fundamentally patriarchal and feudal and the concepts of equality and social justice are essentially foreign to our cultural consciousness and ways of thinking. My two cents!