Yamuna

I walked past you today

Oh, pregnant river

 

You were in the earth

Where I used to tread

 

Sinuously swirling

You called out to me

 

Enchanted I stopped

To take a look

 

Swollen, full

You almost seduced me

 

In the yonder

I saw your mate

 

I decided to hurry

Past you

 

But you linger on

In my memory

 

Oh wretched one

I know your games

 

I belong to you

I know that, don’t you

 

But I am not ready

To be a part of you

 

One fine day

When the sun will shine

 

I will tread gently

On your loving waters

 

Unafraid that your hungry belly

Will consume me

 

You dangerous one

You will want to drown me

 

But I will be ready

To swim instead

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Pushing Boundaries: Sexuality and Gender in Mainstream Cinema

Note: This blog post contains spoiler alerts for Bombay Talkies and reveals plotlines

As Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, a tribute to its glorious past and the influence of cinema in our daily lives has been released in the form of four short stories called Bombay Talkies. Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap weave stories which are based in or lead to Bombay and the Hindi film industry, stories of urban couples, the working class, children and the small town people.  Of the four stories, it was interesting to see narratives of sexuality and gender becoming the backbone of Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar’s stories.

Johar, known for making sweet syrupy romantic films and family dramas tells a compelling story which requires courage. The characters are layered and deal with complex emotions in the midst of their mundane lives. The story about a young gay man falling in love with his female boss’s husband is a story which was waiting to be told in the mainstream media.

In the multiplex where I watched the film, people squirmed in their seats as the man on-screen revealed he was gay and that he was attracted to another man. There was laughter in moments which did not warrant any, reeking of homophobia. In popular culture the gay man is meant to be a caricature, not human enough to feel emotions. The man who made this film, also made Dostana, a film which trivialized the gay man, stereotyping him. Numerous other films in the mainsteam have stuck to this narrative, propagating intolerance towards gay people and reinforcing the idea that being gay equates with sexual deviance. So there was laughter when Randeep Hooda’s character hit the openly gay man. And gasps of horror when they kissed.

Finally, Karan Johar redeems himself, offering a different narrative of homosexuality. A narrative which needs to be repeated often in the mainstream to normalize the presence of different sexual orientations. A film which makes people question their long held views, which makes them deal with oppositional meaning of the text, is a mark of a good story and direction. I hope that Johar will continue to experiment with his brand of cinema, challenging the norms.

Zoya Akhtar brings to fore a story of a young boy who wants to be a dancer when he grows up and is forced to play football instead. Though the story’s main narrative deals with the aspirations of the little boy and gender stereotyping, there is an underlying interpretative narrative of his sexuality.

Tight editing, well-etched characters and a strong script are the strength of the story. The middle class family where the boy is expected to be the man of the house when he grows up, the wife who meekly retreats when her husband bellows at the boy dressed in a girl’s outfit, makeup and shoes, the sister who can’t go on a school trip because the family budget allows only her brother to attend football coaching, is a theme many in the middle India can relate to.

The film raises pertinent questions of gender roles and the acceptable male behaviour, challenging them when the boy performs on a make-shift stage, his joy palpable as he comes alive dancing to Sheila ki Jawani. His innocent proclamation that he wants to be Sheila when he grows up is a theme which could be interpreted as gender dysphoria or being gay is left undeveloped, given this is a twenty minute film.

However, it is refreshing to see these narratives being played out in the mainstream and while an average audience member might not be able to read the sexuality of the child, he understands the textual meanings of dreams and gender stereotypes. Akhtar shows brilliance in restraint and realistic development of characters.

After hundred years of challenging what is acceptable in our society, showing a mirror to it, at times being progressive, at others regressive, our cinema continues to grow leaps and bounds, entertaining India’s masses, becoming the country’s soft power abroad and through these short stories, once again pushing the boundaries. Of telling stories of love and dreams, of broken hearts and crushed ambitions, of soaring love and triumphant success.  Of disobeying the rules of what kind of love is acceptable and what kind of dreams cannot be followed.

May Indian cinema continue to celebrate life and its stories.

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A Lost Paradise

When I went to Hyderabad for the first time, I was told to go to Paradise for their scrumptious Biryani. A Hyderabad bucket list thing to do. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But today, I am not just disappointed, I am ashamed. I came across this blog post going viral on facebook and clicked on the link, only to read this about the behaviour of the resturant staff:

 

For all those living in Hyderabad, India, Paradise hotel is synonymous to biryani and is one of the most visited restaurants in the city. Located in Secunderabad, the hotel was so iconic that it lent its name to the place where it is. I say ‘was iconic’ because it no longer is, for me anyways.

Last night, I was there with my family celebrating my mother’s birthday. After dinner, we came down and were waiting for our car to be brought around by the valet. There was this one woman who was selling mogra flowers, a street hawker, right near the restaurant.

Now Paradise for whatever reasons has bouncers as security personnel outside its premises. My husband, my cousins and I were just talking about what was an outright lecherous look of a bouncer towards this woman, when another bouncer walked in (at this point, the woman was surrounded by four bouncers) and asked her to move away from there. Now, I understand that the parking area is managed by these guys, but what right they have to order people off the roads? Anyways, even as she began to walk away, the bouncer pushed her to the ground–yes on a road where traffic flow is quite heavy; snatched her basket of flowers, tore them and began to hit the woman. When we along with the other customers started to scream and run towards the bouncer hitting the woman, he pushed her again to the ground, and ran inside the Paradise garage.

We were quite enraged at this point and ran inside the garage only to be stopped by other bouncers who told us to ‘get lost’ and one went to the extent of saying that the woman was beaten because she was ‘drunk’ and ‘misbehaving’. By this time, a considerably big crowd had gathered all of them demanding for the bouncer to be handed over. Not only were the other bouncers and security guard protecting the culprit but they went a step ahead and threatened customers to leave or forfeit their cars which were in the garage.

In a matter of seconds, the bouncers also began closing the garage doors and had barricaded one of the entrances to the hotel. A so-called Manager appeared on the scene, behind the barricades and told us to leave, saying “You are making a scene out of nothing”.

At this point, I called 108 and had also informed a couple of media houses about the incident. Soon, i saw a Rakshak vehicle (police patrol jeep) and stopped the vehicle and informed them of the incident. When the SI, one Shiva Prasad, asked the security guard what happened he said “nothing happened these guys are just making a big deal out of nothing”. When the police went inside to get the guy, they could not find the guy either. But what was heartening, at this point to see were the many people who had witnessed the incident, coming forward and informing the police. Many had waited for the police to come to complaint.

When i spoke to the other women hawkers there they told me that they are bullied on a daily basis by the Paradise security men. “They push us around, spoil our flowers and sometimes even grope us. We put up with it because we have no choice and have to do this for a living,” said one of the hawkers Lakshmi.

This is the appalling state of affairs in our city and country. What did the guy who pushed that woman and beat her think? That no one would react or that he would get away with it? I guess he thought both. And for all that i know, he might actually get away with it. While i did file a complaint with the SI, am yet to hear about the actual details and realistically speaking, i know that Paradise can ‘afford’ to bribe their way out of this incident. Their reputation will be hardly hit if the media does not take up the issue. Despite, working with the media i feel thoroughly helpless and frustrated that this matter has not been brought to light (as yet atleast) And so decided to go ahead and blog about it.

The manager who  was apprehended by the police last night was almost nonchalant and seemed assured that nothing would come out of this.

But what caught my attention was this- even as i was ashamed that something like this happened in my city, the number of my fellow Hyderabadis who rose to the occassion and fought for this woman who believe me was quite shaken and scared.

There are a lot of underlying issues here. One of class and gender. The inequality of it all. This security guard aka bouncer was assured of his management’s support and hence took the step of assaulting a hapless woman. A woman he knew, would not be able to fight back on her own. By calling her a drunk, the other bouncers somehow felt they had the moral authority to hit a woman. What was disgusting was the complete lack of responsibility on the part of the management.This attitude that she is no body so we can do whatever needs to be cracked down on not to mention  these so called security guards need to be sensitised.

At a time when there is so much public anger on the lack of safety for women, this incident just goes to show how much work’s to be done when it comes to this issue. But, I have hope now. Hope, that people will no longer stay quiet when incidents like this happen. Often, it takes one person to react-(in this case it was my family which reacted in unison)- to encourage other bystanders to stop being spectators. If the police takes action against these guys, they will be setting a wonderful precedent in the city. The incident also brought to the fore the concept of safety for thousands of women employed like this. Who are they to approach when such things take place and to what extent is justice actually delivered? Apart from strengthening laws, its time we even think of how to make women aware of their rights so that they can fight back.

And yes i know for a fact that I will NEVER step foot into that restaurant or any of its branches again  or even order from there. The only way these big establishments will understand the gravity of what happened last night is when people begin to boycott them.

I generally don’t ask for my blog posts to be shared, but this one i will. Please read and share this as widely as possible. We need to come together to teach a lesson to these guys and cut their arrogance. This might be a long shot, but i believe in the power of social media.

 This is cross-posted from the original blog here.

I hope one day, we can create an environment where it is NOT acceptable to mistreat women, hit them or harass them. The change has to come from us and our voices in unity. 

Amen.

 

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Walk (Part 2)

What it means to walk for Indian women

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March 11, 2013 · 8:57 pm

Walk

Walk.

A simple task we humans learnt when we evolved from being apes. A task which allows us to reach our destination, allows us to discover life. It’s something we take for granted because it’s so unimaginably mundane, so ordinary. And yet, it’s something, we Delhi women fear.

Our mothers revel in joy when as babies we learn to walk. And the opposite of that joy when we grow up and they say – don’t walk, the city is not meant for you to walk.

It was Maya Krishna Rao’s booming voice counting the numbers, until she stopped at twelve. And said she would like to take a walk at midnight. At 3 AM. At 4 AM. I nodded vigourously and clapped. My eyes tearing a little.

As a child, I was never afraid of the dark or the night. I was enamoured by the mysteries it could hold.

I love the night because I am moved by the beauty of the stillness and calm, when I can watch the stars and hear my thoughts. I love spotting the Orion and the Big Dipper through the night, their changing positions providing a sense of time passing by.

It’s glorious to walk down the streets in the night. I did it when I lived in England. With various friends and acquaintances, saving the snails on our walking paths in the summer, walking slowly to conquer the black ice in winters, after a night of club-hopping. Or simply finding a bench and sitting there alone. I was almost unafraid of the dark corners and empty roads. A little voice in my head saying, “woah, you are so brave.”

And then I came back to India. To Delhi. To the city where I have grown up and which has played an important role in shaping me. To a city where I dread walking. I drive everywhere, don’t take the public transport, wear shapeless androgynous clothes when I need to go to the grocery shop across my home.

I was a soldier once. In my teenage years, through school and college. Leered, leched, touched, groped. Psychologically scarred, physically scared. I was afraid. I was violated. I was meek. And then I was angry. In my battle fatigues of jeans and t-shirt and my backpack as my armour, I would walk on the opposite side of the street traffic, rarely on unlit pavement, in crowded buses, on alert. I would grab any hand which tried to touch me. Confront, kick, slap the violator. But it kept happening. Again and again.

So I stopped.

I bought a car and now I drive everywhere. I don’t walk anymore. Not in the winter sunshine, not in the first rains of the monsoon, not on cool summer nights.

I am ashamed I stopped fighting. I became tired. I became battle-weary. I stopped re-claiming the public space which was mine. The pavements which were mine to walk, the buses which were mine to take, the gardens and the blue skies which were mine to see, the cityscapes which were mine to explore.

I miss walking.

I am sorry I stopped fighting. Because that’s when I became afraid of the dark and the light of the day. Because that’s when men decided they were the sole owners of the public space. That I was an anomaly there. That I needed to be shown that bus wasn’t meant for me. That I should have been in my private space, in my home, in my kitchen.

I felt anguish. And then the familiar anger. In every cell of my being.

It was the night of 1st January 2013, when after a holiday with friends, I took an evening flight back from Bhubneshwar. The only one out of the city which reached a foggy Delhi at about 8.30 PM. I took a taxi home at 9 PM with my sister who was patiently waiting at the airport, her flight from another city having landed a few hours ago. The Delhi incident fresh in the mind of people, we were strange objects of fascination standing at the airport, daring to take a taxi.

A furious and a concerned sister confronted me at home, calling me “stupid enough” to fly back on a late evening flight and then use the public transport to get back home. Fighting back tears and rage, I told her I wasn’t afraid. That I refuse to be afraid. That I refuse to cow down. That fear was not my prison. That men needed to know that women could and would be a part of the public space. They NEEDED to accept my presence there. I didn’t need to be apologetic about it.

It’s our collective failure that we gave them power over us. It’s our collective failure that we kept quiet too long. It’s our collective failure that we made them think we were weak.

And so yesterday, when I listened to Maya, I remembered what it was like to walk. I remembered the solace I took in the quietness of many nights when I was privileged enough to walk, the chaotic days when the streets were mine. I was filled with melancholy, then helplessness. And eventually angry enough to demand my right. I wanted to walk.

Her words stirred up something inside. It opened the pandora’s box. The feelings which were kept aside for practical purposes. The cravings which were checked, now demanding to break free. To feel my feet on the mother earth which created us. To feel it pound the earth with a purpose. Without a purpose.

When the emotionally charged evening ended, I decided to walk, having parked my car a kilometer away from the Delhi Rising site. It was a pleasant winter evening. Maya’s words echoing in my ears, “Walk, I want to walk.” My female colleague looked at me with uncertain eyes.

“Let’s take an autorickshaw,” she said.

“No, let’s walk,” I replied.

“There is a dark stretch,” she insisted.

“I’ll kick any bastard in the balls who tries to harass us,” I replied in anger.

“No,” she shook her head.

Eventually, we took an autorickshaw till the point where our cars were parked.

One day, I want to walk, really walk. I want to wander the streets enveloped in the blanket of night and discover what secrets it holds. I want to wander the streets in the brightness of the day, smile at strangers and hear their stories.

Because if I can conquer the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day, there will be nothing to fear. Then I can be unafraid. Then I can be free. Free enough to do the most mundane task we humans do.

—–

Essay written after attending the Delhi Rising event as part of the One Billion Rising campaign. Words inspired by Maya Krishna Rao’s powerful monologue at the Delhi Rising event.

 

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I Rise

I rise

Because I want to walk down that street

Freely, happily, unafraid

Just like you

 

I rise

Because a fire was lit

And it’s burning brighter

In every atom of my being

 

I rise

Because I was defiled

My crime was being a girl

Thirteen with no breasts to touch

 

I rise

Because you look at me

Like you want to rape me

Undressing me with your eyes

 

I rise

Because I want to run

Feel the wind in my hair

Without any fear

 

I rise

Because I want to see the world

Travelling to my own tunes

Just like you

 

I rise

Because I am a sexual being

And whatever I wear

I never ask for it

 

I rise

Because I am a woman

Your equal, your greater

Never lesser that your half

 

I rise

Because this is my fight

Because you assumed me weak

Subservient and quiet

 

I rise

In war

In pain

In fear

 

I rise

In hope

In prayer

In freedom

————-

For the One Billion Rising Campaign and it’s Delhi event

Meanwhile watch this

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fL5N8rSy4CU#!

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Stealing Spaces

Note: I am re-publishing an essay which I read here. I think it is relevant and makes sense of the issues of rape and sexual harassment in India.

———–

A woman’s place is in her home, in her kitchen and in her duties as the mother, wife or sister. It’s her father, husband or brother’s prerogative to keep her safe. As a woman, she is accompanied by her father or her brother in a public space. She doesn’t negotiate with men, she never learns to be on her own. Her domain is a private place, in the four walls of her house. This is how most of Northern India has functioned since a very long time. Even now, in most villages and towns, the above statements hold true.

What happens to such men when they, in search of economic prosperity, come to bigger cities and a thriving metropolis like Delhi? Or they, even if living in big cities, come from such patriarchal cultures? They find women unaccompanied by men, driving, walking, using the public transport, working, wearing what ever they want and most importantly, negotiating the public space like they belong in the complex social milieu.

The old ideas of women’s need to be protected, to be kept at home, to be kept safe, all melting away in front of their eyes. Instead they find these creatures – bold, secure and confident. And then begins the game of reclaiming their space, their perceived threat to masculinity.

Ask any girl or a woman in Delhi about sexual harassment, termed so beautifully as ‘eve teasing’, and they will have horror stories to tell. At 13 being groped at places where breasts don’t exist, at 14 being flashed by a man in an alley, at 15 being touched between the legs in public buses. A Delhi girl grows up fast. She knows she is fair game for being letched at, cat called and groped at any age. Her first encounters with anything sexual is strange men trying to reach in her pants or touch her breasts. She knows that no doesn’t really mean no. That no will mean a green-light to the man. But before she learns to say no, she is taught to be quiet, she is told not to confront such a person and she is told to look the other way. That there is shame in feeling violated. Shame in the way she dresses, shame that she took that bus or walked down that street. That it is her fault, somehow.

A Delhi girl grows up thinking that it’s perfectly normal to be wary every single moment of her life outside her home. That it’s normal to think that every man on the street will try to assault her and when he doesn’t, it’s a miracle. At some point if she decides to confront the ‘eve-teaser’, then the power balance starts to tilt. In most cases, this deterrence works but in some it doesn’t. What most people fail to understand is that it’s a man’s pent up desire to have sex at that very moment with that girl or a woman. Sexual assault or harassment is hardly ever about having sex, it’s about asserting power.

And in such context, when a Delhi woman doesn’t just use the public transport to work or study, she also wears what she wants, ‘hangs out’ with her boyfriend, and even enjoys a drink or two, it creates an imbalance in a man’s game of power. She is economically empowered and will assert herself. She is not just bending the rules, she is breaking them. Centuries old culture is crumbling and she is being blamed for it. The onus lies with her to preserve the traditional space she belongs to. And the onus lies with some men to show that she has violated their public space and thus she needs to be violated in return.

The challenge ahead lies in the way public spaces are perceived. A women’s only coach in the Delhi Metro has been lauded by the Delhi woman. This is a relatively safe place for her from prying hands. But a solution which has helped her, has also hindered her. Men seem to think that all the other coaches belong to them, that it’s okay to harass a woman in these coaches. It’s detrimental when women employees are told not to work beyond 6.30 PM, when they are told they will be escorted home after 8.00 PM. Because the message goes out is that a woman is a property which needs to be ensconced in a safe-space.

So, even before a man has properly learnt to negotiate that a woman can exist in the public space, the message of segregation and time-boundaries has made him unlearn that the public space belongs to both. Unless a Delhi woman learns to demand her equal right to remain and negotiate in that public space, she will never be able to normalize her presence in it.

Rapes will continue to happen in India. Because women will continue to pour into the space which belongs to all. Because some men will continue to feel threatened and show them that their place belongs inside the sanctum of their houses. And the onus, once again, will lie with the woman to steal that public place which colludes to keep them away.

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