I had written an open letter to you some time back urging you to take note of the anguish we, women, felt and help enact a law that would recognise us as equals to you, men. I must admit that I had not much hope of anything happening as your past record and those of your peers is to say the least dismal. Yet at that time, for the briefest of moments I had seen a glimmer hope. Maybe I was just swayed by the power of those who had taken to the street. It was the flavour of the day/month for each and everyone.
Slowly the streets quietened as everyone went back to their lives. The flavour of the day changed. That is when you and your compeers began to craft an insidious and cunning game meant to fool us all. It all began with you instituting a Commission that for once gave its Report in record time. It was the seduction part of your sly game. We were charmed as the recommendations sounded like the dream we had longed for. It seemed that we were at the threshold of a new dawn, that perhaps we would finally find our place in the sun. You had us all! We yearned for a new law that would be enacted! How gullible we were!
Soon you began revealing your cards. First came a hurriedly promulgated ordinance where most of what we were hoping for was simply dropped. But you scored your brownie points as you could trumpet high and loud that you were the saviour of women. Ordinances have a brief life, we all know that. We all wondered why you were in such a hurry when Parliament was just a few days away.
Then Parliament happened and the ordinance had to become law or else it would lapse. That is when your game was exposed. The draft Bill was modified to suit the demands of a whole gamut of patriarchal interest. The things we needed most were simply obliterated.
On the day the Bill was presented to the Lower House, there was a huge political crisis and no one was truly interested in the plight of women. Only 35% of the Members of Parliament were present in the house. May I remind you that women form 50% of your electorate, the very electorate you try to seduce every five years.
I need to know one thing Mister MP. Were you one of the 65% absentees. Did you, like them, feel that women were not to be taken seriously and did not matter. In a way I would prefer you having been absent as in that case I may still give you the benefit of the doubt, something you never give others though.
I read with horror, sadness and pain the record of the debate on the anti rape bill. It was nothing short of humiliating. I have questions for you in case you were one of the 100 odd MPs present. Let me remind you that the bill was about giving women their due and ensuring that they be considered not as second class citizens but at par with the other 50% of the population. Everyone seemed to be interested in passing the Bill, in whatever form, before the 22nd. Never mind if it did not meet the expectations of those who elect you. The bill was moved at 2.15 pm and passed at 7.40 pm. We only deserved 5 hours of your time. Should you have spent it discussing the true essence of what we wanted, I guess 5 hours would have been ample, but what happened in those ill fated 5 hours is nothing short of shameful. Women were ‘raped’ in public by the very ones we entrust our destiny to.
All that transpired in those 5 hours was aimed at protecting you and not us. Now tell me where you the one who blamed western culture for rapes, or the one who felt that stalking is kosher as a means of initiating romance. I would like to ask you a question. Would Priyardarshini Mattoo be still alive had stalking been an offence? She was stalked for 2 years before she was brutally murdered. But then she is not your daughter or sister.
Or were you the one who felt that we need cultural cleansing. Or the one who felt that all should remain within the family. Never mind the wive beaters and child abusers.
Or were you the one who felt that it is what we wear that incites rape. Then tell me how a 6 month old, or a 2 year old dresses sexily. Maybe diapers are the new kid on the western fashion block.
Maybe you sympathised with the person who said: We are men after all! This blame the victim drama makes me physically sick.
It was not a debate on morality, Dear Sir, but a discussion that would make your daughters and sisters in our own country! Maybe you guys had forgotten that.
And when a Member seeks life imprisonment for acid attacks, you shoot it down. Just close your eyes and imagine your loved one being attacked with acid. It is not one simple murder. It is condemning a person to live and die everyday. It is like a series of murders. A fit case for an eye for an eye! And often it comes after stalking, a crime you feel will infringe on your romantic pursuits.
It makes me sick and revolted
What happened that day was that we were once again taught what our station in life was and would remain.
I will borrow the words of Shobha De who rightly says that we are just vaginas, and vaginas are meant to be violated. To be born with a vagina is provocation enough!
It is time we get used to this. You will do nothing!
It was a game you played, and we fell for it.
A 3 year old was raped in Kerala. She was sleeping on the pavement next to her mother, a homeless rag picker. She was brutalised with a blunt object. When she was found. she had high fever and ants crawling all over her tiny body. She will take a long time to recover from her physical injuries. I wonder whether she will ever recover from the scars on her tiny soul. Her mother, almost a child herself sits by her bed. I cannot begin to fathom what goes on in her mind. She has another older child and is carrying her third one. She is part of what Harsh Mander callas the invisible poor. Umpteen questions come to mind. What will happen to the little 3 year old? What is the future of the family? Will someone get moved by their plight and help them?
Two days back a class XII student went to meet a friend at a Mall. Is this not what all kids do today! When it was time to go home she took a shared auto rickshaw. The ride turned out to be a nightmare as she was driven around for 2 hours, raped and robbed before being thrown out of the vehicle. Does this not remind you of the one called braveheart who was raped on a December night? The country was on its feet to demand justice, albeit for a limited time. Had our slumbering consciences awoken for a nano moment.
The state went into damage control mode as it often does when faced with an inevitable situation. When water canons and tear gas shells failed, it constituted a committee to suggest amendments to the existing laws. The committee did surprisingly well and gave us a comprehensive report. The government went in knee jerk mode and promulgated an ordinance knowing very well that it was a short term solution as it needed to be ratified by the Parliament. The proposed bill has now been put on the back burner. The reason: nitpicking over small issues like the lowering of age of consent. If you ask my opinion, I would say that lowering the age of consent has nothing to do with rape! I am one of those who believe that marital rape should also be punished. The state is not a guardian of morality though it often steps into that space. First perhaps, our law makers and enforcers should ensure that no child mariage takes place and the law that states that girls cannot be married before 18 should be implemented. One cannot hide behind social mores and tradition and let people brake laws. Mindsets to need to be changed.
Rapes are a crime, a violation of a women’s body irrespective of her age. We are all too well aware of this fact. Turn on the TV, scan the morning paper and you will have your fill of rapes: 8 months old, 3 years old, 12 years old, 50 years old and so on. From January to mid February 181 rape cases have been reported in our city, that is 4 rapes a day! Seems like the perpetrators know that they rape with impunity. And they are right if we are to believe a report aired of CNN IBN this morning where law enforcers are caught on camera stating aberrations like only 1 to 2 % are real rapes rest are consensual; only women in western clothes are raped and so on. Till this CHANGES no ordinance, law or more of the same can make any difference. And the rapists know that.
Today is International Women’s Day. I would suggest you read Shobha De’s article. In our land Vaginas are for violating.
I have just started reading Ash in the Belly by Harsh Mander. A few pages down it is my belly that is knotted and and on fire. The last time this happened to me was when I read Bitter Chocolate, Pinki Virani’s shocking and disquieting account of child sexual abuse in India. The first pages of Mander’s book brought to life the spectre of hunger and malnutrition I have often written about in this blog. How many times have I not spouted statistics hoping against hope that they would awaken our far too numbed consciences. I speak of you and I who have so often stood with an empty plate in front of a lavish if not gross display of food at upmarket weddings, wondering what to put on our plate? Will it be Italian or Kashmiri? Thai or French? The sight of so much food can even give you visual indigestion and let us not forget that this happens after we have gorged ourselves with snacks and glasses of bubbly! And then, armed with our over laden plates, half of which we will ultimately throw, we have sat at a table with our peers chatting about the Foreign University our child is or will be attending, or the latest outrageously priced bag just come in at a luxury store? I guess many of us would have experienced some shade of the above.
Maybe we think we belong to the slightly more intellectual variety and would be discussing the latest film or best seller. Perhaps the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins which does give a rather believable scenario of what might happen to humanity in times to come.
Today I am going to talk to you about real Hunger Games played by real people who are our brethren. The First Chapter of Ash in the Belly is entitled: Living with Hunger. Women in a small village of Uttar Pradesh talk about their lives and about the lessons they have to teach their children. Unlike us they do not teach alphabets, numbers or colour recognition. The one and only terrifying lesson their children have to learn is: how to sleep hungry! To avoid their children having to sleep hungry they do the unimaginable. Brace yourself before reading what I write now. It is from page 6 of Ash in the Belly: On days where there is no food in the house the whole family sets out to find food. They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy… they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents…after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable… they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain. (Ash in the Belly page 6). The grain thus collected is cooked with water, salt and turmeric to quell the hunger pangs of their children. And if there is still no food then the little ones are given cannabis or cheap tobacco to soothe them to sleep.
I do not know how you feel after reading these lines, but I felt ashamed and guilt ridden for every grain I would have wasted in the six decades of my life. Go to your rubbish bin now and just look at the all the things that could have allowed children to not sleep hungry. But as Mander says in his book that the poor do not matter anymore. They have disappeared from our lives: from our films, our songs, our poetry, our literature. They have become invisible. They are assassinated everyday because of our indifference.
People are starving across the length and breadth of India. Unlike us who ponder about what kind of food we will eat today, these people’s menu is restricted to ‘delicacies’ that never appear on the lavish and vulgar display we are used to. Have you tasted basi (fermented rice water) laced with leaves gathered from the forest; have you eaten a paste made of young bamboo or kaddi a poisonous wild plant immersed in the river water to get rid of some of the poison and then laced with jaggery to mask its bitterness? And yet this is what millions of people in our country eat to survive.
The book has revealing chapters: living with hunger, hunger amidst plenty, ways of coping. I have not read them yet but know that each will reveal another tragic aspect of a reality we refuse to acknowledge. The data given in the book is frightening: 230 million men, women and children go to sleep hungry every night; 76% of India’s household are calorie deficient; 42% of the world’s underweight children live in India. Need I say more.
The book also gives us a list of schemes launched by the Government to supposedly tackle this problem. I counted 12 with fancy acronyms using a wide range of letters from the alphabet. Each sounds fancy and a panacea to all problems ailing the poor. Some go back to 1975. But nothing has changed. These fancy schemes with huge allocations seem to benefit everyone except the stated beneficiaries. We who have a voice and could ensure that things worked as they should keep mute as always. It is not our kids who have to sleep hungry. At most we grumble because such schemes affect our taxes.
We have time and again heard about the humongous quantities of grain rotting in different parts of the country. Have we ever raised our voices? Why should we? We all suffer from a syndrome called indifference.
Next time you throw or waste food, think of the child who has sleep hungry? Will you?
I for one intend to keep on raising this issue in my writing with the hope that perhaps one person will hear the cries of the invisible millions.
I am now bracing myself to read the next pages.
Of late, I hold my breath each time I go to Greater Kailash 1 M Block Market. Wonder why? Well it is because I shudder to think which shop will have pulled down its shutters and closed and whether it will yet again be replaced by a new jewelery shop. Over the past years we have seen this happen time and again. I have lost count of how many gold and silver shops there are in this market. I would not be surprised if the market score a century in the very near future. Last week I wanted to buy a pair of jeans from the Levis store and to my utter dismay I found the shutter down! I can bet we will have a new gold and diamond store. Once upon a very long time GK M block was your regular market where you found all your needs. We had meat shops, grocery shops, pastry shops, Indian sweet shops, a haberdasher, paint shops, book shops and so on. All of these have disappeared. I was also saddened that my favourite coffe and tea shop is now closed. I have heard we are on the way to getting a Starbucks.
This is nothing short of frightening! A whole generation of supposedly educated children who will never learn the importance of hard work and the pleasure of its rewards. I can never forget how my attitude to money changed when I got my first pay packet. In spite of having been brought up in extreme luxury and overabundant love, my parents were the first ones to push me to start earning soon after my 18th birthday. being proficient in French, I found casual employment at the French Section of All India Radio. The broadcast was from 12.20 am to 1 am. I had to reach by 9pm to translate the news and then read it past midnight. With the rather lackadaisical running of the AIR transport system I was fetched around 8pm and then driven around the city and dropped back around 2 am after another session of Delhi by night! The next morning I had to be at JNU at 8 am for my MA classes. For each news bulletin translated we got the princely sum of 50 rupees. I must admit that after this I never took money from my parents, something I so easily did earlier. In the western world that we so like to emulate, children leave their parental homes after they are 18. I can never forget the ‘philosophy’ of very dear friends of my parents who were very rich and have their children all they wanted. But come 18, you had to leave home and learn to fend for yourself. Any money you needed was lent to you with interest. If you did decide to stay home longer, then you paid for your stay. Even children of the richest families abroad babysit, clean homes, work at petrol stations and so on. I guess for rich Indian parents it would be infradig to have their kids do such menial tasks. We are prisoners to too many hand up and social taboos. So we are bringing up overgrown kids we feel we have to pamper and cosset for heaven knows how long. And they squander our money with impunity.
It is time things changed.
The CEO of our city has always astounded me with her knee jerk solutions to disturbing issues. One can never forget how, in the wake of a young journalist being murdered whilst coming back home from work, she quipped: All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people believe…you know…you should not be so adventurous. I wonder what she meant? Was it that women should stay indoors after a certain time? Going home from work is in no way adventurous. I remember having to come home post 1.30 am way back in the seventies when I worked at the radio station French services and had a live transmission from till 1am. Cars were provided by the office but sometimes we had to take circuitous routes and as I lived the farthest, I often was alone for the last leg of the journey. The cars were old and often broke down but somehow one was never scared. In the 80s I worked in International Conferences and again such conferences have the uncanny habit of going late into the night and one had to come home alone. It was not a matter of choice and in no way an adventure.
A few days back our esteemed lady came up with another gem. When attacked for the exponential rise in power tariffs, something we are all experiencing, she retorted: If somebody is finding it difficult to pay the bill then he can use a fan instead of a cooler. So if I understand well, whatever our grievance, it is never the State’s fault, it is ours for not making the needed adjustments. If water is too costly have a weekly bath, if food is too expensive eat a meal a day and so on. Strange interpretation of democracy! We elect you presumably to care for our needs, but once you are in power you can do anything.
Coincidentally to this latest chief ministerial blooper, or maybe it is synchronicity, an article appeared in a serious weekly entitled: The take it to easy polity. The article begins with a quote of our PM: Reforms are needed, I have always said that, but economic reforms with a human face will give India’s common man real hope. However 9 years down the road we are all waiting our the basic amenities. What is worse is that we have to pay more for what we do not get! What we are seeing is an insidious plan to hand over public services to private players and the way to do that is simply to mismanage these services and ultimately plead incompetence allowing the private boys to take over. Since electricity has been privatised bills have escalated and many of us in Delhi have received water bills in 5 figures! Even Project Why which operates from a minuscule building for 8 hours a day receives electricity and water bills in tens of thousands.
I would like to highlight two very different aspects of all that has been said. The first one pertains to the abdication of the state of all its responsibilities. To illustrate this I will share a personal experience. A few years ago I was approached by a senior MCD official and friend. He asked me whether I would be interested in ‘taking over’ the local municipal school. This was the very beginning of the privatisation saga. I was somewhat horrified but wanting to know more I played on. The bottom line was that one would get the school, the kids, the teacher’s et al. Only the teachers – and you could not select them – would be paid by the MCD. All other expenses were yours! Needless to say that being an organisation seeking funds to educate slum children, I could not use pwhy funds to do work of the sate, and hence if the concept was to work the only recourse was to seek fees. Exit all the poor kids! If of course immediately refused the idea. Education as per the Constitution has to be free and equitable! The State must run proper schools. But that is pure chimera. It is not because they cannot – ie Central Schools – but because they want not. The reason: plenty on offer. One maybe because they want to ensure that a large part of society remains illiterate or at best semi literate. Better to manipulate you! Vote bank politics! Soon we may hear something like: if you do not like our schools go to private ones.
The other aspect I wanted to focus on was the ‘wants’of the urban poor. It is easy for our city boss to suggest people use fans instead of coolers but that is not how it works. When people move to the city they do so for a better life. They have needs to fulfil but once these are met come the needs. I will tell you the story of one family whose home I have been going to for over a decade now. When I first met them, they told me that they had come to the city after Mrs Gandhis death having had to leave Punjab. At that time their kids were small and in the little plot of land they managed to ‘purchase’ they built a mud structure with a tin roof. Over the years they managed to educate the children as that was their first priority. When I came into their lives, the mud walls had been replaced by brick ones, the tin roof by a concrete one and they had just purchased a refrigerator. A small black and white TV occupied a place of honour. Today they have 2 colour TVs, coolers, mixers and grinders and a washing machine. The kids go to good public schools and they have new dreams they want to realise. Their wants are not illogical or absurd. They are the culmination of long difficult years. They are willing to pay for public services provided the bills are fair. They have not come all this way to go back to mud walls and tin roofs. They do not want to use a fan now that they have a cooler.
The kind of remarks politicians make shows the complete disconnect between the rules and their people. It is time things changed!