Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Is A Guwahati? What Is A Goa?

Guest Post By Maya Ganesh

Today I walked down a lonely and very beautiful village road somewhere in Goa. On my left a quiet cove went shhhhhh, and on the other, the jungle rose like an iridescent fungus on the back of a red earth monster. I felt like I was in a magical forest of the kind you find in children's storybooks – anything is possible here and everything will enchant you. Houses lay hidden behind dense foliage lining the rain-slicked path through the magic forest. Stray dogs defended their territory like cowards do: all sound and fury. Old ladies in wrinkles and faded flower prints clutched their rosaries and smiled.

I'm muttering something to myself. Thoughts arise and vaporise. I think about how what we pray for changes. I'm praying to the jungle to bless me with fecundity of spirit. I ask to mirror the ritual of the sea in my return to writing every day. I pray for an awareness of beauty, which endures like the thin, grating whine of a window creaking in the night.

I think about friends who have moved here and what it means to live here, as opposed to just dropping in for a holiday. What is Goa, really? Where is it, what is the here that a tourist will never see?

My dusktime reverie is interrupted by the ache of an engine in the distance, one that becomes acute very quickly. They zip by leaving plastic fluttering and dust rising. Roughly three minutes later they speed by again and then come to an abrupt stop, swerving in the gravel in front of a shuttered 'Rock Roof Bar & ChillZzone'. I hear them but cannot see them for there is a bend in the road. I'm calm but aware that I'm going through a drill in my head.

Be alert.
Assess distance and speed of bike.
Assess pace, by comparison.
Try to remember where the houses and shops are along this windy, quiet road.
Locate phone in bag. Feel reassured that phone is in outer flap and not buried in voluminous but trendy Ladies Holiday tote.
Locate keys in bag for eye-jabbing if required.
Prepare adrenaline to R U N.

Don't be ridiculous, nothing will happen, I tell myself. I square myself and amble along. I have fought off and attacked attackers in a New Friends Colony park. I've spat at and clawed my way out of a mob of Holi-bhanged-up boys in Egmore. Nothing will happen that I cannot deal with. Thing is, I just don't want to have to deal with it. What I was actually feeling was monumental annoyance and peevishness (more than fear, actually) that the burden of management of this crime rested on me and that I'm supposed to be good at it. Prepare for the moment, manage it, manage the outcomes. By now I am very alert and grumpy, like I've had four espressos.

And then they come by again, this time grinning, the wind in their hair. Nothing will happen. A stray dog, a stray car, something will come roaring out and establish that I am not alone. Nothing will happen. They dismount and walk around seemingly aimlessly. They don't pull out their cellphones. They aren't really talking but they are looking at me. They fiddle with the drawstrings on their raincoats.

I know I'm being paranoid. I try to push away the headlines. Single Indian woman traveler found dumped in forest in Goa. Identified by tattoo and ridiculous T-shirt.

I'm writing this because of Guwahati, Gurgaon, Pune, Mangalore and Whereverpuram. I'm not particularly distressed by what happened in Guwahati, in a sense. I am fairly accepting of the fact that shit does happen and it stinks.

What does bother me is how we think about violence, not that we don't think about it enough, and how what we think about it informs how we consider responses to it. I tire of the breastbeating (no pun intended), the story-sharing and feel like there's something being pixellated out.

When yet another Gurgaon gang-rape occurred earlier this year, they pointed, as usual, to 'Jat culture' 'mall culture' and the predictable 'Western culture' bogey. Here is the thing. It is all also about Westernisation and Jat Culture but not in the way the blind brigade of the law, bigotry and bureaucracy see it. Westernisation as a reason for violence is fairly specifically sketched out as being made up of short skirts and late nights and bars; the oddest thing about this idea of Westernisation is that it is actually intended to serve as an antonym for something rarely articulated, something we seem less sure of:  Indian-ness. So Indian-ness is something that exists as an Other – if you are not a short-skirt-wearer then you must be Indian. Substitute short-skirt with bar/club/burgers/blender cocktails.

I'm talking about another version of Westernisation that lies uncomfortably with our Indian-ness. Gurgaon [Hinjewadi] [Electronics City] [Salt Lake] is the crucible where our rapacious (again, no pun) aspirations for 'development' have been forged, where our snaking desires for modernity and globality entwine with far older ties to create a knot of distress. How do we begin to understand what Gurgaon  is and the politics of its construction, physically, as a child of concrete in a land of toothless old farmers,  in the imagination and in public and urban aspirations? The hand that wants to tug at your hemline is the one that lovingly runs its precious-gems-to-ward-off-Shani encrusted fingers across the nameplate of a building called Mayflower or Oxford Greens. What are the multiple, confused and intersecting micro-economies of desire growing out of the plastic debris? How can you not expect that to transplant some San Diego lifestyle into the middle of Whitefield or Wherever is not going to have implications for what you think and feel your identity is? You may want to think I'm saying one thing is the cause of the other, but I'm not, actually, if you stop to think about it. There is a difference between correlation and causation. Neither am I saying that you shouldn't have some version of what some people tell [sell] you is a San Diego lifestyle. (“The only way I knew it was India was because of the servants”.) I think there is a particularly Indian brand of Shame Cream we smooth over all our desires. If the 1990s were about an excessive use of the word 'fusion' then it's time to actually think about what a tragic move that was, for we are, and always have been, hybrids.

Violence against women has always been around, it does however take on slightly different dimensions in Gurgaon, Guwahati and elsewhere. Think about the vast stretches of fairly empty road (at night) leading to and from Gurgaon, for one. How many bars are there in Guwahati and since when have women being going outside the house to drink? What kind of public dialogue do we have in this country around sexuality or alcohol or even just eating non-vegetarian food at a restaurant and hoping your parents and grandma won't find out? (There is an entirely different thread possible here about the first generation meat-eater and its collective responsibility for the irksome popularity of chicken everywhere).

'We demand justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators.' Who are these victims and perpetrators and what do they really want? Where does a sense of justice lie? How do we start to name and c0nnect with the girl who is clearly uncomfortable with her short skirt but has to wear it for work?  In today's Times of India Page 3 supplement I see Rinki, Gina, Tommy, Aseem, Riccie, Anamika flash-photographed at a party with drinks in their hands, looking sheepish, constipated and just downright uncomfortable. Who are these people and what is that combination of excitement and shame they're going to feel the next morning? Who are the boys in their scuffed, wheezing Maruti Zens pumping out Himesh Reshammiya remixes through their tinted windows? Who is this brazen gay boy in his tight pink t-shirt and zircon ear studs (three!)  flaunting his hypersexuality?  Who are these uncle-auntys who want their children to bring in call-centre/medical transcription firm/telemarketing salaries? What will this mean for their marriage prospects? Who is this Dalit boy who wants to conquer the world but is made to feel he has a place at the table? What does it mean to be urban, to share space, to experience difference? What is a Guwahati? What is a Goa? We have not even begun to unravel these questions and they're all connected to how we think about violence in public spaces.

We must know ourselves in these Goas and Guwahatis even as we learn to identify victims and perpetrators. Most of us in these public spaces are desiring, and desirable, consumers, and citizens. Some consumers are also 'the masses'. Not all of the masses are citizens. Our identities are complicated enough by caste and class and religion and now we must also negotiate a new set of identities borne of our aspirations, the market, globalisation and geopolitics. We have some fluffy notion of agency in our cities, our marketplaces, our voting booths and in front of our mobile phone cameras. We want our sushi and we want Mika remixes thudding off our mojitos and chili paneer manchurian crostinis. We like our short skirts and big AC cars. We want Crocs and iThings. We want our mod-cons, our glittering Karwa Chauth parties, we want urban efficiency, clean streets and clean politicians. We feel like we have choices. And yet we do not feel that we have enough of a sense of entitlement to question to what these choices are about, who served them up and what it means to actually choose. 

I spent the first seven years of my career at a Violence Intervention Centre and in retrospect I feel like we rarely reached out into a broader sort of imagination around talking about violence. Our advocacy tended to be reactive and involved demands to be heard. No one was listening. Our words didn't connect. We were sometimes shrill and that is because it was all incredibly frustrating and dispiriting. A language of rights is no place to begin when you ignore one set for another, or when you fail to see that rights to multiple rights exist within the body of the same person. 

Last night my friends brought up Harassmap and there's something new in Delhi that has been inspired by it. I've profiled and spoken with the creators of Harassmap and initiatives like it form one part of my work at Tactical Technology Collective. I have to disagree with an Indian spinoff of Harassmap. I don't think a crowdmap is enough. In Cairo there was an unwillingness to acknowledge street based violence so Harassmap was something of a revolution.  In urban India, we need something beyond Harassmap. Delhi is not Cairo.We know what happens here, we even have shaky, ridiculous laws about it that have been around a long time.  A map is a flat representation of something discovered and known. I believe that there is a psychological and cultural landscape we're traveling but haven't begun to really explore.

Maya Ganesh (@mayameme) is the Evidence & Action Program Director at Tactical Technology Collective. Views expressed here are personal. 

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  1. In all the writing about harassment post-Guwahati (much of it very eloquent, and this piece certainly up there with the best) I haven't seen anything addressing the lack of legitimate sexual outlets for young heterosexual men.

    This probably sounds terrible, but let's be realist. With a male to female ratio approaching 10:9 (that's around 100 million unmatched men) and a culture that all but forbids dating and premarital sex, with the average marriage age for an Indian male at 26 yrs and rising, with strip clubs & prostitution illegal and actively policed in most cities... this is a recipe for extreme sexual frustration. Please realize I am not excusing the perpetrators; they are sick criminals. But if you take a large group of 18-year-old straight boys and make it socially unacceptable for them to have any sort of sexual interactions with women for the next 10 years of their lives, you can be pretty sure of turning some of them into criminal sexual offenders. The way it is now, the authorities condemn and outlaw consensual outlets like dance bars and strip clubs but condone (through blaming of the victim and Western-culture) Guwahati-type harassment. I wish I could believe otherwise, but I fear shit is going to keep getting worse until this changes.

    1. I have two kinds of thoughts in response. The first is, damn, young heterosexual men really ought to learn a thing or two from young gay/bi men. The latter really seem to know how to get what they want. Less facetiously however, I think I hear what you mean or what lies behind what you're saying. (And you can't really compare men and women ever. At all. Ever.) The other kind of thought is about how your comment worries me a little. Why are sexual frustration and violence inevitably referenced together? I think it's about something else. There's porn, there's masturbation - and those things have always been there and young men (women too) down the ages have had to make do with those things. I think the violence is not only about the sexual and that the sexual is about also class and caste and economics and aspiration.

  2. (Bad math in last comment. Should have been "around 60 million unmatched men". Still a big number.)

  3. Porn and masturbation are great. But they are done alone. Sometimes I think there is a socialization of sexuality that needs to be learned... elsewhere (like Europe, Thailand, the US, parts of Africa I think) this happens at music shows, dances, bars, strip clubs sometimes, where young people learn how to behave themselves in a drunken crowd with both sexes present--where there are bouncers and powerful adults around, and the place is not a free-for-all.