Thursday, October 08, 2009

Because I'm not Eve, and because this isn't teasing

Here's a simple grammatical exercise. Replace the term "eve-teasing" with a more accurate word, and this is what you might get:

"The eve-teasing incident which further sparked of to tensions between the two communities has forced the authorities to increase the police presence in the area. Reportedly, few unidentified youths passed some lewd remarks on women passing through the area."

"The sexual harassment incident which further sparked tensions between the two communities has forced the authorities to increase the police presence in the area. Reportedly, few unidentified youths verbally abused some women passing through the area in sexually explicit terms."

Instead of the chatty 'Eve Teasing with Bipasha Basu' (so reminiscent of Koffee with Karan), how about 'Bipasha Basu physically assaulted'? And "groping" is another convenient euphemism to describe an unwanted and unwelcome act of sexual aggression.

And "teased her" sounds mild, compared to the reaction of the "tribals" in this story. The problem with this school of reporting is that it leaves you with absolutely no idea of what happened. Was the woman in this case verbally harassed, hit, abused, threatened? Was her physical space invaded, was she touched against her will, was she actually attacked?

And here's Bhaskar Ghose complaining that "eve-teasing has become a fine art", in a story that outlines many familiar issues about violence against women. It also illustrates why I hate the term eve-teasing: because it's such a mild, obfuscatory term for the acts of sexual aggression and intimidation it's supposed to describe. And it's blinding in its mildness. A woman being eve-teased--yeah, we all know what that means. But do we really, when even the language we use doesn't allow you to see what is really happening in each case?

There are subtle differences between the man who wolf-whistles at you from across the road, and then pays no further attention; and a ten-minute barrage of sexually explicit, demeaning suggestions and threats of violence unleashed at you by men who will follow you all the way down the road, until you reach a "safe" area. Being "groped" is an unpleasant, and for young women especially, a frightening, violation of physical space; being grabbed, pinched or held so hard that the act leaves bruises is not something that can be described as being "fondled", "caressed" or even the relatively more accurate "groped". If a man or a group of men--there seems to be little need for the term adam-teasing--surrounds, follows, threatens and then attacks you in such a way as to cause hurt, pain and shock, that would be assault. If they punch hard enough, then that would be battery. And further down the road, there's always the old standby, rape: we don't yet use eve-teasing as a euphemism for being raped, though we have useful euphemisms in most Indian languages, usually containing the terms "honour" and "looted" in conjunction.

It may seem that there are more important battles to be fought on the violence-against-women front than a linguistic war. But I would also argue that language shapes the way we think. Eve-teasing is a word that reminds me of a chador, or a blanket; a word designed to conceal far more than it reveals. It's telling that the second most frequently used euphemism, in the language used to describe assaults against women in India, is "molestation", defined as "unwanted and/ or improper sexual advances". It's another mild word that should be used to describe relatively mild acts, but I see it often used to describe acts of actual violence, aggression and sexual assault.

Molestation, harassment, verbal abuse, unwanted sexual advances, physical aggression, attacks, assault, battery, sexual violence, attempted rape, rape: that is a more accurate, if incomplete, range of terms that might begin to describe the violence that many women face, far too often. Would you, perhaps, think harder about what happens to a girl or a woman when she's attacked, if it was described as an attack, rather than another incident of eve-teasing? I would. I do. And in all the years I've been living in Delhi, I've seen women who have survived everything from simple harassment to severe battery to rape to post-rape attempted murder. None of them have ever used the term "eve-teasing" to describe what they have experienced. It's been fifty years since we first started using that euphemism; it's time we stopped. End of rant.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The BS Column: The evolving Oriental marketplace

(Published in the Business Standard, October 6, 2009)

This is prize season as the winners of both the Booker and the Nobel are to be announced this week. India has a strong, though not entirely healthy, fascination with both the prizes, slightly dimmed this year because we don’t have a horse in the Booker race.

The two hottest contenders for the Booker, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and J M Coetzee’s Summertime, are doing well in bookshops. There’s mild speculation—against long odds—that Mahasweta Debi or Salman Rushdie might get the Nobel nod. But if you ask the average Indian what s/he’s most interested in this week, the answer would be Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States-The Story of a Marriage, already a bestseller before it has reached the bookshops.

There are some interesting factors at work in the current situation. As a country, we suffer from massive performance anxiety on the literary front, as on most other fronts. Each Booker winner of Indian origin is hailed as an A+ on the report card some invisible committee is keeping on us. A Pulitzer win by Jhumpa Lahiri spikes a brief but fading interest in the US literary prize. The presence of a Rushdie or a Mahasweta Debi in the discussion of possible Nobel laureates is a reassuring reminder that we once won the Nobel, courtesy Tagore.

Any discussion on prize-winning books by authors of Indian origin often follows a completely different and parallel track—we applaud their achievements even as we dissect, or ignore, or argue with their work. We compartmentalise our applause as proud Indians; it’s separate from our reaction as Indian readers. Perhaps that’s why many Indians will buy a book such as Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, feel free to dismiss it or call its authenticity into question—and then buy more copies for friends.

What do we really want to read, though? A Chetan Bhagat who says he’s in the entertainment, not the literary, business, is far closer to the pulse of the Indian reader than his more feted literary peers; and writers like Amit Varma now pay attention to the demand from Indian readers that they be entertained, but not condescended to.

Keep the focus on the marketplace for literature—it’s more powerful than we might wish to acknowledge—rather than writers and writing, and what emerges in the Indian context is wonderfully strange. (This will be a paragraph of broad generalisations; bear with me.)

The working models for publishing have been the European and the US marketplaces—large, beleagured but still vibrant, often closed to authors in translation, attempting to market the products of a glut of writers in both continents. It is fiercely competitive, but hobbled by many imperfections.

Africa and Russia are illustrations of how a dying, or troubled, marketplace has a direct negative effect on literary productivity.

There are fewer Achebes, Soyinkas, Solzhenitsyns and Dostoevskys today, because the markets in both territories have been rocky for the last four to five decades.

Japan and China have thriving internal publishing markets, and both have evolved their own blend of genres and a national literature—hampered by censorship, in China’s case, but still alive.

Both export, so to speak, some of their writers, but most of them have a thriving readership in their home territories and aren’t dependent on the export market.

Australia and India are outliers, comparable in terms of size and historical background of their English-language publishing industries.

India has a thriving but deeply insular smorgasbord of regional markets, where cross-translation exists but is not the norm, and where most writers do not produce works for export. (This doesn’t mean that they don’t produce quality writing. It’s just not export-oriented.)

The Indian market in English-language writing has, as in Australia, produced a few contenders for the Great Novel title, and then got back to the delicate process of evolving a national literature.

Many writers, in both countries, have to balance the need to produce work that’s export-oriented, while still remaining true to their need to tell the stories they find compelling. There isn’t always a market abroad for the latter, and it’s telling that Indian writers feel less pressured to produce the great Indian novel these days. There’s a willingness to experiment within genres, or to tell quieter and apparently less “important” stories.

The real question is not why we haven’t produced more Rushdies, but why we haven’t produced more Chetan Bhagats. The answer might lie in the fact that we’re not just a post-colonial market—we are an evolving, under-developed literary market, where the supporting infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary magazines, demanding editorial standards) is only just coming into being.

We don’t control the international literary markets; we haven’t yet evolved a robust domestic market of our own. Until one or the other of these comes to pass, our writers will continue to write for export, or for a very small, patient audience. And we’ll continue to need the ratification of the odd Booker win and the occasional nod from the Nobel.
 
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