Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting Around Your City: A User's Guide For Women

(I wrote this for Jagori and Gauri Gill’s Transportraits, an exhibition on women and mobility in the city. It’s somewhere between a rant and a cross letter to the editor.

And two brilliant examples of what the exhibition had to offer:

Blank Noise's Step By Step Guide To Unapologetic Walking

Amruta Patil's Navigation, Safe Passage.)

Getting around your city: a user’s guide

1) Weapons: Chili-water in a spray bottle, a shard of glass, a paper cutter, a knife, stiletto heels, pepper spray in the special we’re-sensitive-to-women shade of pink, a razor blade, anything that can be used as a baton, a club, a stick. No whistles; most Indian women are aware that whistles, like cries for help, will attract no attention and will be ignored by passers-by, should you be in actual need of help. Most of the women who carry weapons, with the exception of a few who have trained themselves, some sex workers, and others in dangerous, precarious jobs, do not know how to use them. We carry them anyway; like good-luck charms or pictures of your favourite gods and goddesses, these are talismanic, meant to ward off evil.

2) A spare man:
This might be a husband, a boyfriend, a brother, a father, a grandfather, any male child over a certain indefinable age (toddlers and babies do not work), a colleague, your doctor, or a random stranger you’re careful to match your steps with so that other men might think you’re with him. A spare man is more useful than a weapon, if harder to pack into your handbag, because he signals to other men that you are already someone’s property. The downside of carrying a spare man is that you may have to talk to him, or that he may start to believe that you are, indeed, his property, but as a charm to ward off other men, he is invaluable. One spare man, however, is of limited use against groups, gangs and mobs.

3) A watch:
This will let you know when you are out at the wrong time. The wrong time is usually any time between dawn and the very late night hours that you are accosted, assailed, abused or attacked by a man or men. If you are out at that time, whether it was for your morning walk or you were coming back from a late business dinner or you were shutting down your pavement stall at five in the evening, it will, whatever the hour of the day, automatically be the wrong time, and you should have known better. (See “Clothes”, below.)

4) Clothes:
Anything you are wearing at the time of an actual assault, or that invites comment from men, is not appropriate clothing by definition. If what you are wearing is a tank top, a spaghetti string blouse, a short skirt or jeans, you will make the cultural police in your city very happy, because they can point to the fact that your Western values are responsible for corrupting innocent, helpless men, and instigating them to attack, assault or rape you. If what you are wearing is a sari, a salwar kameez or a loose, all-encompassing sack, then it signifies that you deliberately went out on the streets aware of your potential to attract the wrong kind of male attention, and your clothes are a feeble attempt to cover up your wrong-doing. If you are wearing a burkha and this contributes to your sense of safety on the street, a ban can be organized in short order so that you can experience your fair share of assault and humiliation.

5) Transport:
In most cities, the lighting at night has been carefully arranged to ensure that there will be no safe areas, especially around major transit points such as railway stations, metro stations and taxi stands. This is for your convenience. Most auto drivers will not offer safe transport, and many may also try to cheat you. This is so that you do not develop a false sense of security and comfort while negotiating the roads. Most taxis are safe, except for the ones that are not—if your corpse is not found in a drain before the end of your journey, you are in a safe taxi.

Most trains are safe, except for the ones that carry passengers who have no respect for women, which would leave you with the toy train to Darjeeling. The toy train is a very safe train, and you will enjoy Darjeeling greatly. Most buses are meant for the exclusive use of men, and while this will not be explicably stated, you will be made aware of the inconvenience you’re putting male passengers to at all times of your journey, during which they will lean on you, breathe on you, sing to you, fondle your breasts and attempt to molest and/or rape you. All other forms of transport, except for the footpaths, the roads and any stray rivers you may encounter, are absolutely safe for women.

6) Foreign women:
All foreign women, including those from the North-Eastern states of India, should be aware of their moral looseness and willingness to be available to all men at all times. If you are a foreign woman and you are not aware of this, the men on the streets of your city of choice will be happy to remind you, several times an hour.

Please enjoy getting around your city. For your safety, we recommend that you travel as a man. If you must travel as a woman, we recommend that you stay indoors at all times. If you insist, after all this, on stepping out of your home, we do apologise for any inconvenience in the form of threats, harassment, rape, assault, violence, humiliation and murder that you almost certainly will encounter.

Book review: Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro

(Published in the Business Standard, November 2010.)

Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
Sonia Faleiro
Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton,
Rs 450, 216 pages

In Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s 2005 blockbuster about Bombay, he writes about his relationship with a bar dancer who grew to confide all of the details of her life to him, from the nature of her clients to her habit of cutting herself when in extreme emotion. “What is sex after such vast intimate knowledge?” Mehta wrote, in a particularly revelatory line.

From Truman Capote to John Berendt to Suketu Mehta and Sonia Faleiro, part of the lure of non-fiction is, inevitably, just this: the vast intimate knowledge of another human being that no other form or act can offer. That knowledge, for the best non-fiction writers, is usually pressed into service of something that goes far beyond the ordinary voyeurism of the journalist; at its best, it can be an attempt to understand the rich, confusing business of life itself.

As Maximum City made its explosive impact in 2005, another young writer was finding her voice, and her subject, in the world of Bombay’s dance bars. Sonia Faleiro would spend the next five years immersed in the seedy but subtly empowering atmosphere of the bars in Mira Road, listening to the conversations of dalals and bar girls, clients (chamar chors and Bada Dons), hijras and brothel owners.

“My story is the best you will ever hear. The best, understand? Now come close. Closer! Okay, ready?”

Beautiful Thing sets the pace right from the epigraph, and from its first, searing chapter. Here is Leela, the bar dancer whose life Faleiro faithfully shadowed for years, wearing her client’s boxer shorts as she admires herself in the mirror, young, beautiful, confident, an “alone girl” who demands gifts of money, clothes, jewellery and oddly, vegetables, from the clients who are dazzled by her courtesan’s turn at the bar. “Our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me,” writes Faleiro, setting the boundaries early on. Her interest in the lives of the bar girls, from Leela to the unbelievably beautiful queen of nakhra, Priya, will always be one-sided, unreciprocated.

Leela, when the story opens, is at the top of her profession, and her profession is at the top of the complex hierarchy that governs sex workers in Bombay. There are destitute prostitutes, the bottom-feeders; brothel girls, a step above; call girls and massage parlour girls; and right at the top, in the glittering tinsel light of the bars, the bar dancers. Leela’s story is not a simple one, and to tell it, Faleiro turns herself into the proverbial camera, the invisible, omniscient writer whose only job is to record what happens.

“When you look at my life, don’t look at it beside yours. Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road…,” Leela tells her. “But you’ve seen me with men? If I don’t want to talk I say, “Get lost oye!” And they do. And if I want a gift or feel like “non-wedge”, I just have to tell them and they give me what I want, no questions. ..I make money and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom.”

Leela’s story is as harsh and brutal as the story of hundreds of other women in India. Faleiro chronicles their lives through hers; the casual rapes by family members or the police, the limited possibilities of finding respectable, paying work in Bombay’s brutally crowded, busy streets. In 2005, the dance bars offered a kind of halfway house for women who didn’t have to do “galat kaam” unless they were so inclined, and who weren’t subjected to the darker cruelties of being trafficked into the sex trade. Working in the dance bars gave them respectability—many, as in Leela’s case, received an anxious, obsessive love and respect from the families who depended on their earnings. They had, too, a kind of freedom—the freedom to pick and choose their clients, to flirt, to fight over a particularly fancy “Kushtomer”, and the freedom to spend their money as they saw fit.

As with John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing reads like great fiction—from Masti, the stunningly confident hijra, to Priya, the narcissist in love with her own impossible beauty, to Apsara, Leela’s grasping, selfish mother, the cast of characters here are unforgettable. And Faleiro does a brilliant job of blending reportage with the moving, saddening story she has to tell—in a fit of misplaced politicking and morality, the Bombay government closed down the dance bars, condemning most of these women to the indignities, dangers and insecurities of “dhanda”. Her perspective, always respectful to the subjects of her story, allows this to be a story of and about Bombay’s women—a massive, and refreshing, change from the masculine world of the gangs we’ve been offered by previous Bombay chroniclers.

Beautiful Thing is marred slightly by Faleiro’s obsession with accents—by the fourth repetition of “bootiful” and the third of “kushtomer”, the reader might wish that she had exercised less Kiplingesque fidelity. Nor should one expect objectivity; Faleiro makes it quite clear that her sympathies lie with the women in this trade, and her fascination with their independence can cloud her judgment. But these are minor quibbles.

Because the truth is that Beautiful Thing is one of the books we’ve been waiting for in contemporary India—a non-fiction debut of astonishing integrity and sensitivity, where Faleiro tells a story that is beguiling, incredibly funny in parts, and absolutely heart-breaking. This is without question a brilliant, unforgettable book by a writer who is one of the best of her generation. Beautiful Thing is one of the best books of the year; and is one of the most gripping and honest books written about Bombay in a very long while.

The BS Column: Silenced in Burma

(Published in the Business Standard, November 12, 2010)

At the height of Stalin’s rule, Mikhail Bulgakov was learning an aspect of the craft of writing that is rarely taught in creative writing courses today: the art of outwitting the censor. This practice, well-known to all writers who live under dictatorships, could lead to bizarre leaps of creativity.

In his 1925 Heart of a Dog, for instance, Bulgakov created the tale of a scientist who transplants human organs into the body of a dog called Sharik, who then becomes more and more human as the book unfolds. The donor of the organs is a drunk called Chugunkin; this was considered bold nomenclature on Bulgakov’s part, because Chugunkin translates as “iron”, which was seen as a reference to Stalin (“man of steel”).

In a similar vein, consider one of the most famous literary controversies in contemporary China. In 1978, the poet Bei Dao wrote a poem that contained these lines: “Life. The sun rises too.” Chinese officials spent a great deal of time analyzing and dissecting these lines—were they a reference to the “red sun” of Mao Tsetsung? If so, Bei Dao was being deeply critical of Mao; if not, it was just another innocuous poet’s metaphor. The journal founded by Bei Dao, Jintian, was shut down in 1980, when Beijing decided it had had enough of dealing with potentially subversive lyricism.

Just a few months before Dawa Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her 15-year term of house arrest in Myanmar, where the regime has held ‘The Lady’ in effective imprisonment, there was a small, sad but heartening news story in the Burmese press. In July, an unnamed 14-year-old boy was arrested in Rangoon for hawking copies of Suu Kyi’s Freedom From Fear, which is banned in Burma. He was also selling a book by pro-democracy dissident Win Tin, who was imprisoned for 19 years and wrote about his experiences in, “What’s that? Human hell?” which was promptly banned on its release.

The boy’s fate is unknown; but the reports of his arrest pointed to the fact that the military dictatorship in Myanmar has been unable to suppress the appetite in the country for the writings of Suu Kyi, Win Tin and other writers, like Pascal Khoo-Thwe.
Khoo-Thwe and Aung San Suu Kyi have never veiled their writings. Khoo-Thwe’s Land of Green Ghosts is, like so many other works of Burmese literature, not available within Myanmar. His account of the history of Burma was a straightforward narrative, uncensored and open. Suu Kyi’s hard-hitting and mesmerizing Letters From Burma were written for a Japanese newspaper, and has been in print since its 1998 publication in the West. Along with Freedom From Fear, it is one of the most celebrated and revered “missing” books in Myanmar, and despite the efforts of the military junta, samizdat copies continue to circulate.

The history of her father, General Aung San, and his writings, have been more fraught. In the 1990s, references to Aung San began to be edited out of the country’s textbooks: the second weapon of dictatorships and military regimes, after censorship, is erasure. Editing textbooks is a classic way of manipulating history—do it for two generations, and you have succeeded in changing a country’s memory of its own past.

Among the list of guidelines handed down to Burmese printers and publishers in 1975—guidelines that continue to dictate what may and may not be published—is this blanket provision: “Any incorrect ideas or opinions which do not accord with the times.” Put that together with the prohibition on publishing “anything detrimental to the Burmese Socialist Program”, and that leaves very little in the way of “acceptable” writing.

In this climate, censorship becomes a theatre of the absurd. Travelling in Burma, Emma Larkin writes in Secret Histories of the wry joke about George Orwell’s “Burmese books”. Intellectuals and scholars jest that Orwell didn’t write one novel about the country but three—Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.

Give censors a free hand, and as in Stalin’s time, the absurdities begin to take on a bizarre life of their own. One of the more famous cases of censorship cited concerns an anthology of short stories published in the 1990s. This was a volume of stories put together in tribute to the writer MoMo (Inya), who had died in 1990. On the cover was an image of MoMo’s head, embossed on a gold medallion. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Though none of the stories in the anthology in MoMo’s honour concerned Aung San, the publishers were directed to cover up the image of the medallion. The regime feared that readers would be reminded of Aung San’s Nobel win—and so the book was finally published, with a strip of gold paper pasted over the features of the writer it honoured.
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