About Me

My photo
Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sexism rules, OK?

Misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has passed into its very vocabulary  

It didn’t take very long for the media coverage of the General David Petraeus affair to veer off into the well-trodden realm of misogyny, did it? There was the initial dismay about how another idol turned out to have feet of clay. There was some tut-tutting about how men will be men. There was much shock and horror expressed about how a former three-star General and Director of the CIA could be stupid enough to be caught with his pants down.

And then, with a certain inevitability, the attention turned to the women caught up in this sorry mess. There was Holly Petraeus, the wronged wife, said to be incandescent with fury but still standing by her man. There was Paula Broadwell, biographer-turned-mistress, the temptress who had brought the Great Man down from the heights of heroism with her feminine wiles. And then there was Jill Kelley, the other Other Woman, who had unwittingly set off the controversy by complaining to the FBI about some threatening mails that Broadwell – who believed Kelley was getting too close to Petraeus – had sent her. (Phew! You really couldn’t make this stuff up.)

To illustrate this little morality play we were provided helpful colour pictures of all the protagonists in this sordid drama. Holly Petraeus, the weary, unglamorous spouse, looking every one of her near-60 years. Paula Broadwell, all toned arms and perfect figure, showcased in clothes so tight that they could well have cut off her circulation if she wasn’t such a champion athlete. And Jill Kelley, smoky-eyed and sultry in designer togs that showed off her enviable legs and tiny waist.

The sub-text was clear. What chance did poor old Petraeus have against the combined charms of Broadwell and Kelley? How could he possibly resist their blandishments – especially given what his poor, old, greying wife looked like? And just get a load of how these sirens are dressed, drawing all eyes to their pert derrieres and perky breasts! Which man could possibly stay chaste and faithful to his marital vows in the face of such an assault on his defences?

It’s familiar territory, really. It’s the same song whenever a powerful man is caught doing someone who isn’t his wife. He gets off as someone who gave in to temptation; the Other Woman is stigmatised as the one who lured him away from the straight and narrow. Clearly, the narrative hasn’t changed very much since the Original Sin. The apple never falls far from Adam and Eve, and that age-old tale of women luring men to their downfall.  

And in keeping with these misogynistic double standards, while the men are rehabilitated in public life after a decent interval, the Scarlet Women who ‘tempted’ them are consigned to the shadows to live out the rest of their lives in disgrace. Just compare how Bill Clinton came off after the White House scandal to how Monica Lewinsky fared. Her life was ruined with her name becoming a byword for sexual incontinence while Clinton has re-emerged as a President-maker, milking the applause at Democratic election rallies for Barack Obama.

Back home in India, while our leaders manage to keep their sexual shenanigans out of the media, their deep-rooted misogyny is played out in full public view. When Congress leader Digvijay Singh wants to poke fun at Arvind Kejriwal for his daily ‘exposes’ he doesn’t compare him to, say, Salman Khan, who has a propensity to rip his shirt off at the slightest provocation. No, he says Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant, who also ‘exposes’ but has no ‘substance’. 

Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav patronisingly explains to rural women that they will not benefit from the Women’s Reservation Bill because they are not attractive enough (unlike women from affluent families). BJP chief minister of Chhatisgarh Raman Singh holds forth on how good-looking women are contributory factors in causing road accidents (“If there is a good motor-cycle, a good mobile and a good girlfriend, then accidents are bound to happen.”). Congress minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal tells us that as a wife gets old with time, she loses her charm.

Women in public life are routinely subject to misogynistic attacks and jibes. While Mamata Banerjee is derided for her crumpled saris and Hawai chappals, Mayawati has to face down jibes about her penchant for pink and designer handbags (damned if you don’t; and damned if you do). But then, what can you expect from a world in which even Indira Gandhi was dubbed the “the only man in her Cabinet”, as if it were a compliment of the highest order when it was anything but.

The sad truth is that misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has even passed into the language. Sexist remarks have become such a part of our daily vocabulary that we trot them out without even registering how offensive they are. When we want our sons to toughen up, we say, “Don’t be such a girl.” When we think someone isn’t facing up to a situation with sufficient grit, we ask him or her to ‘man up’.

And then there’s that old chestnut: “Oh for God’s sake, grow a pair!” Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to aim a well-directed kick at them instead.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sound and fury

Counting the many, many things I hate about Diwali

Don’t get me wrong. I like a celebration as much as any other Indian. And like everyone else, I wait all year for the festive season to come around. There is the first hint of winter in the air; the markets are lit up, gleaming like new brides; and the annual round of parties promises some great food and drink. What’s not to like? And I do like it very much indeed.

But of late, the build-up to Diwali has left me reaching for the sick bag as the commercialisation of the festival reaches new heights every year. And as the original spirit of the day – to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, the victory of light over darkness – dies a deafening death every year, I get more and more disillusioned by what we have turned Diwali into. From a festival of light it has been transformed into an orgy of noise; from a day of prayer, when we welcomed the Goddess Lakshmi and the spirit of prosperity into our homes, it has turned into a celebration of conspicuous consumption; and from an occasion to get together with friends and family it has become an endless round of social events where one-upmanship is the name of the game.

Every year, as I settle down the clean the debris of the festival, sending off hampers of baked goods and mithai to the neighbourhood orphanage, I can’t help but reflect on how soulless and impersonal our Diwalis have become. So here, in no particular order of importance, is a list (by no means exhaustive) of what I have come to hate about Diwali.

1)   The advertisements: The build-up starts weeks before the festival, as every company worth its marketing budget starts bombarding its target customers with exhortations to buy, buy, buy – and then buy some more. Buy your wife gold jewellery; buy your mother a bigger, better fridge/TV/expensive electronic appliance of choice; buy your kids a new phone/ipad.

As I flip through newspapers or surf TV channels, I can’t help but wonder how this affects people who can’t afford any of this stuff. Do they feel like failures because they can’t buy new clothes for their kids, leave alone jewellery for their wives? Do they get depressed at the thought that theirs will be the only family in the neighbourhood not to get a new TV or sofa set? Is the festival effectively ruined for them because they can’t afford all those goodies, so seductively set out for their delectation?

2)   The traffic: Yes, it does become a bit of a nightmare, doesn’t it, as the entire city gets behind the wheel to do the rounds, driving from one corner to the other to drop off all those Diwali presents to friends, family, business colleagues and corporate honchos.

Result: travelling times gets doubled no matter where you go and what time you set out. Tempers fray, instances of road rage increase, and don’t even get me started on the amount of fuel wasted.

3)   The hampers: Ah yes, the hampers. The baskets full of rubbish, most of which, I suspect, has been hastily recycled from one basket to another (though, on the bright side, it does make it more eco-friendly). Gone are the days when a dabba of mithai would suffice. Now you have to source exotic chocolates, endless pastry products, jars of olives, and that obligatory bottle of wine/champagne. Honestly, why not just send a diya and be done with it?

4)   Card parties: Oh God, how I loathe them! All that huddling around a table, staring furtively at your cards, refusing to wind up the game so that dinner can be served at a decent hour, and then moaning and groaning about how much money you have lost. How can this be anyone’s idea of a party?

5)   Diwali melas: They are my idea of hell. It is as if the entire collection of second-rate products in the world has been brought together in one place so that you can choose from among a treasure trove of tasteless tat (once you’ve found parking for your car, a near-impossible feat). Isn’t it time we rediscovered the charm of shopping for Diwali at our own locals?

6)   The spam: It starts from the week before, as every company/PR outfit/shop/restaurant that has bought your phone number off some master list starts inundating you with smses. Get 20 per cent off on Diwali dinner if you buy a loyalty card; say no to crackers; buy a new flat.

7)   The crackers: Diwali has long since been transformed into a festival of sound rather than a celebration of light, but of late the cracker menace is getting even worse. I’m not one of the green brigade that believes that crackers will bring about the end of civilisation as we know it, but I can’t help being appalled at just how over-the-top the fireworks display has got of late.

As children, we were happy to light our phooljharis and anaars and set off the odd rocket. But the sheer scale of cracker-bursting these days is both scary and repellent. Just how much money do we blow up every Diwali, and how much damage do we do to our environment (never mind, scaring the life out of little children and dogs)?

I can’t help but think that if all of us curtailed our expenditure on some – if not all – of the above and gave the money saved to charity, it would be a true celebration of Diwali: the festival that marks the triumph of good over evil.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Blast from the past

Sometimes just an image, a sound, or a smell, can take you right back to your childhood

It is the strangest things that remind you of your childhood at times, evoking memories that lay long buried in your brain. It could be anything really: an image; a touch; a smell; or even a sound. And before you know it, you have been transported back in time to relive those childhood moments that you had thought lost forever.

Last week I had one such moment of déjà vu. Aimlessly channel-surfing, I stopped at FTV because the clothes on the ramp looked mildly interesting, when my eyes were caught by the shoes of one of the models. The square toes; the little strap across the ankle fastened with a buckle; the shiny patent leather; it all looked so familiar. If you ignored the high heel – as I did – the shoes were a dead ringer for the Mary Janes that I had worn to school all through my childhood.

That one image took me back instantly to the Bata store on Chowringhee, Calcutta’s busiest thoroughfare, where I would make an annual pilgrimage at the start of every year to buy the school-mandated black shoes that made up my uniform. There was no agonising over styles, dithering over alternatives, or pondering on colours. There was only one option that I could choose (if choose is the right word) but that didn’t detract from the shopping experience one bit. The thrill of buying a new pair of shoes; the joy of seeing that my feet were finally growing to adult size; and the knowledge that I was going into a new class with all the possibilities it represented; all of this combined to make this trip to the shoe shop one of the highlights of my year.

That same feeling of déjà vu struck me on a recent visit to the local Marks and Spencer store. One entire rail was devoted to leggings with stirrups, a style that I had last worn when I was 10 years old. Now of course, I would not be caught dead in them, so I quickly moved on to the next rail. But quite without volition, an image jumped up and took possession of my brain: the pair of olive-green leggings with sturdy stirrups that I had refused to get out of for an entire year (and which are immortalised in several family photographs taken over the period). And with that image came the memories: of visits to the zoo; of raucous birthday parties where everyone ate far too much cake (and which, suffice to say, not everyone managed to keep down); of picnics with friends; of family weddings where I was the only one not in the regulation ghagra-choli.

Of course, it’s not just clothes or fashion that reminds me of my childhood. Coming across a re-run of Yes Minister on BBC Entertainment has much the same effect. In the days before satellite television arrived in India and we were all at the mercy of Doordarshan programmers, this was the one show that I would hurry home to watch. The opening credits of Chitrahar, which was pretty much appointment viewing in those days; the notes of Abide with me, which we sang every morning Assembly; the sound of a tolling bell, which punctuated my day at school; all these sounds double up as aide-memoires.

And then, there’s food. There are some things that always take me back to the nostalgia-tinted meals of my childhood. Cupcakes with old-style frosting and sprinkles (rather than the new-fangled dollops of cream) remind me of the pastries that I bought every lunch-time from the school cake-wallah. I would carefully consider his two layers of cakes (I could buy only one every day, given my meagre pocket-money), each in a different style and colour, before buying the vanilla cupcake yet again. Clearly, even at that young age, I felt a certain comfort in the familiar.

Of all things, home-style finger chips – rather than the new-fangled French fries we all scoff down these days – conjure up memories of my childhood almost instantly. Cut in chunky bits and deep-fried to a lovely golden, crisp on the outside and moistly crumbly inside, these were served up every Sunday lunch-time, right after Mahabharat, with a side of blood-red ketchup. The aromas wafting from a cup of steaming black tea take me back to holidays spent exploring the grounds of my aunt’s tea estate in Assam, the gardens redolent with what I only later discovered to be the smell of drying tea leaves. The taste of an orange bar, the ice-lolly on a stick that was a staple of my growing years, reminds me of evenings spent hanging over the balcony waiting for the ice-creamwallah – with his colourful van teeming with goodies – to hove into view.

And then, there are the images. The sight of scraggly rows of roses always takes me back to the lawns of the old-style dak bungalows; the good old Ambassador – a rare sight on the road these days – reminds me of road trips taken as a child; and a bouffant hairdo reminds me of the styles my older sister sported in her youth, and which I longed to replicate when I grew up. Of course, by the time I grew out of pigtails, the bouffant was long gone, having been replaced by the gamine crop – but that, as they say, is quite another story.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crime as punishment

What I have learnt about rape from political leaders across the world

There isn’t a day that goes by in India when you open a newspaper and don’t see a news item (or four) about rape. There’s the 16 year old Dalit girl who is gang-raped by upper-caste men in her Haryana village. There is the Mumbai professional who is raped by an acquaintance because she dared say no. There is the Bangalore student who is dragged away from a parked car and raped by a group of men who believe that because she is making out with one man she must be ‘up for it’ with them as well. There’s the girl who set herself on fire because she couldn’t live with the stigma of being a rape victim. And then, there’s the father who kills himself when he is shown video clips of his daughter being molested by a group of men.

Given the staggering number of rape stories that emerge from India every day, there really isn’t much more than we can learn about this crime, is there? We know that it is not so much about sex as it is about power. We know that such is the aura of shame that surrounds the crime that the victim ends up feeling much more at fault than the perpetrator. And we know that society plays into that feeling of guilt by effectively telling the woman that, in one way or the other, she asked for it.

But that doesn’t stop political leaders across the world from giving us the benefit of their wisdom on the subject of rape. And here, in no particular order of importance is what I have learnt about rape from these worthies.   

1)   Marrying late causes rape. Young men and women have sexual desires; so as soon as they reach puberty, they should be married off so that they do not ‘stray’. In other words, the best way of ensuring that rape does not occur is by making sure that girls and boys are married off as minors. Because, as we know, married women never get raped, and married men only ever have sex – consensual or forced – with their wives.

Source: Sube Singh, Khap Panchayat leader in Haryana. This view was later endorsed by Om Prakash Chautala, a former chief minister of the state, who weighed in to say that crimes such as rape did not occur in the good old days (he went all the way back to the Mughal era to mine his example) when girls were married off as minors.

2)   Around 90 per cent of rapes occur when women go along willingly with their rapists. When what starts off as consensual sex goes wrong, these women start crying rape (the naughty trouble-makers!).

Source: Dharambir Goyat, Congress party spokesperson, Haryana.

3)   Eating fast food like chow mein (or presumably Maggi noodles) causes rape. The consumption of this kind of food – burgers and pizzas for example – creates a hormonal imbalance in men, makes their animal instincts veer out of control, and their increased sexual desire manifests itself as rape.

Source: Jitender Chhatar, Khap Panchayat leader, Haryana.

4)   If you go to nightclub, drink too much and talk to men who are strangers, then you really shouldn’t complain when you are raped. Honestly, what were you doing there in the first place?

Source: Madan Mitra, minister in the Mamata Banerjee government of West Bengal (a view never repudiated by the woman chief minister herself, who later categorised the rape cases in her state as a ‘criminal conspiracy’.)

5)   If you get raped, and the rape is ‘legitimate’ (as in you are not making this stuff up to make yourself sound more interesting) then the body has a way to ‘shut itself down’ and you will not get pregnant. (All those women who do get pregnant after being raped? Whose bodies didn’t ‘shut down’? Well, we know what to think about them, don’t we?)

Source: Todd Akin, US Congressman who is running for the Senate as a Republican candidate.

6)   If you do get pregnant as a consequence of being raped (you dirty slag, you!) then abortion is not an option. Because even if it is conceived in an act of rape, a child is still a ‘gift from God’. Yes, this is what God himself intended.

Source: Richard Mourdock, US Senate candidate (“I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”)

7)    Some rapes are more serious than others. In the case of an 18 year-old man having sex with an underage girl, or in cases of date rape, the crime is less serious than other rapes and deserves a lesser punishment.

Source: Kenneth Clarke, Justice Secretary, United Kingdom.

Yes, this is what political leaders across the world – not just in backward, obscurantist Haryana but in such developed, enlightened countries as the USA and the UK – believe about rape.

Honestly, what can you do but laugh? Because if you didn’t laugh, you would have to cry: at the ignorance; the insensitivity; and the sheer stupidity of it all.