Generosity is a Matter of Both Choice and Will

I wrote this essay in 2013 in the aftermath of what is now referred to as “Nirbhaya”; the infamous rape case, and a benchmark in crime against women. Atrocities against women have continued unabated despite changes in our legal framework in the last few years. Silence (of the abused and their families) and denial (of the perpetrator and society in general) had kept the extent of coercion by those in power in India away from the public gaze for many decades. It had been relatively easy to cloak the reality in the garb of an ancient civilization that inherently reveres women. The carefully crafted idea of civilization has now come apart with the #MetToo movement spreading to India. My central argument in this essay was that, we, as people (independent of our sexual orientation) have the choice to choose generosity over patriarchy. Recent events beckon me to share my stories and my point of view. This essay was originally titled “Growing Up in Delhi”.

It is a Saturday dawn in January at Bangalore.  I am half awake, reluctant to leave the bed early on a holiday. Usually my thoughts at that hour centre around unsolved technical problems at work, I mentally go over the to-do list, chores at home, wonder how best to optimize activities so that I can steal an hour or two for myself.

Yesterday was different. I was gloomy; dark thoughts stemmed from the recent heinous crime committed against a 23 year old self-willed woman in Delhi, discussions in the newspaper, media, friends and family from near and far, colleagues at office and at that soulful hour perched between night and day, my mind retreated to the past - of the years when I was growing up in Delhi.  

I loved the winters in Delhi. The smell and feel of the foggy mornings in the years before it got so polluted. The stately tall trees that slowly turned bare in the promise of spring. The riot of colors in the flowers that sprouted in the circles in Shanti Path – calendula, nasturtium, dianthus, luxpur, phlox. Memories of holding a warm glass of chai in the dhaba in front of the basketball court in college just before the first Physics class of the day. Of comradeship and bonhomie with class mates, going for an occasional movie, a play or a classical music concert, the amazingly warm hearted, affectionate and bright friends - some of who would drop me back home traveling in a DTC bus all the way from Kamani Auditorium, JNU or a cinema theatre in CP. Parents were liberal, so was school and college; neighborhood in R.K. Puram where I lived during my school days was friendly but rarely intrusive. Liberal meant that I was raised to be a good human being, never ever did I in any of the institutions that I studied encounter anything that was specific to gender, caste, class, religion or geography, my parents educated me well so that as my mother would say in Bangla “jaate nijer pae darhate paaro” (stand on my two feet, earn my living and have the capability for independent thought and action).

That was one Delhi.

There was another Delhi. And yesterday morning, it all came back with a vividness that was daunting. I am in a DTC bus (like a hundred other times) standing  while men are seated in the Lady’s Seats reserved for women and they have the audacity to ask me to sit in the centre squeezed between two of them. It would not matter if I was with my parents or alone. Seated by the window, I would suddenly jump out of my skin, wondering if there was a bug crawling along my back, but no, these are male fingers that would typically find the narrow slit between the side wall of the bus and seat in front to get access to my body to paw. And if I had the bad fortune of being in a crowded bus or seated along the aisle, there were men who would do everything possible to maximize contact with their private body parts. I would twist or turn or step on their toes and use every occasion when the bus veered around to jab them, carry a massive bag as an armor to protect my body from lecherous men. They came in all sizes and shapes – amazingly democratic in distribution except in their gender. As I grew older, I got emboldened, I would be loud in my verbal protest when anyone misbehaved not only with me but any other woman and to a degree I found that the men withdrew. However, I don’t remember any one ever supporting me or speaking out against unwelcome advances.

I dreaded and hated the festival of Holi. It was the time of the year when men found the perfect ploy to attack women. So, when they could not or did not find an excuse to touch them with gulal (colored powder), water filled balloons were the perfect missiles. Now that I think about it, there may even be a deeply masochistic and pathological psychology associated with this object.  I was returning from college on a late afternoon walking down the lane to my home in Vasant Vihar when a motorcyclist came hurtling down the road at breakneck speed and hit my belly with a water balloon. All that I remember of this incident after so many years is the ferocity and glee with which this individual attacked me. I was hurt, humiliated, left with a sense of utter helplessness and I cried my way home that was barely a few minutes away.

I remember a year when a group of boys from Khalsa College tore into our college during Holi and molested a bunch of girl students in a class room – this was thirty years back. The teacher could do nothing as they pounced on these women. There was furor in the university. Following this incident, there was an attempt at providing greater security at the main college gate, bar entry from side gates, an increased consciousness about things that could go awry during Holi. Perhaps someone from those times will remember what happened to the goons, did they face any punishment or disciplinary action, and did they undergo counselling? Many of them would have grown up children today, what kind of husbands or fathers would they make?

Couple of weeks back, I went to see the delightful Life of Pie. At the end of the film, the audience was requested to use a single exit so that we could return the 3-D glasses. As people filed out of the theatre, I was struck by the distance that people in civil societies maintain in public spaces. While in high school In Delhi, I was seated in the aisle seat at a well- known cinema theatre. Next to me was my mother. Lights had gone off just before the start of the movie and all of a sudden a young man brushed past me slapping me on my lap. I was left stunned and could do nothing.

I effectively left Delhi at the end of college except for a brief four months before I got married in 1989. I have lived in the campus of IIT Kanpur; we made occasional trips to the city, and thereafter I lived in Chennai and Ahmedabad before moving to Bangalore.  I never experienced in any of these cities what I did in the ‘other’ Delhi when I was growing up.

I never regretted leaving Delhi for good. I have never wanted to go back to live there. Notwithstanding the winters that I loved and memories of people and those wonderful years especially in college that made it so special.  

I am grateful that I live in a city that has never made me feel that women have no place of respect in India.  Some of the comments in the media would make one wonder whether we are living in a country that is only for men. It starts with female foeticide, ill-treating little girls, not feeding them, not sending them to school, getting them to do housework and look after the younger siblings, trying to marry them off before the lawful age quoting tradition, seeking and paying huge sums of dowry, husband’s family burning the wife when they do not continue to bring more money from their parental homes, the cycle goes on.  

I studied Sanskrit in middle school. Some of the poetry has stayed with me over the years.  A shloka that always had me puzzled said:

“Matrivat paradwareshu

Paradravyeshu loshtthavat

Aatmavat sarvabhuteshu

Yah pashyati, Sah pandita”

The enlightened is the one who views other’s wife as ones mother, other’s wealth as stone and other people as oneself.  

I could never figure out the import of the first line. I would have thought that the last line is inclusive of all living beings. After these long years, I have now found an interpretation and here is my analysis.

All women are some man’s wife. Except one’s mother. There exist no other women.  This poem is really written for a man. He must see other men’s wife (the only recognized women) as his mother. Because potentially all other women except one’s mother are objects of desire (like another man’s wealth). This poem is really written for a man, for only a man can be a Pandit, an enlightened one.

At the core of our social fabric, we have not advanced beyond this definition of a woman or that of a man. We badly need a nationwide social reformation.

As I come to the end of my narrative, I will draw my hope of a better future by recapturing a beautiful shloka that remained my favourite.

“Ayaam nijah paroveti ganana laghu chetsam,

uddarcharitanaantu vasudhaiv kutumbakam”

The essence is one of humanism - that for the one who is generous, the entire universe is family. We must raise our children to be generous in action and in spirit, strengthen the core of our democracy by ensuring fundamental right to equality and education to all, abide by and practice the rule of law.

Kajoli Banerjee Krishnan

January 6, 2013