Thursday, August 22, 2013

One India, many different stories

A University of Chicago student recently recounted some of the traumatic experiences she had during her trip to India about a year ago as part of a study group. Her article was published in CNN iReport, a user-generated news platform. Another female student from the same group, a young African American student, posted her response to the story, taking exception to what she perceived in the original story as stereotyping of Indian men based on the actions of a few.

Briefly, this is what happened during the study trip:
A group of students, including our two authors - Rose and twoseat (the penname used by the second author) from University of Chicago visited India for a three-month Indian civilizations program. An incident confirmed by both reports was on their first day in Pune. It was the Ganesh Festival and the American girls joined in the street dancing - dancing which stopped as soon as the group of foreigners joined in. Through their three month tenure, the girls in the group were stared, groped, their pictures clicked and subject to every kind of misbehaviour women, especially foreigners may expect on Indian streets. There was a rape attempt on one of the girls in the group - an incident that left indelible marks especially on Rose. Upon her return to the US, she was unable to shake off the trauma and suffered mental disturbance to the extent that she was held in psychiatric ward for some time.

As of 22nd August, Rose’s story greets you on the landing page of CNN iReport, and the statistics are impressive:

The article was read by roughly 12,000 more readers since I started writing this post. Twoseat’s kinder take on India and her defense of Indian men at large finds fewer takers at the moment:

Naturally, a part of me wants to jump to the defense of my country and cry foul over western perceptions about India. Anyway, this is not a rant against stereotyping of India and Indians by a white woman. Far from it.

As an Indian, I feel ashamed of the treatment meted out to these girls. I feel more ashamed, because I have long been aware of the strange way in which we all behave around foreigners, but never given it much thought. I have listened quietly even as people I know, sniggered, joked and shared generally uncharitable, uninformed opinions about ‘those women’ - opinions based on their strange manner of dressing, or the audaciousness of women roaming about, un-chaperoned, in places and spaces where even we the local women don’t venture alone.

Reactions to Rose’s article predictably include sage advice from Indian women about how to behave in India. No Indian woman would dance on the street during the Ganesh Festival, points out one comment. That may be true, but why is it the case? What is so wrong, in a country so fond of festivity, to display a little bit of your inner child in a space where a crowd is apparently enjoying themselves? True, I never fancied doing the same, even though I’m usually the first one to get on my feet during most family weddings. 

Sometimes it takes an outsider to make us question the little things that we take for granted. What makes us a society where men dancing on the street is celebration, while a woman joining in is a spectacle?

The incident in Goa seems by all appearances the most traumatic experience that no one should have to face. To be fair, I don’t know if I were to visit Goa with a group of my friends today, something like that would never happen to me. Molestation in India, as most of us are painfully aware, is more a matter of opportunity than the colour of your skin or the clothes you wear, or any physical or personal attribute. Let’s make no mistake about this - individual attributes are for humans; rapists, molesters, stalkers, starrers and gropers don’t see us as humans - they wouldn’t do that to you if they thought of you as a person.

What I’m trying to get at is that the Goa incident was a criminal assault, one that would understandably scar anyone in that unfortunate position. I could potentially be attacked, mugged or face one of the any number of possible unpleasant experiences in a foreign country, and my memories of the country would be permanently tainted by that incident.

As an Indian, my place is not to play the victim and lament the treatment meted out to women in this country, but to regret that a visitor to my country ended up taking back a slice of this reality with her. It is generous on the part of young African American student to weigh in that the whole country and all the men here should not be stereotyped because of the actions of a few. She’s right, there are enough good, honourable men in India to make the place liveable and loveable; my own, somewhat naive belief is that those men are in a majority.

As an Indian however, particularly in the face of such incidents, my place is not to cite the good conduct of those good men, get defensive about what my country is or isn’t like, and belittle the trauma that Rose faced. It is rather my duty to own up to the fact that there is something in the society that I’m very much a part of, that allows some of its men to behave despicably and get away with it. It sucks to admit this, but the sooner we do, the more likely we are to take little steps within our power to change this.

Update: I hadn't read this opinion piece on Firstpost, published on the same day, at the time I posted this. The author puts across many more points that I would have liked to address, and much better than I could have.

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