Delhi: to my fellow citizens

Brutal New Delhi Gang Rape Outrages Indians, Spurs Calls for Action

I hear a lot about marches and anger and support in India, and about how we would not bring up our children in India. But I see a pattern: when we speak of change we tend to change our own location to a more favorable one, but we do not change the location/situation surrounding us for the better. Where is the most required thing of all now — Indian citizens’ voices irrespective of gender speaking to each other with assurance that they can rely on one another in the future? Where are the civic discussions among ‘us’–with your maid, your driver, your sister, your brother, your boss, your office boy, your bus driver, your autowallah? Or don’t the elite and the middle class talk to ‘these people,’ and talk about these things at all?

I want more than words and fashionable anger. A few small points to start with:

1. a. Let’s have mandatory self-defense classes for women in schools and colleges. Instruction about escaping sexual predators at home and outside. Freedom for a girl to call the police from her school or a safe house if she is threatened or attacked, and attention being paid to her even if she is a minor. Self-defense will not solve anything, but publicly shared knowledge creates a mindset that might prevent or help someone in distress some of the time.

1.b. Mandatory co-ed interactive workshops for boys and girls in high schools, colleges and undergraduate institutions run by city police or similar agencies about public safety, public duty, emergency protocols, and safe habits. Rope in the NGO’s, rope in the girl and boy scouts, bring in successful working women from all industries, bring in the liberal minded CEO’s from all types of sectors. Let’s see good examples of what to do and what is possible.

2. A focus on public ethics: where is the public’s morality in these instances? Instead of  ‘moral science’ classes in school where we speak about god, instead of using religion as a way to teach women their place outside school, we need open discussions about masculinity and femininity and on not using sex as power, i.e.we need to create and maintain a climate of opinion about women and men and children that is more benign.

4. Citizen duties being made clear. Period. India prides itself on its democratic sensibility where the people do not have to obey the government, but it is time the people took control of maintaining their own freedoms. Anarchy is not democracy.

Let me speak for many women: In spite of perhaps a loving family and perhaps even progressive parents, ‘I’ was abused as a child, in which ‘I’ become like so many millions in the world for whom there is no proof and no witness to trauma little or great. ‘I’ was molested regularly on the street, on buses, in tutorial classes throughout ‘my’ teenage years and into ‘my’ twenties, like so many hundreds of thousands of others. If ‘I’ was pretty and unaccompanied in public ‘I’ was considered automatic game, even if ‘I’ dressed modestly and minded ‘my’ own business. India in the 90’s  told ‘me’ this was ‘normal.’ If ever and in great peril ‘I’ reacted strenuously to harassment (and then ‘my’ name would be kept out of the newspapers), ‘I’ would be called ‘strong’ in private and foolish in public. ‘I’ was neither, because resistance to wrong should be normal, not extraordinary. ‘I’ speak for ‘you.’

Let me speak for many women when I say: Where are my brothers, friends, ordinary ‘bhai’ citizens? If women cannot feel safe in the company of men they know, who can they trust when faced with strangers? I want more men to say of their own volition: “The responsibility lies with men as well as women,” and to act accordingly.

Women who are lucky enough to be safe in cars and ensconced in money, whose struggles consist in competing for money or applause, where are you when it comes to giving back to society? Where is your ‘noblesse oblige’? Charity and donations help no one in the long term; they merely reinforce the hierarchy of power and powerlessness. Take some time out from your drinks and parties and turn it to real work for the future. Come to your alma mater, give talks and advice to both boys and girls on power and success and what it means to remain human as you fight to gain recognition. Talk about discrimination in the workplace and outside it. Make the success of a person seem non-threatening to others, make it seem normal regardless of sex or gender. Talk about honor, not just ‘Leaning In.’

And make the money count. Where do you put your charitable donations? Where are the labs and high-tech services all our engineers and scientists and computer and biotech gods could imagine and build in a year with their money? Where the backbone, the sense of a unified community of disparate entities agreed to work for the maintenance of a common good? Where the demand for a common good, and the demand for it in the everyday life of buttered bread?

There is an accelerated breakdown of the sense of the public sphere in India, a sense of something held in common, something that needs work and giving and (god forbid!) sacrifice of total gains to keep alive. Individualistic democratic energies have been channelled too far into fragmented sectarian sentiments. We fight each other for a share of the common pie, we do not want to do anything for the common pie lest the other man or woman get a bit more, let alone more than me.

If there is work to be done, it is this, and this in a time of scepticism about the ‘nation’ or similar formations–we need to encourage the public to regain its sense of what allows it retain the privileges of a democracy, what grants it its rights, why it has the freedom to pursue its narrow individual goals at the cost of the nation or its society; there must be some sense of public and civic duty, of value in what exists in common. There is no escaping that common; and the only way for a reasonably just society or nation to exist is to limit the looting and sacrilege of that common allowed to any one.


Some further notes:

I and we haven’t touched upon many other related issues here or in many public discussions:

Male rape, little discussed in India. Rape is rape, bodily harm is bodily harm, trauma is trauma. Gender, age, ability are not mitigating factors.

The penal code. Many are calling for the death penalty, many others are using moralistic arguments to counter what they see as calls for ‘barbarity.’ I do not support simple imprisonment as a punishment for violent rape because prison is neither hell or punishment for many violent offenders: it is partly a place of organized crime where many strings are pulled, many rackets run, and which often has safe ties with the outside world. Imprisoning more people will likely lead to a surge of private prisons and another industry of arms and security and war. How many prisoners can India feed and care for? Why build a Bastille? I would rather make an exception and ask for some ‘hurtful’ ‘revenge’–naming and public shaming, mandatory public service, crippling and long-term financial penalty, and public police records so that the person is maimed for life as much as they have maimed the raped for life with shame and bodily trauma. Punishment must be fearful enough to be a deterrent. If vasectomy and castrating are required in extreme cases, so be it. If I am being ‘barbaric,’ my premise is this: the rights of one do not override the rights of another.

I would ask women lawyers to start enacting real reform, perhaps by teaching ordinary girls they know about the law and what needs to be done, to find ways to enforce civil safety. Women still rely on word-of-mouth networks that function as underground railroads.

And we all need to ask for laws barring those with records of sexual crimes from holding responsible public office. Start voting with minds and words and an eye to the future. We have to take the commons back, for women as well as men.

The music makers and the dreamers of dreams

After Sandy Hook. December 2012.

Terror used to be something we could attribute to anger. Then it became the expected creed of revenge and pushing back. Now it is supposed to be so commonplace that it remains unspoken.

They won’t give up the gun. Not soon. If they do they will do so because they have lost faith in the gun as a means to achieve their dreams. Not because they see its terror. The terror was what convinced them they could use it as overwhelming pressure on the ‘enemy,’ the enemy being anyone who stood in the way of the dream, anyone who questioned their right to dreams unlimited.

They do not mistake guns for toys, they are in fact on that psychological hairpin curve from childhood’s ignorance to the dawn of youth’s anger and fierce insistence on respect and right and might, all the way back to bitter adamantine loyalty to the one thing they know can eventually break words and minds and all resistant things–sticks, big ones, lots of them. Childhood’s end is not a dawn but a dirty morning.

As long as the debate is constructed between overbearing authority and individual liberty, no one will dissociate guns from power. As long as we believe holding a bigger stick is the end answer to conflict, we won’t be able to turn our backs on violence. The music makers and the dreamers of dreams will continue to sing on both sides, bullets and choirs will answer.

We may speak at length about controls after the fact, but that does not change the whole picture: in times of conflict and tension human beings will seek violent methods to gain their ends, and guns are only one manifestation of those means. There are tensions in societies around the world that are increasing due to various sociopolitical reasons, some local and some fomented by pan-national players; those societies are learning from other places in the world that there are people wiling to use ever more deadly weapons to gain their ends, that there are many willing to sell them those same deadly weapons, and that the terror of the most terrible weapon in the local playground is immeasurable.

As more people hear of more deadly battlefields they become more inured to tales of woe and seek more to safeguard themselves than to intervene and stop the problem at a larger-than-local level; the escalation of violence depends on forcing your enemy to pre-empt you with ever greater acts of force; there are global interests at stake in the production, proliferation and distribution of guns and they increasingly control the porosity of borders and remittance flows. In the coming decades there will be more wars over more scarce resources for a greater number of people, and many are aware of that at the local level as they watch increasing conflict over material and nonmaterial levers they used to take for granted.

People will fight, and people will refuse to abjure conflict. One can only minimize the wars to come, but will anyone act even to minimize the inevitable destruction?

Badges and scripts

‘Because of people like you who want to forget this, we will have it again’ ?

This is a choice. Why not? If the moko or the tribal ttaooo or the religious sign can be worn, why not this? It is identity, a reminder to ‘be’ something and to carry it on. Note that not every descendeant has to be marked, nor should it be imposed. It is chosen, by a few, of a tribe.

This is a larger general debate than the wisdom of memorializing and of preserving heritage. Museums and artifacts are not unassailable. But the body is still considered somewhat private property, a site of some individual will and intention, although about as evanescent as most human imprints on the planet (and therefore more truthful?). Using it as a site of history and memory is quite ethical, if that’s the word I’m looking for. I think this is fitting for these times of intense faith and intense doubt with its sense of fluid borders and unsettled histories and futures, when the large appears as unstable as sand, and reliance on the body, the self, the one sole canvas faithfully present in the human life cycle, seems a relatively secure strategy.

The question of giving offense to others is different: it is precisely people’s ‘ewww’ response that screens out much of the negative that exists in this world.  In particular: given the state of the world and its political and religious cross-currents, I think it is important to remember what happened at the Holocaust and why, to teach how belief in glory is built on ruin, and therefore what is ‘sacred.’ And one must distinguish along that finest line of ethics, the fisted freedom of one and the nose of the other, i.e. what one may do because it is right and good, and what the other may resist because of equal right and good or to avoid mere discomfort.

Even in this increasingly digital and virtual world, and perhaps because of it, there is a trend to embrace the transience and messiness of the body and to use it as canvas and banner. Some things cannot be represented adequately or even proportionately without the cost of pain or what the body can offer. The symbol needs to create as much impact as possible; in this case, the mark of honor is chosen as heritage by later generations, somewhat like a tribal tattoo or a religious symbol. Yet, this particular symbol cannot encompass the original horror (how many of us have seen any pictures of the mountains of living skeletons that were the camps? do any of us know real hunger, real cold?). So, no, it does not create the same impact, because it cannot, but it creates enough to be difficult and demanding for both bearer and witness.

More to bind and burden

Standing in the aisle at a large grocery store earlier today I watched a mom with two children buy two cartfuls of food, and put it all into new plastic bags. She must do this every week, so many millions of moms must do this every week, because they think they need to, and none of them thinks of the packaging, waste or pollution their lifestyle costs this world. As one Indian upwardly mobile immigrant mom told me, ‘it’s cheap.’ I had tried to tell her the true cost of things is hidden and far more than the sticker price. Would she believe me? Would she burst her bubble? Why interrupt this land of lotus eaters, where people come to have the freedom to do as they wish and be celebrated for it? That’s the immigrant interpretation of the American Dream.

On the way home I complained to myself as I struggled on public transport with 25 kilos of my own groceries and had to walk home in inclement winter weather, then up to the third floor with everything, and because the torn tendon in my foot was troubling me. Then I came home and read this:

More people in the world, more to bind and burden.

I have complained because I had to carry 25 kilos of groceries and a few suitcases up and down 4 floors when I had a torn tendon in my foot.

How many people bleed and vanish in the daily making of this world, in all the things I buy ‘for cheap,’ in the posh flat you and I think of as an investment, the bling and the lovely purchases and delicate embroidery? How many are obscured by the beauty and achievement of my life? Those high-tech sports clothes, all that world travel, the million dollar homes everyone needs to have, the bigger weddings.

This isn’t only about carbon footprints and how much we throw away, about how it is beneath us to carry our own resusable grocery bags to the store or, worse still, carry them ourselves (Indian women now pride themselves on how soft and delicate their hands and feet are, their beauty a testament to how many do their washing and cooking and work for them). It is really about the cult of the self, the pride in and valorization of success at the cost of others. Indians have always been proud of their democracy, where no one is obligated to obey the other, not even citizens their government, but they are also able to carry this independence too far–into the perfect libertarian anarchy, where one is big if one has crushed a few under one’s climbing feet.

If you are higher on the totem pole, you get to forget the others, others make the world for those who serve you, and you get to conjure grand ways of ‘saving the world.’ I have meals, warmth, even if I am (technically) poor and unemployed in America, carless, living alone. If I look up to my rich friends and wonder at their heights of heaven, I can do little about those whose lives make mine seem privileged.

I’m not trying to make myself grateful (or you guilty) for Christmas. The world needs joy, but not at any cost. I want to remember that none of us knows real hunger, real cold, real privation, real helplessness. We won’t know it until the world goes to war again, when misery will not discriminate between you and me. Until then, naked empathy will be my only talisman.