Thursday, January 3, 2013

Moving mountains

About thirteen years ago, in an online discussion group that was set up only to discuss literary fiction, I talked about the aftermath of a rape of a fellow student some years earlier. I knew not to name the student or 'out' her in any way, but I used my feelings from this incident to contribute to a public discussion. I believe I tried to make a point in the context of an ongoing discussion about the helplessness and unfairness experienced while being a young, unprotected, unconnected female.

I was no less passionate about this topic then as I am now because I know what it's like to negotiate your own way in this world when you come from a family where the men are either absent or uncaring and the women are fighting their own respective devils. I know about the unfortunate misunderstandings that happen when you anxiously search for a father or a brother in most men you meet while young -- the good ones wisely stay out of the picture, the wily ones hardly think of you as their child or sister.  I know what it feels like to be touched prematurely--when you are not yet ready to be touched--even by the guy on whom you have a crush: It feels as revolting as when his brother and his father decide they can touch you inappropriately too.  I know that when you question the 'why' of it to older women--Indian women, kind women, well-positioned women--you should never be surprised to hear at least a handful of them tell you that it is the job of a child to be safe and that it is irresponsible for the women in the family to encourage or allow any naivete in their children.  So when I had a chance to share my insights, on behalf of faces known and unknown to me, I communicated what I knew by using the unnamed student's more recognized, more defined, yet less understood experience in life.                    

But I was chastised through the back-channel by an Indian woman teaching English in an Australian university. She accused me of garnering sympathy for myself at the expense of the student whom I was careful not to identify. The briefly narrated incident from my past was presumed by her to have left me, the young observer, unaffected. Her disapproval of me, which I now understand as a power play, was executed in that unique, ruthless way perfected by older, composed, established Indian women when chastising younger, less articulate, more unsure women trying to find their place in this world.  Power play or not, back then I was too insecure to understand it and, instead of demonstrating defiance, I wrote the most emotional piece of publicly apologetic poetry I have ever written in my life. Then I proceeded to lose three nights of sleep and several months of self-respect, and, as an additional self-imposed punishment, temporarily buried the writing voice I was hoping to find within me.

Today in India, it appears as if things are suddenly quiet different.  A gruesome rape and murder of a young student on a moving bus by a gang of men who left her (and her injured male friend) to die on the side of road has finally lifted the lid off of this long-simmering issue of rape in Indian society. Discussions about rape are no longer confined to one's own solitary mind but happen out on the wide, open streets. Students, many of them first-time protesters, rallied spontaneously in places as significant as Raisina Hill. Sometimes the crowds at these gatherings represented diverse groups that have previously rarely had a chance to come together.  Press coverage focused on rape statistics and opinion pieces by activists and the overall effect of the coverage itself, as some worriedly pointed out, even bordered on the sensational.  One of the most thought-provoking articles I have ever read on this subject was written by a rape survivor.

I can only hope that the Indo-Australian professor is watching, listening and resigning herself to the thought that she can no longer bully unpolished, talkative, young women into self-censorship and silence. She may have the language and authority but they come with the experiences--sometimes not their own, but borrowed. And they will find a way to craft all those experiences into longer-lasting, meaningful stories, whether she approves or not.  Indian women, along with their men, are moving mountains. Those not helping them should at least get out of the way, lest they be crushed into the dust.