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Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

The absolute importance of a toilet- Imagine living without one!

It is sort of amusing, but not entirely far fetched that Rahul’s birthday coincides with World Toilet Day. That’s because he is super tickled by toilet-centric jokes, something he shares with four and a half year old Aadyaa, who thinks the kid in her class who says ‘potty’ five times in a sentence is absolutely the coolest right now! I wonder why I never noticed the connection before, but now that I have, I see a zillion possibilities!

Some of the statistics that have led to the need for something as bizarre as a World Toilet Day are not amusing at all though. The World Toilet Day website informs me that a third of people in the world do not have access to a toilet. Also, that 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation, that toilet facilities can be the incentive to keep girls in school and that every dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of five dollars for the economy……chew on that!

I was made aware of the enormous significance of sanitation early in life because of my dad’s profession. He was a gastroenterologist and a person who saw the interconnectedness in everything. He believed strongly that many of the health problems we face are psychosomatic and emotional in nature. The inability to access a private, clean and secure space to relieve yourself poses many challenges and can traumatize people. He spoke of patients who had stomach conditions born out of such issues. As a young girl, he constantly taught me that the right to access a toilet was one of the most fundamental rights we need to fight for. He repeatedly told me that it is such a pity that in our culture girls are taught from a very young age to “hold” because there were such few places where they could relieve themselves in conditions of safety and cleanliness. As an onlooker at workshops that my parents held with village people taught me, at a very impressionable age, that rural women venture into the fields before dawn in groups to defecate and each morning they went in real fear of being assaulted and raped.

It is perhaps then no coincidence that I feel drawn to community work and especially that related to housing and living conditions of the urban poor, who I feel really have a raw deal. Wherever I have had the opportunity to talk to slum dwellers, their primary need has been toilets inside their homes. For various reasons, community toilets have not been a success in India. However, retrofitting homes to add a toilet, has been widely taken up but can only be successful if a decent sewage system is put in place in informal settlements.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been had I been born poor. Of all the indignities I would have suffered, I am absolutely certain that the inability to attend the call of nature would have been the ultimate indignity for me to suffer. I am pinning my hopes on the Total Sanitation Campaign. If this basic dignity can be achieved for poor people across the nation, they could seriously be hopeful about being able to better their lives in many significant ways.

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-¬† Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

Are we reinforcing inequality in our homes? Examining my attitudes towards my domestic help- Feb 02, 2012

Hindu’s op-ed about domestic help makes a few hard-hitting points that forced me to examine the following questions for myself:

Why do I employ domestic help? Is it because of what the article suggests- I need to work outside the house, so in employing domestic servants, am I using my class advantage to minimize my gender disadvantage? In my case, the latter isn’t so much about my husband not being willing to be a caregiver to my children or taking on housekeeping responsibilities (which is what the article outlines as the typical situation), but simply because of the nature of his job, when he may not be in town for long periods of time!

Do I think its unskilled labor and do I devalue it? Certainly not. I have gone with little or no domestic help for short periods of time and I think I (and most of us) employ domestic help because housework is tedious work and not intellectually stimulating, NOT because we think it is unskilled work. In fact, many domestic workers have excellent skills and many more need training, which unfortunately needs to be given by us who are relatively unskilled in this department!

What is my attitude towards my domestic help? Do I treat them with dignity? How does my behavior towards them affect my children?

Now this these are tough questions to answer honestly. Let me say I try and be fair to my help, in exchange for a sense of responsibility from their side. I do not go as far as asking them to sit and dine with me. To that extent, the class differences are ingrained, on both sides. But I do not ask them to constantly run errands for my children and certainly not my son, who is old enough to clear his toys and get himself a glass of water. My help eats what we eat and participates normally in conversations between us as far as it involves her. Fortunately, I haven’t needed full time domestic help in the past several months, so we have adequate privacy once the maids leave. Yes, I think I treat them with dignity. They get pulled up for mistakes, just like any team worker at work would get, though I admit I do raise my voice with my help, which I would never do at work.

What are my children learning? Here, I’m thinking back to an incident from my childhood. The only time by father hit me in my life was when I mistakenly said something rude to our domestic help Manda, who I treated as family and very much still keep in touch with. I must have been seven or eight, about as old as Udai is now. My father’s reaction taught me to measure my attitude towards those who help us early in life. I urge my children to form a bond of some sort with anyone who works at my place. Often that does not happen because the domestic worker rejects their affection and I have seen how deeply that affects the kids. Sometimes the kids tend to get violent, over criticize and tattle on the help. I treat that the same way I treat their friendships with their peers- ignore and intervene when I must.

I hope these are the right things to do. Undoubtedly, our children lead a life of privilege and class distinctions are deeply ingrained. I can only hope to teach them to be empathetic, by example. Even in that, I can only try!

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