Saturday, 26 January 2013

Decadence and dummies

Some friends and I decided to go to the movies the other day. I haven't been much while I've been in India, mainly because it's mostly Bollywood films that are shown and they're just not much fun for me without subtitles (though I can admire the groovy dance moves as well as anyone). However, the big blockbuster movies from abroad to get a showing, so we decided to troop off to see Les Mis. I was probably about 15 when I first saw the stage version, and having gone through a phase of being utterly obsessed with it I can still pretty much sing it from end to end. So the movie version was obviously going to be a must. It helped that this particular group of friends are a laid-back, creative-type bunch who could be expected to be a little more tolerant of the occasional irrepressible burst of singing-along.

So off we went to the mall. I've blogged before about the slightly surreal experience of going to the mall in Delhi. It's not just the sparkling, glass-and-chrome contrast with the chaotic streets of the city, but the fact that malls here take the concept of high-end retail and multiply it by 10, achieving a level of swankiness that most shopping centres in the UK could only dream of.

I wasn't prepared, though, for the experience of  "gold class" cinema ticket at a Delhi mall. Les Mis had two showings, one at 10 pm (gold class) and one at 11 pm (regular). Gold Class was, naturally, shockingly expensive for India, but still only about the average price of a cinema ticket back home. I knew it was a long movie and I'd had a bit of a long week, and having had a little bit of a windfall courtesy of Mr Taxman back in London I decided to treat us so that we could get home at a reasonable hour.

There were 35 seats in the cinema. We had four; two others were occupied. "Seats" doesn't really convey it though. These were the most comfortable things I had ever sat on in my life. Each of them had enough foot room for a giant to stretch out, they reclined to pretty much horizontal, and they seemed to have about a foot of padding across their whole surface. I wanted to take them home with me.

We all got a little bit excited and giggly at the ridiculousness of it. I mean, with six people in the cinema how on earth could this possibly be making money? So my friend Subhashani's camera came out as we lounged around and called out orders to imaginary minions (apologies for the picture quality).

Varoon and me. Overexcited.

Subhashani and me. Overexcited.

Vini. Vini is way too cool to get overexcited.

 Me looking especially taken with the complimentary blankets.

Once we'd actually calmed down enough to watch the movie, it turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. But I'm not here to write a movie review. Suffice to say that when the other two people in the cinema left at the intermission, this was pretty much our cue to get overexcited and giggly all over again (and in my case, to sing along to Do You Hear The People Sing while wondering at the capacity of my friends for extreme tolerance). 

I have to admit that for all the ludicrousness (and apparently lack of a sensible business model) it was more enjoyable than your average cinema trip. Even despite the occasional burst of Indian-style sensitive customer service - in this case, showing up to shine a torch in our faces and present the bill for soft drinks at the very moment that Eponine was about to expire in Marius's arms. 

I can't help wondering though whether the lack of other attendees was down to an unwillingness on the part of well-heeled Indians to spend extra money on a luxury cinema seat or the movie itself (though you'd think that a film consisting almost entirely of singing would go down well here. No dancing though. Maybe that's it). I'm sure places like this exist in the UK too, but who would bother forking out the extra on a regular basis? Is there really a sustainable market for this kind of thing?

As we were leaving through the underground parking we came across one of the most terrifying things I've seen in India. The photos don't do it justice, but heaped against a wall of the car park was a pile of shop window dummies (I really, really hope they were dummies) looking for all the world like the victims of a massacre deposited, Laura-Palmer style, wrapped in plastic. Presiding over them was a horrific yellow giantess. I'm not kidding, it actually struck dread into my heart.

Of course, once the brain had made sense of the information provided by the eyes and the initial horror subsided, we obviously had to get out and make a dramatic scene out of it (as those who've seen my play at the Short + Sweet theatre festival will know, I have something of a latent phobia about shop mannequins anyway):

I think I capture a terrified pose a bit better than Varoon, who looks more like he's doing a funky dance moved of the aforementioned type. I can't imagine what shop would have actually used the yellow giantess in a display, or why these poor dummies had been abandoned so unceremoniously in an empty car park. But it seemed like a somehow fitting postscript to a slightly surreal evening that managed to be rather more memorable than the movie itself.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

No, that's not it

Last year I posted a cartoon that I thought nicely encapsulated a lot of the dynamics of the Indian workplace. Being the only non-Indian in my office has given me plenty of opportunities to observe these dynamics at close hand and I continue to find it fascinating and frustrating. I'm no stranger to cultural hierarchies, but there are few places where they are more starkly on display than an Indian office.

A couple of days ago, for instance, we were called from our desks for a prizegiving ceremony. One of my colleagues from another team, a fairly senior chap, was getting an award for Excellence, and for "going above and beyond". We all shuffled into the board room and dutifully attended while the award was presented by a senior colleague, a nice old gentleman with silver hair and an avuncular air.

He handed over the award, we obligingly applauded, and then he asked the recipient what "Excellence" meant to him. Well, the chap said, I suppose it means that I always do that extra bit to make sure that what I produce is of the highest quality and meets customer needs. I was squirming at this point - I'm all for taking pride in one's work but I have an inherent allergic reaction to corporate-speak - but it was a decent enough answer. We thought.

Then the silver-haired gentleman interrupted. "No, you're wrong," he said. "That's not what Excellence means." He then launched into his own explanation of the actual meaning of Excellence, while the poor old recipient of the award (the award for, you know, excellence) was forced to smile and nod and say "thank you, Sir" for the sharing of this wisdom.

I couldn't meet anyone's eye. Half of me wanted to tell him to shut up and let the man have his moment - if you're getting an award for excellence, you should at least be allowed your own definition of what it means - while half of me was fighting back giggles at the ridiculousness of it. Of course all human societies have their hierarchies of status and we all constantly engage in communications, subtle and unsubtle, about where we fit and whether we are superior or inferior to those around us. It's just that in Indian offices, from what I have seen, those with the upper hand make no effort whatsoever to mask their claims to higher status. As a rule, senior people nakedly make their claims to not only give their subordinates any instruction they fancy and to castigate them for transgressions, but to have a superior understanding and knowledge of any subject under discussion.

I've long been critical of this, because I've seen people with good ideas to contribute be shot down because they are not considered sufficiently senior to have any ideas at all, and because it tends to discourage any initiative-taking or innovation among junior members of staff. But on the other hand, it is at least honest. There are plenty of managers back in the UK who squash people's contributions, but they tend to hide it behind nicer words and "feedback". At least Indian managers are straightforward about it.

Still, arguments about management styles aside, there does seem to be a greater willingness here to use public occasions to emphasise these points of hierarchy. I don't think I would appreciate being told in front of my colleagues that I don't know what "Excellence" means, and I think - hope? - that this would be unlikely to happen in quite this fashion back home. Hierarchy simply permeates everything in India in a way that is hard to appreciate until you spend some time here.

And that famous British class system? Well, it's still alive and well, and anyone who tells you it's not is living in a dream. Some of its manifestations are obvious - check the educational background of the current Cabinet line-up - but actually it's mostly a much more subtle system of coded behaviours that often need interpretation for non-Brits. Indian hierarchies - built on a system of detailed codification, multiple strata, and roles and expectation defined to an intricate level of detail - are out there for everyone to see. It's a fascinating contrast.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A reflection we don't want to see

It's taken me a while to write this post. I admit it, I have been putting it off. This is a blog about life in Delhi, and in the past few weeks there has been one thing, and one thing only, that everyone has been associating with the city I currently live in. That thing is rape.

I hesitated for a lot of reasons. Because a young woman is dead. Because a family has lost a daughter, in horrific circumstances. Because a young man has lost a friend and been viciously beaten. Because I am a man. Because I am a foreigner. Because the depth of pain and outrage in this city makes this a scary place for any blogger to tread. But I couldn't in good conscience avoid writing about it, since of all the events that have happened in this city in my short time here, this is the most dreadful and perhaps the one that speaks loudest about the conflicts within today's India. And not just India. The assault and its aftermath shed light on disturbing aspects not just of Indian society, but of human nature and of attitudes to women that can be found pretty much anywhere.

In the days after the attack, when the victim was still fighting for her life, Delhi went pretty crazy. Massive demonstrations called for the death penalty. Young women who have lived with fear their whole lives took to the streets to protest; men accompanied them, often speaking of their concern for their wives, sisters, and daughters. The government's repressive response was shameful and is something that I anticipate they will greatly regret.

One of my colleagues attended several demos. She told me about this one day, not long after the attack occurred, before things got really out of hand. She would be marching, she told me, to demand that the rapists be hanged. She was quite surprised, I think, when I told her flatly that I disagreed with her standpoint.

I'm not going to use this post to argue about the death penalty. I am opposed to it - in all circumstances - but that's not the point. The point is that the people marching with placards demanding death to the rapists were spectacularly off the mark - not only that, they actively obscured the real issues. Hanging the rapists may bring a brief sense of satisfaction; a catharsis that perhaps only violent revenge can achieve. But it would do nothing to address the underlying reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent here. Nothing to help tackle the reasons why India has been ranked as the worst place to be a woman in the G20 - a group of countries that includes Saudi Arabia.

As the initial outrage died down into disgust and weariness, more reasoned voices began to emerge. There are, after all, people who are prepared to look deeper and ask: why did this happen? Why has it happened before? Why, in many cases, have those previous instances now been forgotten? Why does it happen so much? And why, above all, are so many women raped who never even manage to attract the attention of a police officer, let alone the world's media? (For a much deeper analysis of all these issues than I'm capable of producing, I recommend the recent blogs at The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker).

It's not simply a case of the existence of mediaeval attitudes towards women in India, though they certainly exist. A few months ago, a former state governor argued that women should be married off younger in order to prevent rape. A few days later, a local politician said that eating Chow Mein was to blame for the rising number of rapes in his state. And, notoriously, a religious leader went on record saying that the victim in the latest case shared the blame equally, arguing that she should have begged her attackers to have mercy on her. Another said that rape was a problem in "India" but not in "Bharat" - that is, it occurs in the "Westernised" cities (essentially, code for "places where women wear more revealing clothes"). It's not just the men, either: before the news broke about the death in Singapore, the female leader of the BJP party expressed the view that the victim's life was "now worse than death" because of her lost "honour" - a staggering insult to rape survivors and a horrifying statement about the value of female life.

Where people of influence have such noxious views, it should not surprise us that misogynistic attitudes prevail. I think it's fair to say that these views tend to be particularly characteristic of certain parts of rural north India (such as Haryana, the source of both the "Chow Mein" and "teenage bride" views mentioned above). At least part of the problem is that these are the parts of the country from where a great deal of migration to the cities has occurred in the past decade or so. The clash of cultures should not be underestimated - in terms of education, culture and background, new arrivals in Delhi are often as far removed from the city's elite as a refugee in London is from a Sloane Square socialite. When the two come together, the lines of conflict will be many.

I am not saying that migrants are the problem. Migration creates many challenges, but migrants are also driving this city's growth; the right to live, work and settle where one wishes is also an important one. Besides, as this article forcefully argues, rape occurs where there is social support for it - and that means all of society, not just a sub-set. But we seem to be in collective denial about this. The protestors' denigration of the rapists, the demand for them to be removed from society in the most absolute way possible, reflects the desire to characterise them as something alien from society, an aberration, not a product of the milieu in which they live. But this is patently untrue. There were six men on that bus, who came together by chance. By the law of averages, these were not "aberrations", but fairly ordinary members of society. Acknowledge that, and you have to acknowledge that something is wrong with a society that produces instances like this not just once, but over and over again; and where, in the majority of cases, very little or nothing is done about it.

What particularly comes out of this - and this is where I think we should all take a hard look at our own societies - is how rape is simply the most extreme and vicious expression of the ways in which men seek to control women (I'm aware that men are also raped, and that hijras in particular are vulnerable to it in India, but I'm in danger of writing a dissertation with this post already). This captures it for me:

"We need to stress the continuum between people who rape, people who judge those who get raped, and people who try to protect the women in their lives from getting raped by imposing structures of control. The portrayals of the rape of women allow for those men who want to understand themselves as protectors or avengers to do so, they allow for patriarchal structures of control to strengthen themselves and, crucially, they create women as the ‘legitimate’ subjects of rape."

Quite. Demanding that women change or limit their behaviour to prevent rape simply perpetuates the idea that rape is a norm to which women must adapt by accepting male control. Those men who demand death to the rapists because "we too have sisters, wives and daughters" are really just participating in this structure of control. It shouldn't matter if a raped woman is your sister, your wife, or your neighbour's cousin's physiotherapist. You are not what's important. She is.

And maybe this is why so many rapes are ignored, both in India and elsewhere: because in so many instances, the woman is seen as legitimately subject to the man. Because she is his wife; because she is a sex worker; because she is of low caste; because she had consumed alcohol. For lesser sex crimes, the range of categories is even wider. A woman can be groped on public transport in Delhi without any real fear of retribution: it is seen as a natural part of life and trivialised with the awful moniker "eve teasing". All of this contributes to a culture that produces the horrific kind of incident that happened on that bus. To scream for vengeance against the perpetrators forgets this.

Some Indian commentators have discussed this as a uniquely Indian problem. Our mythology is misogynist, some have pointed out (and certainly the story of Ram and Sita is pretty squeamish in parts). The practice of dowry payment and tales of associated violence reflect deep-rooted hostility to women. We are deeply patriarchal. There is some truth to all of this, though as a foreign blogger it's difficult for me to say it. It's equally true to say that these are global issues as well as Indian ones, as this article points out. Sometimes it seems that Western commentary on the matter divides between those who rush to condemn India's misogyny, and those who equally rush to point out the plank in our own eyes.

It seems to me that, while it's completely wrong to speak as though the UK and other countries don't have huge problems with misogyny, sexism and violence against women (because we absolutely do), it serves no-one if we pretend that there are not some deeply ingrained problems that are particularly prevalent in India. What I think is needed, though, is the courage to look honestly at those factors that enable rape in any culture. In India, that means acknowledging the relationship with other lines of social divide. Caste and poverty are two. Another is the social stratification prevalent in the cities, with privileged elites living insulated from public spaces, and the consequent erosion of trust. And an ongoing social dialogue that characterises women as objects of control, even in benign ways, is another. (I found this award-winning ad against "eve-teasing" a real eye-opener. Notice how the woman doesn't even get to say anything - she has to be defended by a man. This really speaks volumes about how even messages against sexual violence can feed into a patriarchal approach). In the UK, similar discourses manifest themselves in different ways, particularly along the lines of social class, sexuality and race.

Let the courts decide what happens to the alleged rapists. Let women decide, as men do, what to wear and what (if any) self defence measures to take. What deserves our collective attention, in every country, is how everyday attitudes, everyday language, everyday occurrences towards which we turn a blind eye, contribute to a culture that culminates in horrific acts like the one that took place on that bus; and how a rainbow of prejudices - not just sexism - determine who is seen as a "victim" and who is dismissed. It's not a pretty picture. But we all have to look in the mirror.