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Come Frolic with Me in the Streets of Delhi: Amrapali Basumatary

January 5, 2013

Guest post by AMRAPALI ‘TARA’ BASUMATARY

Another Report on the Gathering of the Night of 31st of December 2012/Ist January 2013 against Patriarchy in Delhi

It was 31st December 2012, city-Delhi, the same Delhi which has gained the infamy of being the Rape-Capital of a country called India, a nation whose ‘dignity’ has been maligned by the increasing cases of sexual assault on women. Around three hours before the clock struck the decisive moment of New Year, many of us gathered at the PVR Anupam complex in Saket to “take back the night”, back from the shackles of misogyny, sexual assault, patriarchy and above all from the banal and real fear of being subjected to crimes meted out by multifarious forms of male-supremacy and power. It was a night when ‘dented and painted’ females as well as males were showing that ‘denting and painting’ are not reasons that ‘invite’ rape or sexual assault and those ‘hormone driven gazes’.
When we first gathered, the numbers were not so great and most of them were familiar faces. While it was heart warming to see so many familiar faces, yet one part of me did not fail to notice that the numbers of new faces was not so many. Not seeing new faces sometimes hurts because one can possibly feel a sense of pessimism that our struggles have not permeated deep and wide, despite incessant protests and rallies for more than half a month now, despite so many decades of movements for women’s rights and gender-just world. After all the core of such movements lie in the fact that the struggle for gender-just society must reach out to the whole of the society, at least the majority of the society, that we make new friends while walking along with old friends, that it is not a struggle of a few for a few privileges. Also I had the personal desire, or you may call it my hope or expectation that it will be one of the nights that would be remembered by many, of a 31st December night when we partied in the streets of Delhi, a night when we did the unthinkable, when we danced and sang songs of love and protest, of freedom and equality, at the same time when crowds were gathered in front of the Birstol Hotel in Gurgaon awaiting Yo Yo Honey Singh, the epitome of this society’s tendentious agreement and complicity to uphold and celebrate sex as an act of violence, of disempowering the other, of taking away people’s dignity and right to live free of fear and violations. I initially felt a little disheartened to see how we, the protesters, were refraining from expressing our will and desire to sing and dance, this was supposed to be taking back the night our own way, with creating spaces for revelry, a new way of celebrating the new year. There was desire and expectation in the air, held back only by our sustained and long lived culture of propriety, of being ‘respectable’ in the streets, by a continuum of absence of street culture.
We started chanting slogans of azaadi (freedom), and it soon scaled up into beats of music. We picked up and started walking towards the posh mall of Select City Walk, Saket. On the way, amidst the fog and the spine chilling cold, we marched on the streets and broke into songs and slogan chants, voices rising and cracking, some of us frolicking to the tunes. At one moment, the soft crescendo of “Hum honge kamyab” (We shall overcome) emanated on the streets, through the mist and the numbers started adding, with more and more people joining the march. The carnival had begun, a carnival not to be circumscribed within the limits of one 31st December midnight, but a carnival that must create a new culture of enjoying without any inhibitions imposed on us by a misogynist/sexist society. This leads us to the issue of what kind of cities we create and inhabit.
Since the day I stepped into this city more than decade back, I cannot remember any time or day when I have gone out in the city or university neighbourhood when I have not faced a racist or sexist remarks, more often the combination of both, added sometimes with a dash of class antagonism, unless I am in an enclosed space of a friend’s car or a hired taxi. Many times I have doubted people who looked (or gazed) at me in not-unpleasant manner or who ‘got attracted’ to me, thinking it must be because I am a “type”- modernized (westernized? because I smoke too) as well as ‘chinky’- one of the deadliest combination of non-identity one can ever think of as a women in this city. To top that the agonizing mental processes through which one tried to rationalize one’s own thoughts – may be I am wrong, may be I have internalized those gazes, am I beginning to fit into the category? Or just feel plain abusive, violent and outraged, thinking of ways of retaliating, of letting go, of actually hitting them right ‘there’. For me these lead us to the question of how our society has grappled with the question of modernity, what kind of democratic set up does the city enable/disable, what is this ‘nation’?
The lit candles glittered and shivered in our hands like glowworms in a misty wintry night. A few police personnel escorted us; some helped making way for us in that busy South Delhi streets, when cars were passing by carrying people from and to New Year parties. The clock struck 12 as we were walking in the middle of the street. It resounded with New Year wishes, wishes which were at once immensely personal and yet so impersonal with underlining energy of solidarity for an issue which has recently rocked the city.
When we reached outside the Select City Mall, we stood in a circle and halted there, laying down our banners and signature sheet in the middle of the circle. Some of us spoke and together made promises that we would begin to change this society by starting from ourselves, by educating ourselves. The number of police had grown but they also watched us and listened to all we were speaking and chiming. The candles were slowly waxed to the asphalt ground, one by one people came into the circle and put their lit candles, as people kept singing. Slowly the gathering dispersed, it was getting colder and already one and half hour past midnight. Some of us were still willing to go on and in a small corner, sitting under a tree, on the cold concrete footpath one of our friends started strumming her guitar and serenaded to all of us with her melodious songs .
Just to return to my earlier mention of familiar faces, many such familiar faces that were part of the previous day’s demonstration in and around North Campus, Delhi University did not join us for the New Year street protest party. The reasons were not singular; there were other programmes on the issue in other places in the city, Saket was a great distance to travel for many who take public transport, it was cold outside, and it was in the middle of the night and many were in other parties. But one reason was also because some amongst us felt that the slogans in the rally was very middle class – example, Pub mein jane ki azaadi, Marji se kapde pehenne ki azaadi ya na pehenne ki azaadi, Mall mein bi azaadi, Cinema mein bhi azaadi, Piney ki bhi azaadi etc. etc. (Freedom to go to pubs, to wear what I want or not to wear, freedom at malls too, freedom at cinemas too, freedom to drink too etc. etc.) – that these created further problems for working class, dalit and adivasi women, that it widened the gap between women coming from different classes. It brings us back to a century old conflict between arguments for class and for gender equality. As far as my memory and understanding goes – a) the slogans were more variegated than those listed above, b) these slogans arise in the context of day to day experience about how misogyny justifies itself by making issues out of women drinking, smoking, wearing certain clothes, going to certain places c) the protesters were all from the middle class, including these critics and myself d) class alliances must happen but it cannot be forged abruptly e) Azaadi is universal to not only all women but all people f) Middle class women, because of their access to more and more public and work spaces are also increasingly subjected to sexual harassment and violence, like any other women in factories, farms, villages and forests g) those slogans did not compromise class solidarity, it’s an important process to be generated and f) Finally, middle class is no singular, monolithic entity – it was the same middle class which started the protests at ITO, India Gate, Jantar Mantar and across the city and the country, while the same middle class who were waiting to hear Yo Yo Honey Singh despite his propagation of sexual violence on women. No ‘class’ is entirely progressive or regressive in totality.
I would rather extend a slogan like “pub mein zane ki azaadi” to say massively subsidise pubs so that not only middle class but all classes have access to such spaces where you can let your hair down once in a while without feeling poor, so that the moral baggage attached to drinking is removed, so that people are able to drink without being abusive, derogatory and violent, so that it does not remain a ‘taboo’ which so many upholders of ‘Indian culture’ break everyday, and break in such a manner that it blurs the difference between alcoholism and drinking. Its about how you handle drinks, what you understand by drinking.
For this one night I wanted to paint my face, if not dent. I painted my eyes beyond my usual use of light kajal. I borrowed my friend’s make-up paraphernalia. I wanted to use more colours, shadows and blushes and paint, but I found I could not handle them, in short, I did not know how to use those crazy little things. I personally do not use make-up, but for this night I wanted to get painted in solidarity for all those people who do, who have as much right as any one else to exist without fear of being ‘dented’ (metaphorically as well as physically) because they are ‘painted’. While questions about the politics of beauty must happen, one’s choice of personal physical aesthetics cannot be held as amounting to an indication that one is ‘violatable’ or ‘consumable’. I wonder if women start painting or wearing images of divinities over their breasts and vaginas, will rapists and misogynists refrain like the way people refrain from spitting, peeing and littering at staircase corners or any ‘comfortable corner’ if they see the faces and symbols of religion. If god’s faces (of course in our society sometimes face can be replaced by sexual organs) appear on bras and panties, will they refrain? But hang on, it may not work, because does not patriarchy speak through these god-faces and organs that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, that women are to be ‘treated with care’ because they are perpetual minors in the hands and eyes of men? There are many more things to think and wonder about, like while the state is pulling up its sleeves to bring in stricter laws on rape and sexual assault, at the same time it endorses and orchestrates criminal laws like the AFSPA where people, irrespective of sex and gender, get killed, sexually and mentally brutalized, like this society still refuses to accept that men and not-men also regularly get sexually assaulted, like no one rapes sex workers because they sell, like upper caste men do not rape women of lower caste because they will be polluted, and so many more.
In this New Year party, women did not hate men; no one wanted to hate each other. They rather held hands in camaraderie, they sang songs of love and freedom, they laughed together No one wanted the rapists’ testicles or heads. That’s why spaces like this needed to be created in cities. Freedom cannot be and is not limited to the issue of a ‘national shame/pride’ or class. This nation, this race, this misogynist culture, this class – all oppress me and everyone else. I get tired of thinking violent ideas of how to “grab, twist and pull”, or pluck out the eyes and tongue of that masculine gaze and speech, I do not want to waste any second of my life and any portion of my brain to such thoughts and I think no one else should and that’s why I marched along with friends and strangers in that midnight of 31st December, 2012.
One New Year’s Special tip for female friends- when you know but yet want to confirm that someone is actually gazing at your mammary glands (usually that someone is always a familiar person), for those moments we should design a bra which will beep or light up as the gaze focuses on them/it, like a beeping-glowing detective bra, which says tit-tit at that happening moment.
……………………
Amrapali (Tara) Basumatary is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist and she teaches English Literature at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.

This text was first published as a blog-post on the New Socialist Initiative’s blog.

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