Learning gender, learning caste: two reflections
We received two brief submissions separately sent by two women, reflecting on incidents in their childhood or youth that returned to haunt them more recently. Rethinking, reworking their own sense of self, they present before us questions both timely and urgent.
AYSHWARIA SEKHER looks back on her ignorance of caste, PRANETA JHA revisits a childhood game that taught her about sexual violence.
I was seventeen, and an undergraduate when I met this friend at hostel. She was from a southern district of Tamilnadu almost near Kanyakumari. I was always amused by her southern dialect and teased her immensely, for it was very different from what I was used to speaking, being a northerner. She lived next door at hostel, so we got into conversations every time we bumped into each other. One evening she was sweeping her room and cleaning it. I stopped by to see the way she swept so I could bully her. As I observed I did realise that she was so much better than me at it and did it with ease. As we got talking, she revealed that she always did it at her home, and it was not a task for her.
Ignorantly I enquired why they did not have a help at home, which according to me was something that every household possessed. She looked at me, and brushed aside the question plainly, saying simply that they just didn’t have any help. I pestered with the question giving her no space. She stopped sweeping and rested her hand against the wall and said that people would not come to her house to work. I was amazed at why people would not go to a home for work. So my cross questions persisted and she had no choice but to answer.
Here was a girl whose dad working in the Gulf, which in my imagination made her definitely rich, and she didn’t have a domestic help at home. The pieces just didn’t fit together. So the next question I fired, “Why, is your mom a little too strict or harsh with them?” She smiled at me and said, “No, they won’t come because my mother is from a scheduled caste.” I looked puzzled, unable to accept the fact. How can someone not go to another person’s house because the person belonged to a different caste?
Ignorantly and innocently I made a statement, but didn’t Gandhi say that all SC’s and ST’s were Harijans, ‘children of God’, doesn’t that equalise us all? All this while she had been very patient with my impertinent interrogation, but when I mentioned the name Gandhi, she flared up. “Don’t say that man’s name to me. He is the biggest betrayer.” I could not believe my ears that someone could called Gandhi a betrayer. Fresh out of school with the “mahatma” ingrained in my system, this was like a blow to my face. I tried to reason out with her, trying my best to convince her about Gandhi with what little knowledge I had of him, but in vain.
A few years later, much after my ignorance had been rectified regarding the evils of the caste system through exposure to various kinds of people, I landed in JNU for a course in International Relations, where I took a paper called Political Thought. I was exposed to various political philosophers of the world and India. A section on Gandhi and Ambedkar came up, and later on Periyar and his opposition to Gandhi. Gandhi’s varnashrama dharma and his masking of it in his sweet talk of religion and chasing away the British for an equal India seemed a chaalu rhetoric.
As the class proceeded, I returned again and again to the conversation with my friend back in hostel. Her contempt for Gandhi and anger when I mentioned his name seemed to make absolute sense in my head. I could relate to her and see the world from where she stood.
Long before I learnt the meaning of sexual intercourse (I looked it up in the dictionary when I was 12), I learnt the meaning of ‘rape’ through Hindi films.
I learnt that ‘rape’ was a terrible thing done by villains to women that destroyed the victim’s life. I learnt that it was the most terrible thing that could happen to you. That your lover won’t marry you after you got raped. Your parents would suffer such intense social shame they’d wish you were dead instead. Your in-laws would disown you. It’s like you became the untouchable, the unspeakable. Quite often, perhaps to spare the world of its collective shame, I learnt that the victim would commit suicide.
I learnt that ‘rape’ was the reason my parents did not allow me out of the house alone.
I learnt, of course, that only women got raped. But not all women: I learnt early that a whore could not get raped.
I also learnt that there was a perverse, theatrical fascination attached to it. The ‘rape’ scenes in films. But I learnt that particular lesson away from the screen, during playtime. A few days before my 10th birthday, two friends – one of them 13 years old, the other my age – and I decided to pretend-make our own movie (“chalo film banate hain”). Since I was the only girl there, I was naturally the heroine. One guy was the hero while the 13-year-old was the villain; and we had our film. Now, being the eldest amongst us, the 13-year-old was the director, though we were free to spout dialogues of our own making. Not a tough task, since all of us knew what to say in all stock situations from memory. (For context, it was the late ’90s.)
And our stock situation, as directed by the director-cum-villain, was that ubiquitous and immensely theatrical scene where the hero is tied up and the villain is raping his helpless wife/girlfriend in front of the hero’s eyes. Sometimes, the scene engendered such strength in the hero that he’d manage to heroically break his shackles just before the damage was done. But not before the audience got some titillation out of the rape preliminaries.
So anyway, one friend was standing in one corner of the room, screaming and pretend-struggling against his imaginary fetters while I lay on the bed, all ready to pretend. But I realised I didn’t have to. The pretend villain’s pubescent body was real as it lay on top of me and rubbed against mine. Before I could open my mouth not to pretend-scream, it was pressed shut by his, as he tried to imitate what he had learnt to the best of his imagination.
Unfortunately, the 13-year-old did not grow up to become a Bollywood hero.