By Amartya Banerjee
I landed in Delhi in the summer of 2009 from Kolkata, for what my father termed as “completion of his responsibility,” that is to say financing me (albeit pushing me) to finish my post-graduation. The parting words of my mother, in the manner of all great parting scenes from tear-jerker movies of yore, were: “Be careful, the people there are not like us”. I didn’t pay much heed to her advice, because quite frankly, I had other things to worry about (like not being caught in a fashion faux pas, for starters).
After spending some time Delhi, I began to mull over what Ma had said, and with good reason. From fighting over the rickshaw fare to braving the extreme climate—everything in this city was a struggle. Just try brushing your car/motorcycle/cycle against another vehicle in a congested Delhi road, and you will see World War III unfolding before your eyes—with the choicest of expletives being uttered, at times combined with physical punches that would put even the World Wrestling Entertainment to shame.
These days, a lot is being said about the attitude of men towards women, especially in north India. A common account of stereotype of north India is that all the men are women-bashers and sexual fiends. Little did I realize that if I had stereotypes about people of the north, they too were bound to have some about the region I come from. I remember being as shocked as a bird struck by lightning when I was asked at a friends’ place: “Do women from YOUR side practice black magic?” This conversation didn’t take place in the hut of an illiterate, poor person but the house of a family several notches higher than mine on the per capita income scale. It blew the wind out of my sails. I suppose the question stems from the prevalence of tantric practices in the eastern part of the country. However, what relation that has with black magic I did not know and I profess not to know either. However, the sense of “us versus them” was certainly reinforced.
Adding to all this was the notion that people from my part of the country were, to quote another friend, “soft by temperament” and more “intellectual.” That’s not too bad, I would tell myself. Deep within I realized we were not that different, at least going by our treatment of women. When a woman gets assaulted just a few meters away from a police station and somebody gleefully records it on camera (the infamous pub case anyone?), when only “Dented and painted” women constitute protesters, when the character of a woman who was assaulted is questioned (the Suzette Jordan Park Street rape case), how can we claim to be any different? It is very fashionable to suggest that our society is more egalitarian than theirs. From where does this sense of superiority come? No doubt from popular conceptions regarding how our women are liberated while theirs are not.
Many people, young and old alike, would like to pretend that all this is nothing but the ravings of a lunatic. After all, we are the part of the land that produced Tagore, Vivekananda, and a whole galaxy of souls who believed in anything but this hypocrisy. How can this happen then?
There is a lively school of thought in West Bengal that my father describes as “not Marxism, not socialism, not even secularism, but Denial-ism”. Without singling out any person or party, it is possible to say that there is a pattern of justification which says that “Everybody is to blame, save us.” Who are those fall guys? American imperialism, consumerism, globalization, television, modern music, North Indian patriarchy, the central government—you name it. Let’s blame everything under the sun while our own moral compass goes for a tail-spin.
Let us just stop pretending; let us just stop and examine. However, that cannot happen unless we close our eyes and pretend we have Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility! Patriarchy exists in Tagore’s land, too, and is not an import from up North. Even I know that accepting this bitter truth would take some gumption for many in West Bengal. If one does not believe me, then I would suggest that they should look at the Gender Development indices of West Bengal. Statistics don’t match up to the holier-than-thou attitude that we hold. Education wise, we are at best in the middle of the current ranking of states. Only about 68% of our women are literate as compared to the 90% that some states have. If we were so depraved by the December 16 gang-rape case or the Rohtak case, what does the recent rape case in Ranaghat (Nadia district) say about us? So, we are not so different, after all!
Sex ratio wise, we are better than many but worse off than many, too. That figure is 950 females per 1000 males. No doubt that is better than a lot other states, but compare that with Kerala’s 1084 females per 1000 males, according to the Census of 2011.
Any attempt to speak of such “heresies” is either met with deafening silence or criticism as being labeled as an agent of the many fall guys I have mentioned earlier. How else would one characterize the branding of a farmer as a Maoist for simply asking the Chief Minister a question or the arrest of a professor for publishing a cartoon? If one hears the discourse prevalent at many rallies in Chowringhee (in Kolkata), it would seem more as an exercise in spying “villains” rather than finding solutions.
I recollect a scene from the film The Great Debaters in which a character is asked to spot the irony in the word Bethlehem Steel Co. He smartly replies that since Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the word ‘steel’, used for manufacturing weapons of war, was indeed ironic. I feel a similar sense of irony when I recall the words my mother uttered when I left my old city.
Amartya Banerjee completed his Bachelor’s in Social Work from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, and his master’s from Delhi University. Currently, he is working with Collaborative research & Dissemination as a Junior Researcher. He has a life-long romance with anything historical and, hence, sees the interplay of historical factors in the current happenings. Amartya’s abiding interests are people’s identity in urban spaces, influence of patriarchy in our everyday lives, and its relations with communal ideology.
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