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Fruits of a regressive culture

Our inability to come to terms with womanhood has deeper, cultural roots that go back to ancient times
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First Published: Thu, Jan 10 2013. 06 44 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
These past three-and-a-half weeks have revealed a lot to us. About ourselves, about our public figures, about how Indian men still can’t handle the very concept of womanhood.
Of course, we shouldn’t have been surprised. We are used to senior politicians advocating a lowering of the official marriage age for girls to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Minor politicos all over India have been trying to ban skirts and jeans for college girls. Just a few months ago, some idiot in Haryana said that fast food—especially chow mein—increases the heat in a man’s body and gives him all sorts of ideas about how he can resolve this thermodynamic problem. We read about these regressive delusions, watched these men make fools of themselves on TV, and we shook our heads and moved on.
But the rape, torture and murder of a 23-year-old woman changed all that. It has shamed us all.
And the government’s reaction should shame us even more. First, it attempted to treat the entire matter as a political problem. After all, cynical negotiations about seat sharing, ministerial berths, and intra-party squabbles have now become both hull and rudder of Indian democracy. How could we expect that our politicians would see a spontaneous mass movement as anything but a political issue? This is the time for quick fixes, silences and smug confidence in short public memory.
Of course, the government can act decisively when it wants to. Move the girl to Singapore. Whether she lives or dies, it’s a win-win situation. In either case, the government can say that it tried everything under the sun to save her life. Except that nothing happened under the sun. She was moved from Safdarjung Hospital under cover of darkness, and her body was brought back to Delhi in the dead of night and cremated hastily, with gathered officials waiting impatiently for the first rays of the sun to break through the fog, so the pyre could be lit as per Hindu tradition. The entire aim was to avoid another burst of mass outrage, and the move succeeded.
And then we had assorted public entities revealing their true colours. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat said that rape happens in India, not Bharat. Let us be charitable. Let us assume that by Bharat-India he was not referring to the rural-urban divide that is now the media’s fashionable metaphor. Let us assume that by Bharat, he meant our ancient sanskriti, and by India, he is talking about all of us corrupted by Western culture. But this is so naïve an interpretation that it beggars belief. Our puranas and epics are chock-a-block with tales of lusty gods and wildly libidinous heroes. Consider Indra, king of the gods. Overcome with lust (not an uncommon occurrence for him), he made love to Ahalya, wife of Rishi Gautama, pretending to be the rishi, and was trying to sneak off when the irate husband caught up with him and cursed him with a thousand vaginas on his body—sahasrayoni. Later, after much pleading, he turned the vaginas into eyes. Ahalya, though innocent, received no such pardon. Gautama turned her into stone, and thus she remained till she was touched by the foot of the great god Rama, whose treatment of his wife was certainly rather dubious.
Krishna actively encouraged his friend Arjuna to kidnap Krishna’s sister Subhadra; in fact, in the days of the Mahabharata, kidnapping a woman seems to have been the norm for Kshatriya wooing: think of Bhishma abducting Amba, Ambika and Ambalika for his two step-brothers. And, of course, we fondly tell our children about the teenage Krishna hiding the clothes of the gopinis while they bathed, and returning them only when they came out of the lake, helpless and naked. But then gods are allowed these acts of venal sexual harassment. Let’s face it, our popular culture even to this day is deeply influenced by regressive and chauvinistic attitudes that our sanskriti glorified. The men in our mythologies were certainly as recklessly randy—if not randier—than anyone thought up by the West.
And let’s not talk about the deification of the mother. Kunti does not know what her sons have brought home, and asks them to share the booty equally. The five dutiful men then happily sleep with Draupadi, who had given her heart to Arjuna. And such is our ethical system that Draupadi dies early on the long trek to Heaven: her sin being that though she had five husbands, she loved Arjuna more than the others.
Now a Bharatiya Janata Party man from Madhya Pradesh believes that women should not cross the “lakshmanrekha”. That rekha has of course been drawn by men, and it is important to remember that Sita crossed the rekha to give alms to someone she thought was a mendicant. And Ravana, disguised as the mendicant, had come to take revenge because his sister, who had expressed her desire for Lakshman, had been humiliated and her nose cut off by Lakshman. Oh, and by the way, Lakshman is the man who left his newly married wife Urmila for no fault of her own, to tag along with his godly brother and his poor wife.
As for Asaram Bapu, the spiritual leader, who has said that the girl could have saved herself by flinging herself at the feet of her would-be rapists and telling them they were her brothers, is this guy for real? To our great misfortune, he is. I think this old fogey desperately needs psychiatric treatment of the primitive sort that he would recognize: some serious electrotherapy. Simple delusions, simple solutions. 
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms. His novel The Last War, a retelling of the Mahabharata set in the Mumbai underworld, is now in stores.
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 10 2013. 06 44 PM IST
More Topics: Women | gender | womanhood | culture |
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