Anbulla Rajnikanth…

 

 

 

For a brief while there, I actually had more followers than Rajnikanth. Now I can die happy.

Speaking of followers, you know all those social media gurus who teach you how to post relevant stuff, to not spam, to not over-post, to never repeat yourself… all those “tips and tricks”?

And then the superstar does this — and his follow count mounts at the rate of 60 or so every minute. What do you know?

Anbulla Rajinikanth

 

 

Duet

Rider and pillion rider, united in song.

Rider and pillion rider, united in song.

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

….

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.

 

Bollywood’s women: A Reading List

Continuing the theme guest-blogger Diptakirti riffed on in his previous post, here is a compilation of interesting takes on Bollywood, women, misogyny, gender violence, and much else:

Rituparna Chatterjee, movie editor of IBNLive.com, speaks here to her belief that Bollywood is equally culpable in perpetuating the misogyny that is so much a part of Indian culture

And here, Diptakirti Choudhuri speaks of the essential difference (which Bollywood seems unwilling or unable to get, for the most part) between wooing and stalking

And while on that, Anna Vetticad (who with exemplary courage spent a year watching every movie being released in Bollywood before writing about it — here is Jai Arjun Singh’s review) speaks of stalking extensively, in her review of Ranjhanaa

Staying with Anna (and selecting from an exhaustive collection on her blog), here is her review of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, incorporating thoughts of gender equations in the movies

Anna’s review of Houseful 2 deals exhaustively with The Great Bollywood Rape Joke

Bollywood’s women

A guest-post for @genderlogindia by DIPTAKIRTI CHOUDHURI:

Bollywood is usually the go-to guy for bashing. Anything evil in this country is, by and large, attributed to Bollywood’s zestful propagation of the same. Smoking – check. Dumbing down – check. Eve teasing – double check.

The meme goes that Bollywood has made stalking into an art form and otherwise respectable composers- choreographers-costumers have participated wholeheartedly to make this activity into a grand and enduring success.

The ‘stalking song’ is what stars and directors are most reviled for, but I am inclined to overlook it because it is never an end. If the villain does it, there is swift dispensation of justice by the hero. If the hero does it, he either reforms soon after or does something completely monumental (like strangling his Mafia don father’s pet anaconda to marry the girl) that underlines his true love.

My logic is simple: If a molester claims that he got his idea from Akshay Kumar, he should immediately be made to fight thirteen sword-wielding goons to save a girl. Because that’s what Akshay did – right after he teased the girl.

However, this is not to say Bollywood can hold its head high when gender is being discussed. What Bollywood kills us with are the stereotypes it silently perpetuates through stock characters or situations, either for convenience or through not wanting to take a risk. This is – in my opinion – far more damning than a raucous song. Because it is a subtle and, more critically, ongoing message that certain things are ‘wrong’.

Here is my quick list of six stereotypes Bollywood perpetrates. (Please feel free to add more. ):

Heroines don’t do regular work. Unless they are prostitutes or police officers:

Heroines don’t go to offices. (Yes, I know you will jump up and name five movies where they do but that’s exactly my point – those are exceptions.) They study. They are nice people, but they don’t ‘do’ anything.

In the two biggest hits of this year – Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express – we are not sure what the heroine does. In the former, Deepika Padukone is shown preparing to become a doctor in the flashback but in the present day, she is quite happy looking gorgeous, and no mention of her medical practice is ever made. Ditto for Chennai Express.

In the Top 10 grossers in Bollywood history (all of which are from the last few years), only one heroine – Kareena Kapoor of 3 Idiots – uses her profession to make a contribution to the story. The rest just dance spectacularly.

And this has been a standard template in Bollywood. For example, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be a ‘student of computers’ in Hum Aapke Hain Koun but she never goes even close to one in the film. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Bhagyashree had excellent marks in ‘inter’ but she chose to be deposited in a family friend’s home instead of a working woman’s hostel.

Take the biggest hits (and the not so big ones, as well) and you will see the same trend. The only working girl I can think of in a major hit is Sholay’s Basanti. And she abandoned her promising career to get married.

Working mothers are bad. Actually, mothers are bad whenever they are not doing the act of ‘mothering’:

Basanti’s abandoned career brings us to the subtle messaging about mothers who work. In Taare Zameen Par, the working mother gave up her career to make her sons into class-toppers. In Akele Hum Akele Tum, the career-focussed mother (who left her son for a promising singing career) almost became the vamp till she decided to return to domesticity.

Whenever a child is shown to be in physical danger (road accident, kidnapping etc), the mother is usually doing something frivolous (like shopping) and is meted out some hard-hitting advice (“Tum kaisi maa ho?”) by a bystander – advice that leads to terrible remorse.

 

Pre-marital sex is punishable by death or imprisonment (though, by and large, not both):

If rain, crackling fire, skimpy clothing and sensuous songs cause you to slip (‘behek jaana’) and taste the forbidden fruit before marriage, you will die. Because sex is done by bad girls.

Sometimes the man dies (Aradhana), leaving the woman to a lifetime of struggle (including some jail time).

Sometimes, the woman dies (Trishul), thus getting a version of ‘capital punishment’.

Even in a totally realistic film like Masoom, the woman dies leaving her son in the care of her married lover.

In recent times, the moment of passion is dealt a little less severely — but the non-virgin never gets the hero (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, for example).

Only prostitutes initiate sex:

As per Bollywood logic, all sexually aggressive women are prostitutes (or similar), though all prostitutes are not sexually aggressive (if she is the heroine).

Traditionally, characters artistes like Helen and Aruna Irani have performed – with great aplomb – the cabaret that caused the hero to sway slightly off the straight and narrow path before he progressed on his way towards the virginal heroine. In recent times, the purpose of the ‘item number’ has been to introduce a guest star who can do the Fevicol-Zandu inspired gyrations while the heroine can dutifully avert her face when the hero zeroes in for a kiss.

[NB: The heroes can sow a few wild oats here and there. If you take the last five films of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, he has been polygamous in three of them unlike his heroines who, without exception,  were steadfastly monogamous.]

Even in an explicit movie like Murder, it is the man who initiates the adulterous relationship. The heroine initially turns away and is about to leave,  when there is an excuse for her to come back (she left her purse behind, you see) and get sucked into the affair. (Maybe an adulterous relationship is not the right example to make a point about women in Bollywood not having a say in sexual activity, though).

Women are allowed to kill villains but only with help from new lover:

There was a time when all of Bollywood was gainfully employed in remaking the Julia Roberts hit Sleeping With The Enemy. Agnisakshi, Daraar and Yaraana faithfully replicated every detail from the original and differed from their source code on only one major front – the hero rushed in to kill the obsessive husband. While the fragile Julia Roberts pulled the trigger herself in Hollywood, a chubby Rishi Kapoor (whose heroines were much fitter than him) and a hungover Jackie Shroff ambled into the last scene to perform the heroic honors in Bollywood.

At one point of time, when Rekha was acting in a series of films as a female vigilante, it was always the hero who rushed in to assist her in the climax. The most famous example is probably Khoon Bhari Maang where she was doing a mean job of chopping Kabir Bedi up till Shatrughan Sinha was made to intervene.

In a love triangle, only the men get to chose the ‘winner’:

A Bollywood woman is, at the risk of over-simplification, property. She doesn’t really have a say in matters of the heart.

From Sangam to Saajan, from Dostana to Dobara OUATIM, the woman is just a method of sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or proving one’s masculinity for the sake of the world).

The friends decide – depending on who saw the girl first, whose relative debts are higher, whose box office clout is bigger – who gets the girl. This often leads to death or the honorable exit of one participant while the surviving one, usually the docile girl, goes with the guy. Simple, no?

And when you see a rather cavalier tyaag by Ranbir Kapoor in favor of his elder brother in Raajneeti, you realize this is a tradition as old as the Mahabharat itself!

Often one wonders about the wasted charisma of Bollywood’s leading ladies, and if the system will ever change to portray them as true role models. Right now, there are lakhs of young girls copying Priyanka Chopra’s tattoo. What impact she would make if she is shown actually working hard to become – say – a boxer!

A Mary Kom biopic – starring Priyanka Chopra – is currently in production. So yes, there is hope.

Diptakirti Choudhuri, everyone’s go-to guy for movie trivia, is a salesman  by day and writes by night. He lives in Gurgaon with his wife, son and daughter. His nocturnal activities result in this blog; this column for Yahoo; and a couple of books (Kitnay Aadmi The, the Bollywood one, is a total hoot), not to mention random musings on Twitter

 

The casual cruelties of everyday life

A little over a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with someone I know. I asked for her opinion about a story I had read. “Why do you want to know?” she shot back.
It was uncharacteristic of the thoughtful, intelligent, fun woman I know (or thought I knew). I asked why, she parried, and then a little later, as if she couldn’t hold it in any longer, she told me this:
She was at a dinner party shortly prior to our chat, with her husband and four other couples. The wine flowed, so did the conversation. It’s an eclectic group, ours, so the topics tend to be wide-ranging at times, she explained. And so they were heatedly discussing something, and one of the company turned to my friend and asked her what she thought.
Oh, her husband laughed, don’t bother asking her, unless it is about whether Ranbir and Katrina should get married.
“I was stunned, shamed,” my friend said. “My husband and I have endless, often heated, discussions about all sorts of things — it is not as if he thinks I only do Bollywood. But that was not it, really — he was ‘being jolly’, ‘just joking’. ‘You know I think highly of you,’ he told me later. And that is what hurt — I get ‘jokes’, but did he really not see how wounding that off-hand ‘joke’ was? How gratuitously insulting? How unspeakably demeaning?”
WE FOCUS on rape, on sexual abuse — but this friend, my wife, and others I’ve spoken to have all pointed in their own ways to the many unnoticed, casual cruelties women are routinely subjected to — at the workplace, in the home, in transit, at play. These are not “offenses” as the law would define them, but they are offensive; they wound deeply, and they leave lasting scars.
It is, Natasha Bhadwar (@natashabhadwar on Twitter) said when I chatted offline with her, about respect. Or the lack thereof.
 
She pointed me to some blog posts she had done on related themes. Like here, where she gets angry about the casual, neglectful manner in which arranged marriages are fixed. Why, she asks, this hurry to get the young daughter of the house stamped with the word MARRIED?
Here, Natasha shares abortion and miscarriage stories. What’s they big deal about abortion, they ask. “The right to life. Goddamn life,” Natasha says.
Here, a mother is  caught unawares as she celebrates a moment with her daughter, only to be reminded that it would be better if she had a SON in her arms.

 

And here, a mother’s extremely composed and articulate comeback as she takes on a stranger who suggests that she must have WANTED SONS each time she bore a daughter. (This from Mint Lounge, where others share their remembered slights in comments).

 

Read, also, this eloquent take on domestic violence (of the more overt kind) by Nisha Susan (@chasingiamb on Twitter)

 

Thoughts? Stories? Links? Share — on @genderlogindia where I am curating this week.

Let’s talk about rape

Why?

A friend asked me that question when I told her I’d be curating @genderlogindia for what, Nilanjana Roy tells me, is its last week before it goes into hibernation.

Her question was not ‘Why are you doing this?’ but a more fundamental ‘Why?’

Why have such a site, such a feed – what does it do, what does it solve? Why discuss and debate? What good has all this discussion and debate done since we started “paying attention” in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape of December last year?

She is not the only one among people I know who, once active participants in the conversations that sprung up around Delhi, have retreated into silence.

I see their point. But.

The Times (London) once published this letter, signed ‘respectfully’ by ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’:

 Sir, Whether women are the equal of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask for a definitive acknowledgment that at least they are animals?

 

Many Honorable Members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, ‘wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women’ – but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that ‘whenever the word “animal” occurs, it shall be held to include women?’

 

Suffer me, through your columns, to appeal to our 650 (parliamentary) representatives and ask – Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then at least be an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog and woman…”

 

Historian, professor and author Joanna Burke, who quotes this letter in the preface to her book What It Means To Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s To The Present, provides context for this letter:

The Earnest Englishwoman was angry because animals had more rights in law than women did. In fact, the status of women was much worse than that of the rest of the animal kingdom. Regulations prohibiting cruelty against dogs, horses and cattle were significantly more punitive than laws against cruelty towards women. …. Her heartfelt cry, therefore, was for women to be allowed to ‘become animal’, in order to reap the benefits that they were being denied on the grounds that they were not part of ‘mankind’.

 

That letter, asking for women to be granted equal status with animals, was written in April 1872.

We have come a long way, baby. Maybe.

THEN AGAIN, maybe not – did you happen to read the story of the husband who over a period of nearly a dozen years prostituted his wife for sexual abuse and rape, in order to win a small promotion, a small apartment, a small plot of land?

Did you read this other story of a woman who offered her 13 year old daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder?

How about the story of a father who began raping his daughter when she was about 15, because he was told it would bring him prosperity? Of how the girl’s younger brother joined in, and of how the mother stood by passive, accepting of the serial assaults on her own daughter? Of how the rape continued for the better part of nine years before the victim finally spoke out?

Did you read of how Rahim Mollah, 23, recently celebrated his purchase of a new bike?

Did you hear of the wannabe godman who raped a university student because god told him to?

Did you read of the child, six years old, raped by a 40 year old man? Of how the village elders in their wisdom decided that the abused child should be married to the rapist’s eight year old son as palliative? And of how, while these ‘negotiations’ were going on, the man raped the child again?

Did you read of the policewoman who was accompanying the slain body of her brother in law when she was waylaid, robbed, raped?

Does the word ‘chattel’ come to mind? How different is any of this, fundamentally, from the situation the anguished ‘Earnest Englishwoman’ was writing of?

WHILE researching her seminal book Against Our Will, journalist Susan Brownmiller spent a year reading, and researching, coverage of rape in the popular media.

In the immediate aftermath of Delhi, I tried a similar thought experiment: A Google search for ‘rape’, and an email alert to deliver compilations on a daily basis. (The stories I linked to above are from that daily feed). Try it for a spell; see if you have the stomach to sift through the day’s collection of stories of man’s inhumanity to one half of ‘mankind’. (Or simply spend a random hour going through this feed).

After even the briefest period of immersion, it will begin to feel like there has been a vast escalation in the incidence of rape and abuse. Newspaper reports of how, in this city or that state, more cases have been reported in the first six months of this year than in all of the previous year lend some superficial credence to the trope that rape and abuse – in both frequency and brutality – has increased in the aftermath of Delhi.

But what if the real increase is in the number of reported instances? What if the real change post-Delhi is that the media has begun to focus more, devote more newspaper real estate to these cases? And what if this ramped-up coverage has begun to liberate more victims to come forward, to protest their abuse and to stand up to their abusers?

The most horrific story you come across today? It has happened before, in our own immediate circle. The daughter abused and raped by father and son (in the case I am thinking of, father and three brothers) while the mother looked on? I knew that girl, back in 1975. The girl raped in school by her teacher? It happened, to my knowledge, some four years prior to the above. The neighbor who abused a child he was ‘baby-sitting’? It happened in our colony back in 1984.

These stories now coming to light are our stories; we’ve known of them and lived through them in an earlier age, when suffering in silence was preferable to enduring the ‘social stigma’ attached to going public. The difference is that then, we spoke of them in hushed whispers, if we spoke of them at all.

SUNLIGHT, United States Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said, is the best disinfectant. He was speaking of public policy, but the thought is equally applicable to rape, to abuse.

He has a point – Delhi, thanks to the location of the crime, its unimaginably horrific nature, its larger story of the systemic breakdown of the policing systems designed to protect us, was perhaps that first shaft of disinfectant. (I exaggerate? Romanticize? Okay, how many of you truly remember any or all of the cases – many of them as horrific or more so than Delhi – that I mentioned in this earlier blog post?)

Writing in FirstPost of the need to broaden and deepen the conversation, Jay Mazoomdar said:

“Every assault that goes unpunished anywhere is an encouragement to rapists everywhere. It is really all or nothing — no woman will ever really feel safe if another does not.”

True — and the first step to punishment is that the crime be acknowledged, and brought to light, in the first place.

Much of the media coverage has an underlying (and in some cases, even overt) edge of prurience. Some of the coverage has been downright insensitive to, and disrespectful of, the survivors.

But the stepped-up coverage, basic and even insensitive as it is, has had some beneficial effects. It has encouraged more people to speak out against their abusers; it has to at least a limited extent empowered survivors – Suzette Jordan is just one example — to step into the sunlight, to reclaim their identities, and to reach out a helping hand to those similarly affected.

And that perhaps is the best answer I can give my friend, who asked me ‘Why?’

The question is not why sites like Genderlog and feeds like this exist, and speak of what they do.

The real question is, can we afford not to have such conversations. Can we afford to blot out even these admittedly random shafts of sunlight?

PS: As it turns out, this is the last week of @genderlogindia before a hibernation enforced by external factors. Over the next six days, at our request, friends of Genderlog have volunteered their time and their energies to writing of the various issues that surround the subject of abuse, of rape, of violence against women.

Look out for their contributions, on @genderlogindia , beginning tomorrow.

For now, for those who believe – enjoy Ganesh Chathurthi. And be safe.