Sunday, January 06, 2008

In India's cities, poor don't matter

There's little to feel cheerful
Snooty Mumbaikars tend to look down upon Delhiites as Philistines (no offence meant to Palestinians) who may have a lot of cash but lack class. They have reason to look down on those who live in India's dust bowl. Unlike Delhi, where people believe politeness means weakness and men think that unless they are boorish to women their virility shall remain suspect, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city where people say "please" and "thank you" and men do not paw women on the streets. It's all very genteel; even Shiv Sainiks are now a tamed lot.
It's not surprising, therefore, that Mumbaikars should feel outraged that two young women, escorted by two men, should have been molested by a mob of 'revellers' on New Year's eve outside a hotel in posh Juhu. Had the photographers of Hindustan Times, who happened to be there, not alerted the police, perhaps the women would have suffered worse. Last year, a similar incident had occurred near Gateway of India when drunkards in a 'celebratory' mood molested a foreigner. Mumbai appears to be losing its tag as a 'safe city' for women. From my perch in Delhi, I can seek some comfort in the fact that unlike in Mumbai, here cops don't drag women to police chowkis and rape them. Which does not mean Delhi is safe for women. Every time my daughter, who is a university student, goes out with her friends, I worry myself silly.
No, I am not gloating over Mumbai's decline and fall. Nor am I pointing out that despite its moral policing (remember the ban on women making an honest living by dancing at downmarket bars?) the Congress-NCP Government has not been able to halt the slide. It would be silly to suggest that a Shiv Sena-BJP Government will fare any better. Whether in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai or wherever, nothing can be more disquieting than women being harassed, assaulted or molested by lecherous men with nobody even lifting a finger in admonishment. It is possible that if our laws were tough, and I mean real tough (for instance, eve-teasers would be flogged and rapists castrated without any scope for presidential pardon) men would think twice before pouncing on women. But our laws are as weak as those whom we elect to occupy positions of power and authority: The men who molested the two hapless women outside the Juhu hotel are out on bail and are probably bragging about their exploit to awe-struck friends. In this wondrous land of ours, society neither shames nor shuns those who violate the dignity of women. Sab chalta hai, yaar!
Having said this, I must also admit that I found the "shock" and "outrage" as reported by the media rather overstated. The two victims of the incident at Juhu and their escorts, all of them non-resident Indians who live in the US, are believed to be so upset that they have decided not to visit India again. That's their choice. But what if thugs assault them in the US? People do get mugged, molested, raped and murdered in America, just as they are in any other country. Would they then leave the US?
But let's get back to the issue of feeling 'outraged' and 'shocked'. Yes, it's disgusting that men should behave in such a despicable manner and go after soft targets. Nothing can even remotely justify their misdeed or mitigate their crime, not even the fact that liquor may have disoriented them into behaving like rutting animals. Yet, we should not forget that such incidents, loathsome and abhorrent as they are, do not occur every day in every place. What occurs every day and everywhere around us, strangely, does not 'outrage' or 'shock' us, leave alone prod us into making the smallest gesture to register our concern.
Driving back home from work on New Year's eve, I had to stop at a red light in Sector 18, Noida's happening place. Urchins, some no older than seven or eight years, in tattered rags held together with strings, shivering in the biting cold, rushed to the cars waiting for the lights to change. They were not begging for money. All they wanted was to warm their freezing palms by holding them on the headlights. A young couple, dressed to kill, in the car next to mine, rolled down their windows and tried to shoo away the urchins. When that didn't work, they switched off the headlights of their car. Two little girls, one of them in pigtails, who were warming their palms on the car's headlights, looked at the couple with sad puppy eyes, and then shuffled away. The woman giggled, the man guffawed, the lights changed, he switched on the car headlights, revved the engine, and both took off for more fun and frolic. May you crash into a car being driven by one of your tribe and die, I cursed.
On Friday afternoon, I had gone to Sector 18 on an errand and, as luck would have it, had to stop at another traffic light, this time near the sprawling parking lot crammed with cars and SUVs. On the pavement a family of three -- man, woman and child -- was settling down for lunch cooked on a three-brick oven fuelled by plastic bags gathered from the nearby rubbish dump. The child, a toddler, was sucking on the claws of a chicken, which the man must have collected along with the plastic bags and the woman had boiled in a sooty pot along with other offal from the kitchens of the restaurants and restobars that make Sector 18 so hip and happening.
That's the real India out there around us, the every day India where life is nasty and a never-ending nightmare, a struggle to keep body and soul together. This is what should outrage us, shock us and make us incandescent with rage. It should upset us that for all our tall claims of a prosperous India with a booming stock market, there are millions of us who scavenge for food along with snarling stray dogs in garbage dumps in our glittering chrome-and-glass cities. In the hinterland, it's worse.
Of course, we can pretend that this India does not exist, that all is fine and ours is a land of milk and honey. But that won't make the reality disappear. If you don't believe me, keep your eyes open the next time you step out on the streets, especially if you happen to be in Mumbai.

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