Warning: contains sex, violence and Honey Singh

(If you’re offended by explicit language and lyrics, please don’t read further. Thanks.)

If there’s one principle Honey Singh illustrates, it’s the impossibility of having a nuanced argument on Twitter, or of taking Twitter debates seriously.

Yo! Yo! Honey Singh, for the ten people left in India who don’t know the man, is a popular rapper. Some of his songs feature lyrics that sound as though they’ve been transplanted straight from the police chargesheets of rape cases. I remember two especially pleasant lines, one about blood-soaked underwear, one about shattering a woman’s cunt. But breaking the girl is an old trope. Hiphop, rap artists and Guns N’ Roses turned this into an art form; Mr Singh is just another imitator, down to his hairstyle and his borrowed Yo Yo.

The women who circulated a petition online just before New Year’s Eve had two aims in mind: one wanted to express and share her outrage at the idea that Mr Singh was supposed to star at a year-end concert at the Hotel Bristol in Gurgaon, Delhi’s satellite city, one wanted the hotel to stop the concert. The songs that featured his worst lyrics were four or five years old, but what got to these women was the timing of the year-end show.

Mr Singh would have been entertaining the crowd, if not with Choot (Cunt), his 2009 hit, then with several of his other numbers, which often exhibit the unselfconscious misogyny that you can find in much of Bollywood. This was two days after the death of the young woman who had been broken apart by six men on a bus, and the symmetry between his lyrics and the details of her experience on that bus was stark.

A police officer filed a case against Honey Singh, asking for the singer’s music to be banned. That was not the goal of the women who started the petition, asking for his concert to be boycotted for that one night, and asking people to pay attention—at least now, in this moment– to the content of what he was singing. (The man who filed the case has a history of trying to use India’s ominously broad and outdated offense laws to shut down what he found offensive.)

A key nuance—that the woman, Neha Kaul Mehra, who had originally expressed her indignation at Honey Singh was not in the least in favour of a ban—was lost on Twitter, and on much of the media. About the sanest part of the debate that followed was a conversation many had about the uses of a social boycott versus a ban, the point at which boycotts or picketing might tilt over into something resembling a threat, about the need to protect freedom of speech along with the freedom to protest.

There was the Indian liberal’s dilemma of knowing that something you consider hate speech should not be banned, because that one ban might open the door to so much else being declared offensive—including erotic poetry, sensuality, discussions of reproductive rights. (I agreed with the columnist Seema Goswami, who pointed out on Twitter that technically these lyrics were hate speech; if they had been aimed at members of a religion or a specific caste instead of at women, they would have been banned. But I won’t support a ban on Honey Singh for a simple reason: I disagree with the laws on offensive speech that would allow a ban on Mr Singh’s music. Those laws have been used to ban and shut down too much free speech, and one of the things you accept if you believe in free expression is that you will, at some stage, end up defending speech that you may find personally offensive yourself, in the interests of the wider principle.) There was another fear, well expressed by Harini Calamur, that the media, especially, might focus on issues like this and forget that there was a much larger battle to fight.

As though we needed farce after the grim tragedy of the previous week, the Honey Singh affair began to move into the realm of the absurd. Mr Singh declared, in a stroke of cunning brilliance, that he should not be held responsible for singing these songs, because he had not written the lyrics.

***

On New Year’s Day, I was meeting friends in Connaught Place’s Central Park, ambling across the cold green sward in the foggy evening. A few roads down from the central radial was a place where I had once fought off a man on my way back home from the gym, some years ago. He was moderately violent, intent on harm, but he ran when a passing auto driver raised an alarm, and I didn’t think much of it; it was another minor Delhi story, a footnote of abuse. As Sonia Faleiro reminds us, each one of Delhi’s women carries around an invisible map of violence, like inlay work on the grid of the city’s streets.

In the middle of the New Year crowds, subdued this year, but still exuding a cautious cheer, a memory rose up from my past, the memory of the walls of another Delhi landmark, Chanakya cinema. Chanakya was a respectable cinema in the afternoons and evenings, one of the few cinema halls in the sleepy capital city of the 1970s and 1980s. But the morning shows at Chanakya were devoted to a kind of soft porn that no longer exists, where grainy films called Garbh Gyan and Gupt Gyan promised to share their secret knowledge with all-male audiences. The sex was largely theoretical, in those films, or they were clinical insertions from stern documentary films about procreation. The posters promised more: almost all of them showed anatomically impossible women splayed out along the length of the billboard. Men straddled them, or leered down at them, and the women’s legs often waved into the air.

We avoided that side of the cinema as much as possible. Even at the age of ten, I understood some of what the billboards were saying. This was the proper place for all women, but particularly a sensual, independent woman: on her back, like an upturned beetle, splayed, leered at, helpless. (You knew the women were independent, because they smoked cigarettes and had short hair.) There were physical reminders, for those who became inured to the billboards; if you passed by that side, you would be forcibly “reminded” whose space it was, with minor or major assaults, gestures, touches, somewhere on your young, middle-aged or old body. Honey Singh’s Choot is only a reminder of similar attitudes to women, and as harsh as the lyrics are, they are no stronger than the hissed abuse you hear on buses and on the roads, no worse than the violence embodied by the men who used to hang around Chanakya, searching for prey. Honey Singh is just the amplifier to Delhi’s daily soundtrack, no more.

The problem with the walls of Chanakya cinema is that they weren’t the problem, just as Honey Singh isn’t the problem. Every neighbourhood in Delhi, and many other places, especially in North India, had its no-go areas, and as women, you learned early the futility of protest—how much were you going to protest against, anyway, when so much of the city blared its hostility at you?

But over the years, for women of my generation, the silences that we were forced to inhabit added up. I remember my school years in Calcutta as years of glorious freedom, not because rape and sexual violence didn’t happen in that city, but because there was less daily, hourly harassment, more freedom in the air that we breathed every day. In Delhi, the silence rose brick by brick around girls and women, wherever we lived in the city, and the silence walled us in.

If this generation of women is to change the city—or the country–then they will have to sift through what is and isn’t of importance to them. Some will, as Harini suggests, focus on the big prizes, the legislative and policy changes that affect the freedoms of thousands of women, rather than a mere hundreds. Some will take their attention away from Delhi’s often narcissistic interests, examining the connection between the assaults on women, and the assaults on the environment; the use of laws such as the AFSPA to grant the military impunity against the rapes of women and the torture of men, in certain parts of the country; the dynamics of caste-based rapes.

Some will find other, less daunting, causes to outrage about—street safety, the need to sensitise the police, even small causes such as holding up the manufacturers of a vaginal whitening cream to ridicule for bringing together the country’s fascination with fair skin and its old, not yet discarded, habit of controlling women.

Remember, though, that some will find a kind of freedom, in the small, local act of pushing back against the images and songs, the billboards and the ads, that make up their daily environment.

Yes, there are larger battles to be won. There is also the fear that the cry of “this demeans me” might turn into a more worrying moral policing, an eradication of the obscene (and the sensual) along with the hateful or the dangerous. And anyone who leans on the power of legal bans will learn soon enough that a ban is a two-edged weapon; using it to limit someone else’s freedom of speech will eventually jeopardise your own freedoms.

But remember, also, the power that comes with challenging your own environment, of speaking up, instead of staying silent about something as ordinary as this. There is a power to saying clearly that you don’t like breathing in the casual, everyday hatred of women that taints Honey Singh’s music, much like the invading hands of the stranger in the crowd, the threatening circles of young boys riding around in their cars, calling out obscenities and insults at the women they see. There are the big battles, but do not hold your tongue about the small things. There is always a power to expressing your rage, at what you would otherwise be forced to swallow in silence.