Speaking Volumes: Countries of the Blind

(Published on Tuesday, 29 January, 2013; over the next few days, censorship was back in the news, with both Viswaroopam and Salman Rushdie at the receiving end of various kinds of bans.)

Afghanistan is one of the last bastions of the exotic left to writers. It can be written about from a great and sentimental distance, in a way that is no longer possible with other places. (Shangri-La is a hotel chain, French-led forces have marched into Timbuktu, the once-subversive comedy of Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers has become a tourist attraction.)

Only Kabul was left, to be colonized by kite-runners or anthropologically explored in various ways, through the lives of booksellers and burkha-clad beauties. Few of the writers who addressed Kabul had any strong sense of what the city had been, just four or six decades ago—the comfortably cosmopolitan city of the 1950s and 1970s, where women took education, a freedom in their dress and careers for granted.

William Dalrymple’s Return of a King was a lucid reminder of the complexity of the conflicts in Afghanistan’s past, holding up a mirror to the country’s present state. But it has been considerably more difficult for fiction writers to write about Afghanistan with clarity, without turning their books into vivid romances filled with blood, gore and almond-eyed beauties shrouded in their veils.

Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, his fourth novel, punches through every stereotype of the Afghan School of Writing, perhaps because he takes the radical step of treating his characters as individuals, rather than representatives, and perhaps because through the work he’d done for Wasted Vigil, he understands both the emotional and political landscape of Afghanistan better than most.

“The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation,” he writes early on in The Blind Man’s Garden, in reference to the American approach to Afghanistan. It is one of many acute observations, and yet, you’re going to read The Blind Man’s Garden for Aslam’s powerful story-telling rather than even for his political insight; if any novelist is capable of writing about extreme violence with extreme tenderness, he is. Contemporary Afghanistan is a bloody, baroque landscape, and the challenges his characters encounter are ripped from the darkest and most bloodstained of headlines—and yet, they remain essentially human. In an early image, birds are held captive in a delicate snare of wires set across the branches of a tree, and attempts to free them often come too late. And yet, even though they end as corpses, Aslam manages to suggest to us that they were once living, free creatures. It’s a rare achievement, and with this, he consolidates his reputation as one of the most skilled, and emotionally acute, of contemporary writers. As he said in a Guardian interview: “Paper is the strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage.”


It is unsurprising that an FIR was filed this weekend against the scholar Ashis Nandy, not because of the content of what he said, but because of the legal precedents we have set in the last 10-15 years. Mr Nandy’s remarks had to do with caste, and much might be said about whether he was factually correct, politically incorrect or even mistaken in his central points.

I will not address the content of his remarks. What is the point of discussing the value or limits of his arguments when the problem is a legal and social one? If your laws allow any community or special interest group to ask for redressal when their sentiments have been hurt, few groups have the incentive to debate or engage with the issue at hand, when there is the easy, silencing remedy of a court case instead. It’s the way many arguments on Delhi’s roads end: “You shut up!” “No, you shut up!”

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where Mr Nandy made his comments, he was immediately challenged, and his arguments were dissected, digested, defended–and torn apart by some. These were appropriate responses; filing an FIR, on the other hand, shuts down the entire debate. Caste, like religion, will join the growing list of subjects that we cannot discuss openly—especially at the Jaipur festival. Because it is India’s most glittering literary festival, it attracts many who are eager to use the willing mikes of the media to peddle their stores of grievance, of rage, of “outsider” anger, of disenfranchisement.

Mr Nandy, like all public intellectuals and private citizens, should have the right to give offence (and to take the heat generated by his comments). He should also have the right to be wrong, or to make an incomplete argument. The problem with using the law is that it absolves the easily offended—if a rebuttal of Mr Nandy’s ideas on corruption and caste was to be made, we have not heard it from the people who sued him. “My sentiments are hurt” may be an accurate statement, but it is not an argument.

As we’ve seen previously, whether it’s the Hindu rightwing trying to silence AK Ramanujan’s ideas or Muslim fundamentalists refusing to allow Salman Rushdie to speak at all, the ministry of hurt sentiments is open to all—and it conducts a thriving business in outrage. But these cases or even the odd ban or two rarely change people’s minds about the subject at hand; all it does is to convince the mass of Indian writers and thinkers of the dangers of speaking one’s mind. A weak argument is best countered with a stronger one, not with forced silence.


Kolkata: booksbooksbooks

Speaking Volumes: Rooms With Views

Bharti Kher's bindis, with tiger
Bharti Kher’s bindis, with tiger

(Published in the Business Standard, January 22, 2013)

Say the word “feminist” in India, and pick your way carefully between two abysses. One is an old confusion about the meaning of the word, which trips up even the most intelligent.

The author, Manu Joseph, for instance, asked me in a public conversation why women would want to be “the same as men”. He was genuinely puzzled. Nothing in his otherwise wide experience and reading had introduced the idea that feminists wanted to be given the same rights as men. They were, however, perfectly happy to acknowledge every shade of variation between the sexes, embracing not just heterosexual men and women, but the lesbian and transgendered community as well.

On the other side, Madhu Kishwar’s essay, Why I Do Not Call Myself A Feminist, stood as a reminder that many in the Indian women’s movement still thought of feminism as a foreign concept, awkwardly imported from the West and slung around Indian shoulders. (This ignores the small detail that Indians across all backgrounds do identify as feminists, from Sampath Pal who runs the Gulabi Gang in Haryana to the activist and writer Kutty Revathi in Tamil Nadu and many more.)

In a series of tart fables, the writer Suniti Namjoshi introduced the Blue Donkey, whose colour sets her apart as a strange creature, to be argued over, claimed and turned into a legend despite herself. The Blue Donkey can stand for many things—the figure of the writer, or of those discriminated against for their sexual choices or the colour of their skin—including the figure of the feminist in India, a creature who makes those around her uneasy because they don’t know where to place her.

Nivedita Menon’s superb new book, Seeing Like A Feminist, cuts to the essentials. “When one ‘sees’ the world … with the gaze of a feminist, it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.” She makes several core points, while stressing that her book is not ‘about India’, any more than Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was ‘about Australia’. Anyone can “see like a feminist”, men as well as women. To fully see like a feminist is an exercise in empathy, and requires you to look more carefully at and interrogate the power structures behind not just gender but class (and in India, caste).

I was reminded of a very different essay, written by Vinod K Jose on the Indian media, where he says: “ The duty of journalists is to dissect the workings of power— to explore and describe and reveal how power is acquired and used.” This is not so different from the task before the person who wants to see like a feminist, but in both cases, you risk something unexpected—not danger, so much as vertigo.

In the neat circumference of 200 pages, Menon unpacks everything that may have seemed familiar. The great Indian family—“nuclear, patriarchal, patrilineal”—is a relatively new construct, as she points out, and it displaced several other kinds of families. There are several other models of family, from the matrilineal structures once common in South India and in the North-East, to the simplicity of the non-legal definition she suggests: “What is a family? A group of people who love and support one another over good times and bad?” This may not seem such a radical idea, until you place it beside the stark statistics that indicate marriage is still considered the only worthwhile goal for most Indian women (over 47 % are married by the time they’re 18, which would seem to erase any question of reasonable, adult choice in the matter).

If you read Menon’s tract for the times alongside just one other book, make that The Fabulous Feminist: The Suniti Namjoshi Reader (Zubaan). Namjoshi is one of the many wonderful Indian authors who slipped into oblivion, and who, like GV Desani and others, is rediscovered with grateful surprise by new generations. Her fables questioned everything—including, in The Mothers of Mayadip, the myth that a world ruled by women would necessarily be less cruel than its opposite—and delighted my generation of readers. The Blue Donkey trots through much of her work, quietly questioning all that she comes across, interrogating the unspoken rules by which we live, and yet, asking no more than she should be allowed to go her own way. Namjoshi rewrites well-known stories from the Panchatantra and from Grimm’s fairy tales, and her own fables pack a punch.

For those who like the idea of seeing like a feminist, consider Namjoshi’s story of the Bird Woman. “Once there was a child who sprouted wings,” it begins. The neighbours are horrified, and suggest that the wings should be cut, or clipped, or something. “Think of that child,” they appeal to the parents. “What are you teaching the poor little thing?” And the parents say, “We are teaching her to fly.”

Lost and found

Photograph copyright K Hari Krishnan (Wikipedia)
Photograph copyright K Hari Krishnan (Wikipedia)
Photograph copyright K Hari Krishnan (Wikipedia)

(Disclaimer: I am not a poet and don’t write poems. This was an accident from 2006; Peter Griffin reminded me yesterday of its existence. It does not scan, and it has ellipses, but it was written when Pete sent several of us James Tate’s Dream On. Keeping it here as a reminder that even bad verse can sometimes make me smile.)

And some people
Write poems every day of their lives
But not on the page, not on the screen…

In the kitchen for friends
Who dropped by just like that
They slice green limes open
And squeeze the heart of summer
Into tall glasses (add sugar, and mint,
Crushed lightly
For the scent, and stir)
In those cool heavy glasses, inherited from
Their mothers or bought at a crafts sale
From the man with the mole on his face,
they carry out a clinking tray
Of sonnets.

And some men
Write poems as they teach
Their children to swim
To step up to the high diving board
Alone in a world of watery echoes
To plunge from that point of stillness
Into the depths of the pool
With chlorine prickling their eyes
And their father saying
You can, you can do it
Come up for air
Now, they hear the slight tremor
the pride and the worry
In the voice of a man learning
to dive into the strange rushing waters
Of parenthood, they hear
the trembling alaap and how it
will suddenly
Swell into a raag.

And some women are poems;
They can’t help it,
As they wipe their hands
Briskly on a corner of that
Tatty sari pallu, as they
Push the hair out of their eyes
And poise their hands over the keyboard
Ready to disappear
Into stories or charts, statistics or art,
You recognize in the way
They hold their heads, to an angle,
Curious and measuring,
The way they flex their wrists,
A dancer’s movement lost on
The chopping board where garlic
Diminishes into precise slivers,
The way they let their laughter
Travel out of their bellies
Into the world,
You see in the many lines
Lightly etched on their faces
The hard-won freedom
Of blank verse.

It’s not just the page
That contains a poem,
It’s not just the words
That make poetry, but us,
Listening to the slow cawing of crows
Against the lonely dinosaur
calls of the trains at night,
Watching the local drunk stagger home
At 3 a.m., singing old Raj Kapoor songs,
feeling the touch of freshly washed
towels as they tap politely on our backs,
knowing that these, too, are poems.

The sunbird might live in an empty lot
or might live in the trees
or make his home among the dahlias
in the far corner of the garden–
So long as we can hear the rustling
Of his feathers, feel his little urgent darts
In our veins.

Speaking Volumes: The Istanbul Conundrum

(Shadow puppets: Karagoz and Hacivat, with their heads. From Wikipedia.)

(Published in the Business Standard,  January 15, 2013)

When Turkey allowed several thousands of books to move off the banned list earlier this week, you might have expected anti-censorship activists to be delighted.


For years, the fact that these books—ranging from The Communist Manifesto to works by Lenin, Nazim Hikmet and the Marquis De Sade—were banned had allowed authorities to selectively punish students and activists who had these in their possession. Public prosecutor Kürşat Kayral was quoted in the Hurriyet Daily News: “Lifting the bans will make a clean break in society. If we cannot explain to anyone that freedom of expression is a complete body comprised of many different liberties, it won’t matter if we know if the king is naked.”


If the optimism around the world was cautious, though, that’s because Turkey’s trysts with censorship are complex. In the same week, PEN Turkey, a body that promotes freedom of expression, found itself under attack for the crime of defending a musician’s right to free speech. The pianist Fazil Say was summoned to court for “insulting religious values” in some of his tweets; PEN Turkey condemned this as a “fascist development”, and is under investigation for insulting the state.


Turkey epitomizes the contradictions of the modern censored state. Istanbul has dozens of bookshops, a rich literary and arts culture, and a long history of articulate debate among its citizens, to take just the capital city. But some years back in 2005, when Orhan Pamuk referred to the Armenian genocide, he was accused of “insulting Turkishness”—a crime now amended to “insulting the state”. PEN International reports that 2012 closed with 30 Turkish writers in prison, another 70 on trial. Those arrested include publishers, translators and academics as well as writers—and journalists have also been arrested by the score.


Turkey does not exercise censorship in the way we imagine censors work: through book-burnings, denunciations and mass persecutions of writers. Nor does it exercise censorship in the cat-and-mouse way of China’s censors, where, as the writer Murong Xuecun writes, editors and writers wrangle over what to cut until they are left with “castrated writing”. The basis of Turkey’s ability to act, selectively, against various critics of the government or writers who are deemed to have insulted whatever “Turkishness” stands for are two key laws. As Index on Censorship reported, Article 301 came into existence in 2005 and was modified in 2008. It makes insulting the “Turkish nation” or the “Republic of Turkey” a crime, punishable with two years imprisonment.


Article 216 is broadly worded, according to the Index, and forbids inciting “people to hate and hostility”. These provisions can and have been interpreted so widely that anyone who expresses criticism of anything from the government currently in power to an incident in Turkish history might find themselves in court, or in jail. What works in terms of chilling speech and shutting down this debate is not just the existence of these laws, or their application in the courts, but the knowledge that they can be arbitrarily, at any time, used against the mass of citizens.


The contradictions for Turkey within the space of a week are stark. On one hand, you have the prosecutor’s awareness of the desirability of free speech—and like many non-Western countries, Turkey has its own long and rich history of debate, a space for contradiction and argument. On the other, you have the unprecedented—in modern times—spectacle of a state attempting to prosecute an independent body that works worldwide for the preservation of writer’s rights to free speech.


The choice Turkey has to make is a thoroughly modern choice, one that many countries, including India, are facing. For some, free expression is seen as the cornerstone of democracy—take it away and the entire edifice crumbles. For some, free expression is seen as a luxury good imported from an entity known nebulously as “The West”, and in these states, the argument will often be made that free expression must be curtailed, for the greater benefit of equally nebulous masses. In India, the argument for curtailing free expression is often made based on our fears of the incitement of mass violence—riots, uprisings, insurgencies; in Turkey, the argument for free expression is currently made on the basis of protecting the nation’s proud history and protecting the state from criticism.


From Turkey’s literary past, one much-loved folk tale might offer some illumination. Karagoz and Hacivad are traditional players in a shadow puppet theatre folk form made popular during the Ottoman Empire. The story goes that they were based on two real people, workers whose buffoonry and story-telling were amusing—so amusing and so distracting that they were eventually executed. In one version, Sheikh Kusteri, saddened by their deaths, creates puppets in their names. In another retelling, which I am fond of, Karagoz and Hacivad return after the executions. They search for their severed heads, reattach them and walk away, undaunted by the axe.



Speaking Volumes: A woman alone in the forest

Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.(Image found on http://mythologica.fr/hindou/surpanakha.htm)
Surpanakha, cast as the dark-skinned, monstrous outsider.
(Image found on http://mythologica.fr/hindou/surpanakha.htm)

(Published in the Business Standard, 8th January 2013) 

In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.

Over the centuries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have become India’s default epics, eclipsing the Rajatarangini, the Cilapatikkaram and other equally powerful legends in the mainstream imagination. While this is a loss, both epics offer an insight into the way rape works in India.

Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and running parallel to it, the disfiguring of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana—two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and and the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.

The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman Rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.

Sita, though, is not a passive victim, as Namita Gokhale, Arshia Sattar and others argue. Gokhale points out that Sita is the first single mother. Sattar sees Sita as a woman who exercises complex choices, leaving a man who once loved her above all, and a marriage where she is no longer treated with respect. (This episode, Sita’s rejection of Rama and her building of a life without him, is seldom raised by guardians of the purity of Indian women.)

Draupadi’s story is rarely referenced, though it is powerfully told in the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s reaction, after Krishna rescues her from Dushashana’s assault while her husbands and clan elders sit by in passive silence, is not meek gratitude. She berates the men for their complicity and their refusal to defend her; instead of the shame visited on women who have been sexually assaulted, she expresses a fierce, searing anger.

She will wear her hair loose, she says, as a reminder of the insult; she does not see herself and her body as the property of the clan, least of all as the property of the husband, Yudhisthira, who has gambled her away to the Kauravas. She demands justice, and is prepared to call down a war that destroys the clan in order to receive her due. It is no wonder, perhaps, that those sections of conservative India who will cite Sita’s “transgression”—her crossing of the Lakshman Rekha—as the reason for women’s rape, will not speak of Draupadi. Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.

Amba is again, silenced in popular discussion, and yet her story remains both remarkable and disquieting—the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. There is nothing easy about her story, as anyone who has tried to rewrite the Mahabharata knows; or about the way in which we gloss over the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika, one so afraid of the man who is in her bed that she shuts her eyes so as not to see him.

That leaves Surpanakha, the woman who roams alone, without need of protection or owner, in the forest. Different versions of the Ramayana are uneasy about her looks—in some, she is an ugly rakshashi; in some, she takes on a deceptive, beautiful form; in some, she is beautiful to begin with. But what we know about her is that she is Ravana’s sister, and by extension, probably as learned as her brother; that she feels free enough to express her desire for the brothers Rama and Lakshman; and that she is indeed free, to roam the forests without fear. The story of Surpanakha is filled with tangles and diversions—how much deception does she practice, does she merely terrify Sita or actually attempt to attack the other woman? Do Rama and Lakshmana toy with her, or are they more polite, or are they consistently hostile, before they cut off her nose, her ears, and in some terrible versions, her nipples?

The ending of the story remains the same, and it’s in line with the contemporary warnings handed out to women in India: if you assume that you are free to roam everywhere, even in the forests, you will be hurt by the most ostensibly chivalrous of men.

There is a punchline to that ending, though: if you hurt the wrong woman, prepare for war.

Other readings and retellings of the epics:

Namita Gokhale on the search for Sita, and her strength: http://namitagokhale.com/sita.html

Arshia Sattar on rediscovering Rama, his great love for Sita, and the burden of kingship: http://pratilipi.in/2009/10/lost-loves-arshia-sattar/

Mallika Sarabhai, ‘Dance to change the world’, on “this feisty feminine feminist”, Draupadi: http://www.ted.com/talks/mallika_sarabhai.html

Shreyasee Datta on portraits of women from the epics, including Sarabhai’s reworking of Draupadi’s story: http://www.museindia.com/viewarticle.asp?myr=2010&issid=30&id=1913

Amit Chaudhuri’s short story, Surpanakha: http://www.littlemag.com/mar-apr01/amit.html

Many Surpanakhas–Kathleen M. Erndl’s essay: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3j49n8h7&chunk.id=d0e4061

(Tailpiece: This column drew, as you can see from the comments, strong reactions, many of them actually abusive. Many women identified with the point I was making; most of the vocal critics appeared to fall into two camps, one questioning these readings of the epics, the other asking whether this was all I had to find in these two great books. On the readings: I have read several versions of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and everything in here, including my reading of the sanctioned practice of ‘Niyoga’ as forced sex, is taken from those multiple readings. On whether this was all I had to find in these two great books: of course not. But an article on rape and assaults on women in the Ramayana  and the Mahabharata is just as valid as an article on, say, the battles in the epics, or on the forests and animals represented in the epics, or indeed on any other aspect of the books. I do not feel the need to stand up and declare my love for these books, books that I have been reading all my life, in one fascinating version or another. (The quality of these critics can be assessed by some of the comments they’ve made on the Internet–@SandeepWeb suggested that I was exercising lesbian fantasies about Surpanakha and then went on to make comments about my marriage and my husband. I wondered why he felt it so necessary to comment on my gender, and my presumed sexual orientation/ habits, but then that’s just another common way to cut a woman down to size on the Internet.)

What I find interesting is the unwillingness to grant anyone space to also examine what these two books say about violence against women, as if that was not an acceptable subject, and the unwillingness–which seems to me to go against the spirit of the epics–to grant the Ramayana and the Mahabharata their ambiguity. Women have agency in the epics; they make the storyline as much as they are part of the story, and we must explore all of what they face, not just the parts that suit us. Almost all of my critics missed a key point: the article critiqued not the epics so much as the present Indian tendency to quote with immense selectivity from the epics, taking for granted Sita’s sacrifices and her demure nature, but missing the point of that final meeting with Rama, where instead of submitting herself yet again to an ordeal of purification, she calls upon the earth to swallow herself up, ending their love story.

If we accept the Lakshman Rekha, we must also look at the woman who disappears into the earth, rather than be judged again; if we accept meekly the right of Satyavati to order Ambika and Ambalika to sleep with a man who scares them, for the good of the clan, we must also look at how little meaning “consent” had in the epic. None of my critics have so far had an answer to Surpanakha, who still stands in the imagination of many women, injured in the forest, dripping blood from her scarred face. As much as I love Kunti, Draupadi and yes, also love the many men of the epic, I think we must all, for ourselves, look also at the epic’s more disquieting stories. Not all of them are to do with women: in the Mahabharata, for example, there is the episode of the house of lac, where the Nishada woman who has befriended the Pandavas is burned to ashes along with her sons, their bodies left there to add verisimilitude to the idea that the Pandavas have perished in the fire. The Mahabharata is, famously, uncomfortable about this; a key section records that this was not a good act. If the epics themselves admit of ambiguity, we are free to read and re-read them. As I have done and will continue to do.)

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.