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Stop and think: why'd you strip in public?

Pooja Chauhan's nearly nude form of protest has made Renuka Narayanan ponder the emotional conditioning of Indian men and women.
Hindustan Times | By Renuka Narayanan
UPDATED ON JUL 07, 2007 10:25 PM IST

It shocks and saddens you to see a young woman like Pooja Chauhan take off her clothes and parade through the streets of Rajkot. Even in these confused times when ‘respectable’ girls give the drooling public a treat or take most of it off for film, TV or ads. If that sounds square, belive me it wasn’t that way, a lot of ‘rules’ were broken. But in today’s ugly public life, it seems to make sense, that’s all.

Recalls what an old Delhi musician told me, that he felt the world is beginning to revolve in reverse.

“Not so long ago, tawaifs (courtesans) behaved like ladies of quality. Now it confuses me to see khandaani girls behave like the stereotype of tarts in their clothes and manners,” he mourned.

As someone from the first generations who wore jeans on U-Specials, swimsuits at club pools, fought with Delhi’s eveteasers and carried the dividers from her school compass box on buses to jab at men who tried to get too close, I have almost no respect left for men. Every year has added to the contempt. I would like to see rapists and child molesters publicly hanged at Vijay Chowk at the foot of the presidential palace. I feel lucky I have always had decent male colleagues at work, but then English journalism in India has by and large been a more liberal profession for women. However, the Boys’ Club has its little ways.

Just this week at a special interaction that our Prime Minister had at 7, RCR with women journalists, my question was about food security. It is a subject I don’t wear on my sleeve because there’s religion and culture to deal with. But it’s an issue I follow. Imagine my surprise when an important man said, “You’re a Bharata Natyam dancer, why are you asking about food security?” I’m not a performing artiste. And so what if I was?

How can culture exist properly when its context is so depraved? Isn’t food security a matter of concern for everybody? Who feeds the hungry in our land? Some places have mid-day meal schemes, but quite a bit is done by regular people like you and me who are taught it is our dharma or deen to feed the poor, either at langar or in whatever way we can.

So that’s three kinds of conditioning we’re looking at here. An Indian woman’s in modesty, an Indian male’s in being predatory or patronising and our shared religious-social responsibility towards others.

It really intrigued me that all three acquired such fresh distress this week, because something I wrote for

The Little Magazine

on two women saints, Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka (12th century) and Lal Ded of Kashmir (mid 14th century) just came out in print a couple of days ago. The thing is, both women saints were illtreated by their in-laws. They left their so-called families and actually took off their clothes, wandering about naked in the hostile world of the Male Gaze.

We don’t know Pooja Chauhan’s full story yet so I wouldn’t even begin to suggest any historical comparisons. But I do know, as we all do, that it takes deep trauma for an Indian woman to shed her conditioning and go out unclad in public like that. Modern Indian women have done that in recent history to shame the army for its violation of women in the North-East.

Akka and Lalla were gentle, ardent young girls, who dreamed, like any girl, of love and kindness. They had plenty of that to give themselves. But instead, they, like so many Indian women even now got so much hostility and mean-ness. Why? Akka was ten when she was married and Lalla was twelve. Lalla’s mother-in-law would put a big stone on her plate and cover it with a layer of rice to make it look like a large helping. Lalla’s husband was a classic Mamma’s Boy, feeble and jealous.

Men are fond of saying, ‘Aurat aurat ki dushman hai’. But wasn’t it due to centuries of conditioning in dependency on the male whim that many women’s natures were perverted? To parade in your innerwear is an act of such total rejection that it makes big Indian religious processions seem meaningless. Will God ever redeem a country whose people lack the emotional courage to be kind?

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