January to June
Hello friends. It has been a very long time since I’ve written. I have a tendency to blog while in India and since leaving in January I’ve thought about it many times but I’ve struggled to put together the sentences. It’s a discussion I’ve had with close friends who’ve worked abroad and then returned home. You don’t want to define your life by those trips, but they are transformative experiences. I could write more on the topic but I do think I should move on from India and live in the now. I’ve decided to leave London in the next couple years so the need to enjoy the city is more important than ever. In case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been doing, here is an update.
As always, returning to London and trying to resettle has been challenging. There are the practical issues, like having to wear linens when it is winter out because all your clothes are in storage. Then trying to find a new flat with the hopes that the landlord isn’t a complete nut-job (in my current place I have no lease and pay my rent weekly in an envelope under a locked door). It doesn’t crack the top three weirdest places I’ve lived since I moved here. Finally, there are the relationships, do you start anew or from where you left off before? The distance you feel from your friends and family isn’t simply a geographical one.
Things somehow do work out. I’ve found a nice place for myself in a busy corner of West London. My fieldwork took an interesting turn, thankfully one that my supervisors are happy with. My relationships have strengthened, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel, something I’ve really been wanting to do more of.
In February Ankush and I went to Paris, only a few hours away by train, it seems a shame we don’t go more often. The architecture and urban planning of the city was an absolute delight… as were the desserts. Despite walking and climbing many many stairs (including the first two stories of the Eiffel) we came back with what my friend Anna refers to as the ‘Frenchman 15’. No regrets, those pastries…
Soon it was all over and back to work. Despite pulling some long days there has still been lots of opportunity for fun. We did a mini road trip to Sussex to see Bodiam Castle, attended some great exhibitions, and gone to the theatre twice (The Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon).
I also managed another trip, to Istanbul. I went to present my work at a Gender and Migration conference, but also booked enough time to see the city. My mother joined me which was wonderful as we don’t get to spend enough time together and both of us had always wanted to see Istanbul. It seems so strange now looking back on our trip which was only a few weeks ago in light of what is happening now. Taksim Square was empty when we went, now it is at the heart of violent political oppression. I truly hope things calm soon, without any desire to seem flippant these are some of my photos of one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.
That’s it for now. You can expect to see more content here. I can’t promise it’ll be interesting, most likely the posts to come will be focused on the practical process of writing a doctoral dissertation, but I hope you’ll keep me company.
(photo: Akhilesh Kumar, The Hindu)
Sixteen days ago a 23 year old woman in Delhi was violently gang-raped, beaten, and thrown from a moving bus. Today it is being reported that she has died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital where she was airlifted several days ago. This case is set to change the way the country views sexual violence against women. Protests have been ongoing since the incident, with candlelight vigils being held across every major city. Women and men are waking to the sobering realization that this girl could have been them, their sisters, their daughters.
While this case is an anomaly due to its severity, rape and sexual violence is an everyday occurrence in Delhi. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment while going about her everyday routine. I don’t want to downplay sexual violence in other cities, but in Delhi the normalization of harassment has finally hit a head.
I’ve had this discussion several times during my time in India, why sexual violence is far more common in North India, compared to other parts of the country further south. Even in comparing the two mega cities of Delhi and Mumbai there is a huge cultural difference. I’d always presented two fairly simple explanations. Firstly, the demographic composition in the north and south is vastly different. Misogyny is rampant in the north, and generally accepted culturally while the further south you go equality between men and women increases. The south most point of India, Kerala, has a population that is almost entirely literate and ancestral property laws favour women over men.
Secondly, the population density of the two cities is vastly different. In Mumbai even in suburban areas women are more commonly visible at night. I’ve been living in Navi (New) Mumbai which is a suburban area far from the busy localities of Bandra or Colaba. Still, if I return home at midnight I’m able to take an auto with relatively little concern. I would be terrified taking an auto in a more central part of Delhi alone at the same time of the evening.
There has been a huge amount of discussion about other possible explanations, and solutions to this problem. The obvious, taking a harsher stand towards those who commit crimes against women aside, there has been talk about addressing this at a cultural level - the need to change the attitude of men towards women. However it is really difficult to take politicians and media outlets seriously when they are throwing out so many mixed messages.
The son of the president, Abhijit Mukherjee, himself a high ranking politician had the following sexist comments about the women participating in the mostly peaceful protests that had been taking place in the city. “Those who are coming in the name of students in the rallies, sundori, sundori mahila (beautiful women), highly dented and painted….Giving interviews in TV and showing off their children. I wonder whether they are students at all….what’s basically happening in Delhi is something like pink revolution, which has very little connection with ground realities.”
Other Congress party politicians back peddled furiously and made some expected remarks about the need to respect women, but the damage had certainly been done. In the days following the attack a seminar in Madhya Pradesh was held on sensitivity towards women, Dr. Anita Shukla an eminent (female) scientist did some not so subtle victim blaming.
“What she was doing with her boyfriend at midnight, it will happen when she would roam till late night with boyfriends…When she knew that she is surrounded by six drunk men, why she didn’t she surrender before them, at least she would never have been in the condition in which she is today”
The media is no better. This is a sample of the daily newspaper which is delivered to households across Delhi.
I’m sure the message of respecting women may be lost when ogling half nude celebs over toast and tea. These images are purposefully chosen for no reason other than their sexual nature, they certainly don’t correspond to the articles.
There is no doubt that there needs to be a change in the mindset of the north Indian male. There is no one to blame for sexual violence against women than the perpetrators of the acts themselves. However how exactly is this issue to be addressed? Politicians are rape apologists, blaming girls who dare to venture out of their homes after dark for the atrocities committed against them. The media that on one hand is so sympathetic to women on the front cover of the paper is happy to show them as little more than sex objects on the inner pages to sell more copies.
Everyone is hoping the death of this young woman acts as a catalyst for change in this city. That’s the official line, lets not let her life go to waste. Still, I can’t help but think that what aspirations and dreams she must have had for herself, what little consolation all of this will be for her mourning family. The people have spoken, it is the responsibility of the government to show some real determination in changing the culture of violence in this city and stop women from suffering the indignities they experience everyday.
(Hijras on the train. North India, 1996)
My fascination with hijras dates back to my earliest memories of visiting India as a child. I remember the palpable excitement of sitting in the train and hearing the distinctive singing and clapping as they made their way through the compartment. Eventually they’d stop where my family was sitting and I’d watch them perform their standard blessing and a song for some coin. Usually one would place a hand on my head and call me Pinky. My mother always humoured me, saying that seemed drawn to me more than anyone else. Logically they probably could see admiration on my pudgy bespectacled face, the money ready in my hands.
I could never quite get a clear answer to what defines a hijra from my parents. Even as children we are so eager to be able to fit the people we meet into assigned slots, and so I tried. Are they men dressed as women? Very masculine women? Somewhere in between? It took me till adulthood to figure this one out. A medical dictionary offers a fairly accurate description:
“A female impersonator or gynecomimetic in the Indian subcontinent, who may have had partial surgical sex reassignment. Hijras belong to a traditional social organisation, part cult and part caste; they worship the goddess Bahuchara Mata. Their sexuoerotic role is that of female with men”
In retrospect I can see why this may have been a little too complex for my parents to explain to an 8 year old.
In simpler terms they are referred to as the third sex. While other states worldwide have their own third sex, such as in Mexico or aboriginal groups in North America, in India they occupy a distinct religious cultural role.
(Hijras dance at a wedding. My paternal village, 1996)
Over the years we took fewer train rides but almost every trip to India I’d run into a few, often begging for money from cars stopped at traffic lights. Unfortunately many hijras are no longer able to support themselves with their traditional cultural occupation, which was being present and dancing at auspicious events. These days many of them are employed as sex workers and are a highly marginalized and at risk community.
Into adulthood my interest persisted. I read academic texts, blogs, and learned more about hijra rights. At the 2006 AIDS conference I met prominent hijra activist Laxmi Tripathi. I never could pin point why I found this particular group so fascinating, but there was something there. Last week it came to me.
I was riding the train home and saw a group of young hijras in my compartment. I chatted with them a little, they were en route to the temple of the goddess they follow. As the train slowed at their stop they hung out the door and one of them made exaggerated kissy noises and flirtatiously winked at some male police officers on the other end of the platform. Her friends giggled at the gesture. In that moment I saw what separates them from everyone else. More than the cross gender aspect, or the unique appearance that they have, it’s the sexual space they are allowed to occupy.
India has changed considerably since we left decades ago. Youth are no longer as constrained by family and societal values to behave in a certain way, and for the most part Indian culture as a whole has moved away from conservatism. That being said there are still public and private spheres, and female sexuality within a socially accepted context is still very much a private thing. This isn’t the case for hijras. They are able to flaunt their sexuality because society doesn’t hold them to the same standard, their behaviour is in a category all of its own. There is freedom in this, which is evident even to a child. When we would take those train rides and visit our village in the north, the young married women would sit with the ends of their saris covering their heads and faces. Romance in Bollywood films was men chasing chaste women around trees, and my modern mother would wear traditional clothes instead of her normal jeans and t-shirt.
To me hijras represented open expression, individuals able to be exactly who they were and be immune to the cultural norms the rest of us had to adhere to. Reality is something else altogether, hijras often face many struggles that we the sexual majority will never understand. Still, in my eyes, if for only one facet of their existence, they’ll always remain free.
Friendly goats I’ve known
Taking photos in slum communities is always tricky. Even if you have a presence in the area, people are cautious to have their photos taken. If you are a foreigner there is curiosity to why you’d want to take photos and if they are going to be exploitative. I think these concerns are all very justified and as someone who works in the development community I think taking photographs in slums is something that should be done with extreme sensitivity and caution. This is why when I went to the area where I had been working in Mumbai with a camera on the last day of my trip I couldn’t get comfortable taking photos of people or houses. Still, I wanted something to remember the area till my next research visit in April so I just roamed with the fieldteam till I found the right subjects to photograph.
There are a lot of goats living in Shivaji Nagar. You may not know this but goats are the natural models of the animal kingdom. You know when you watch America’s Next Top Model and Tyra is giving posing advice? These goats are the ones who nail it on the first shot. They know how to smize*, and even though there are loads of satellite dishes in the area I doubt they’ve even seen her show before.
So here are some of my favourite shots.
And finally, I found this little guy just hanging out on water carriers wearing this nice top. Look at that face. He knows he looks good.
* smize: Tyra’s term for smiling with your eyes.
Gateway of India, 2011
Last week when we were taking a stroll through Kala Ghoda we decided to take a turn off the main road down a little alley. This street drew us in for the fact that it didn’t look like the rest in the area, while there is a strong British influence in the design for obvious reasons, this street didn’t seem so overtly colonial era. Instead it had the charm of a smaller road you may find in the south of Europe- it also had a large sign which stood out: synagogue.
After walking in for just a minute we were impressed by a large blue building, in the fading light of early evening it was especially lovely. I soon realized it was one of the few synagogues in Mumbai - The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. Built in the late 1800’s it was built by the Sassoon family, who also are represented in the area by the large Sassoon library on the main road.
I chatted with the Indian guards sitting at the entryway, next to the metal detector. They wouldn’t allow our group in, when I pointed at a British friend and said that he is Jewish he said that he still would only be able to attend if he presented appropriate paperwork. I knew they wouldn’t buy my being Jewish but they said that if I brought my passport on the right day I too could gain entry.
The security measures are understandable in light of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that had specifically targeted the Jewish community. I will be returning on my next trip to see inside and glean some more insight on this fascinating group - the Jews of India.
I’m officially a ‘real Indian’. Caught a moving train. While carrying luggage. *bows*
This exchange took place today while standing in line at the bank. I started chatting with a lady after her baby took a shine to me (a first).
Lady: you’re not from here are you?
Me: no, I’m Indian by birth but grew up in Canada.
Lady: and you study here?
Me: in London but I do my research here.
Lady: Wow you really look so Indian though!
Me: …yes, that’s because I’m Indian, born to two Indians.
Lady: but you grew up in Canada!
Good days, bad days
When I set out to go to my slum visits I usually ring ahead and let the field team know I’ll be joining them, but the day itself isn’t particularly well planned out. I have a list of houses I’m going to go to, hoping to find someone at home and willing to talk. Beyond this I never really know if the interviews are going to go well, what I’m going to hear or going to see. Now I know that is like any day, anywhere. However, when you’re working somewhere that is very far out of your usual experience the slightest variations in your daily scheduled programming seem much more dramatic. The highs and lows of living and working here are heightened compared to some of the places I’ve previously lived.
That last sad post about watching a woman beat her child was one of those out of ordinary occurrences. I’m also happy to report that the autos I have been riding in haven’t hit any dogs in the last week either. There are two sides to this experience, and those incredibly sad days are not representative of every day.
Yesterday when I went to a house for an interview, I was welcomed in. The woman I met with is older than the women I usually meet who are mostly in their twenties. She and her husband share their room with three of their grandchildren who live with them. Two of these children were there while I was visiting, a teenage girl and a younger brother who has a speech and hearing impediment.
I was really impressed with the effort this woman was putting into the care of her grandchildren. Two of her grandkids have disabilities and she had spent the time and money to show them to the best doctors she could afford. She made sure the children went to school, and enrolled the boy in tuitions, something which is common in India but less so for slum residents. Recognizing that he is intellectually at the same level as his classmates she insists that he attend a regular school. Noting his interest in arts she encourages him to draw, proudly pulling out his notebooks and showing me his work.
He soon came and sat with me and began showing me the drawings himself, pointing out the details he liked best. In addition to enjoying my time chatting with this family the interview was also extremely useful – possibly the best I’ve had yet.
Yesterday was one of those highs, a little more rare than the lows. Still if I get one of those days a week it helps keep me going and makes me recognize how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do what I do.