Yes, I’m a racist.
I look at you and see
The percentage of melanin
In your skin
The angle your eyes slant
The colour of the iris
The length of your hair
The way it shines
Yes, I’m a casteist.
I look at your surname and your name
Your tilak and your birth fame
The clothes you wear
The accent you talk
The scrawls on your certificate
What’s on your plate
Of the food you just ate
Yes, I’m tolerant
I tolerate you
Smile at you
That rises inside.
You’re my responsibility
Part of my culture
My people to empower
And I will
I promise I will
Even though the percentage
And the texture and shape
Remind me of rape.
Is it my fault?
Your hands are so dark
They’ve touched the filth
My ancestors did .
Your birth certificate
It’s barely there
Torn and soiled
Like a drain.
You speak weird
Unpolished and poor
Your dark skin
Reminds me of
Monsters and their kin
Is it my fault?
I’m trying hard
To power you up
To empower you
But the skin
It’s so dark
Can I help but judge?
Is it my fault
If your skin is so dull?
Can I help but judge you?
The plotlines of most action flicks, are all about the hero. The hero rocks the roads, chases goons, tots guns, fights for justice, sows wild oats with white girls, and then heads back to home, to his heroine. All this while, this heroine, the girl, pines away back at home or sits pretty in a café (usually alongside a swimming pool for some reason), waiting for her hero. The only time she’s outdoors, she’s either surrounded by other girls, or is with the hero, or is getting raped or attacked by the goons. The message is loud and clear: The streets are unsafe for an Indian woman: If you’re out there alone, you will be slaughtered, you little lamb.
As a girl who grew up in Delhi, I was fed this message by family, society, school, college and onwards. Every time I walked on the streets of the capital city, as a teenager, as a working woman in her 20s, I had to constantly fight butt slaps, boob pinches, stares and hoots and whistles from strangers. Every time a violent act happened, I was told to not walk alone on streets, to wear looser clothes, not stare back and scream, not confront, not act, but be passive. For that’s how a woman should behave. Wait for someone else, a hero, a guy, the government or the police to react to the aggression that happens to her, to save her. An Indian woman is supposed to be passive, silently take on violence if given by her husband or in-laws, or ask for help from the boyfriend or police or government when faced from an aggressive stranger. Most of all, a woman is supposed to protect herself from all of it, to keep indoors, to make friends carefully in case they turn out to be rapists.
With Anantya Tantrist, the tantrik detective of my latest novel, Cult of Chaos, I decided to take all of these years of imbibed and heard and oft-repeated Indian values of passivity, decorum, rules and ethics meant for women and flip them, turn them on their head. Just to see what happens to the society in the world if I do. For speculative fiction gives you that freedom, to extrapolate, to try and do things differently, make new rules and new societies, explore gender roles and beliefs about gender. And I took it.
Anantya as a result, became a complete opposite to the restrictive idea of an ideal Indian woman.
First of all, she is always in the middle of action, she speaks her mind, there’s no passivity when it comes to her, in fact passivity bores her. She is boisterous, angry, spews gaali, smokes beedi, drinks hard stuff like a fish, hangs out on the streets with all kinds of things and species, doesn’t come home till wee hours, has crud in her kitchen, can’t cook to save her life, but can wield a boneblade to save another’s. She has unapologetic one night stands with all kinds of supernatural species, wears chappals and goes to parties and doesn’t know what a ‘date’ is. Continue reading “How creating Anantya helped me find my freedom”
Everything to do with a woman’s breasts is taboo in our society, even though most of us have drunk milk from our mother’s breasts for the first year of our lives. The word ‘breast’ itself is a bleep on Indian television and cleavage mostly is blurred.
I had attended a theatre workshop some years back, women only, where the lady conducting it asked all of us to hide our body part which represented the word ‘shame’. All of us, Indian, speaking different languages, put hands across our breasts.
Like with all things, the ones that are most shameful or taboo are also the most attractive, desired in pornography, in Bollywood films and giggle-worthy MMSes in our Parliament. Breasts have become a complex symbol that combines both our sexuality and shame, something that we desire highly (both men and women) and at the same time are shamed by.
This brings us to the first story I have for you, a hair-raising story of shaming breasts that I read thanks to an artist who shared something recently on Facebook. It’s the story of Nangeli, a dalit woman who lived in early 19th century in Cherthala. And unlike the stories I retell, this one is based in history and not myth, or in oral history as is the case with most past things one hears. In 19th century, the kings of Travancore had a breast tax on dalit women, called mulakkaram, which was to be paid by dalit women so that they could cover their breasts. The bigger the size of their breasts, the more the tax was to cover them up. Upper caste women could cover their bodies, without needing to pay any money to the state.
Many a times, when you write, you don’t really know why you’re writing this particular story and what it is that you want to say or experience through it. It’s instinctive, this desire to write a story. Which is why I was quite surprised to get to know something about me recently.
I’ve been talking to the media and the industry about the upcoming launch of Anantya Tantrist’s first book, Cult of Chaos. So when Tehelka‘s associate editor Sabin, wrote to me to make Anantya part of their cover story on women’s safety in Delhi, I said yes.
Little did I know what I would figure out from that interview. While answering questions, I realised how much I have lived in fear of being molested/raped/kidnapped while growing up in Delhi. I’ve carried this fear on my back, like a corpse, it has slowed me down, stressed me but also given me strength and aggression to live and survive. Which is why I wrote a character like Anantya Tantrist. She’s fearless, she’s aggressive and she can take on anything that comes her way. She chooses to live alone in Delhi and own its nights. In my head, she’s everything I couldn’t be, but would like to be, like Superman is to little boys (and a few big ones).
I wrote Anantya for myself and others like me, to give other women hope and determination. That survival instinct. That you can survive and live #fearless. Thanks Sabin, for helping me realise this.
Daring and foul-mouthed Anantya could be anywhere in India but the fact (or, the fiction) that she is roaming around the streets of New Delhi contextualises a conversation with her creator, Shweta Taneja, who grew up in the national capital, when we talk about the broader topic of violence against women.
In the wake of repeated incidents of rape and violence against women, how do you look at women’s safety issues in New Delhi?
I feel two things: a mad sense of anger and a helpless feeling of frustration. Anger because I can’t do anything about the senseless violence I see being perpetrated on women everywhere in the country and not just in New Delhi. On the streets, in offices, in bedrooms, in restaurants, in cars, on public and private transport and at homes — everywhere. Forget Delhi, women don’t feel safe anywhere in this country.
My frustration comes from the fact that every time an incident happens, a molestation or rape, usually of a woman, we try and build walls to protect ourselves or if we are men, protect our women. We ask the police to be more vigilant, to patrol, to install cctvs, to put fences, to add more guards, more grills, to track with gps, to have checks and policing in place so that women can feel safe. But the sad truth is that building walls will only make the outdoors wilder, segregating gender will only alienate each gender from the other and increase violence. No government, no men, no police, no institution can make it all go away. What can perhaps make a difference is that if you, me, all of us, in spite of the violence, go outdoors, at all times, at all places, fearlessly own the night. Be there, not in groups, not with men, but alone — until it becomes the norm. We need to own the spaces, only then can we be safe.
What is your experience of growing up in the city? Any lingering memories?
Much to the chagrin of my parents, growing up, I loved to be out on the roads of Delhi rather than stay at home. A love I share with Anantya. There’s a sense of freedom to be able to walk (not ride in closed spaces like cars), take a deep breath, smell the city. But I have always felt a sense of insecurity, a sense of alertness when I walk on the streets. I have grown aggressive because of collated bad experiences for years — creepy touches, bottom pinches, side leers, breast stares and squeezes. I have experienced it all because I refused to get off the road or the public spaces. I refused to huddle within groups. But yes, Delhi has converted me into a hedgehog. When I am walking, I don’t smile at a stranger, I am wary and vigilant. That’s a bit unfortunate.
Why do you write? And why Cult of Chaos?
I write because I itch to tell stories. When I am not writing, I am making up stories and orally telling them to my friends. I want to explore the idea of otherness, of strangeness, of non-humans, paranormals and supernaturals through these stories, which is why I am writing in the fantasy genre. I want to explore ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in all their manifestations.
I wrote Cult of Chaos because I was itching to write a work of detective fiction that mixes Indian folklore and supernatural creatures into a mystery. Anantya Tantrist happened because I was so bored of all the action taken up by male superheroes and superstars while women sat on the side, as pretty eye-candy. I wanted a story in which a woman gets her hands dirty, has all the adventures, kicks the villains and goes to a bar later to celebrate. And Cult of Chaos is all that and more!
Can you take us through the experience of writing this book? Anantya’s story has been an emotional journey for me. I was creating a female character who is fearless, independent, who just doesn’t give two hoots about what the society thinks, who isn’t dependent on a man. I had to change so many scenes constantly because they were written keeping in mind the ‘limitations’ a woman would have in our society. But Anantya doesn’t adhere to those limitations. I wanted to create a character who will step out of all the gender ideas we have as a society, which is why I rewrote and rewrote, overcoming my limitations as a writer and as a product of our society. And I am amazed at who she has turned out to be. I respect her, am in awe of her, and even have a crush on her.
I sit in my study all day and write while she is out on the streets, taking on powerful people, protecting the helpless, solving violent crimes, also having supernatural adventures of all kinds. She is exposed, while I live a protected life. She is all action while I am all thinking. But just the fact that I have been lucky enough to write her story has changed me too, given me wings. I want to be more like her. I want to own the streets too, fearlessly.
A day before Women’s day, I got a press release pitching an idea about women tweeting in the Twitter-verse. An idea meant for Women’s Day. And this is how it began.
I write to you on behalf of my client, Twitter and a possible tech feature on Women & Social media for Women’s Day edition.
We have often joked about the quintessential Indian woman and her conversations which are deemed loud, exaggerated and never-ending. One wonders how some of these argumentative ‘bhartiya naris’ are able to succinctly put their thoughts on Twitter in just 140 characters. Not only have they taken to this platform in great gusto, they have risen above the din and become celebrities with large followers. Young girls, suave mothers, aspiring comedians, successful entrepreneurs, fervent feminists of all hue and shades are present on Twitter, eloquently and effectively airing their thoughts, advice, jokes, tips etc…”
The email went on to give names of women on Twitter who have been doing spectacular work by themselves or for their gender, or for society at large. But I didn’t even read those women’s names because of the above paragraph. My head swam with a senselessly violent anger, the kind which I would image someone as destructive as Kali would feel. Where reason takes flight, scared. Where words just. don’t. express. it.
Yes. I get kind of nuts when faced with such obvious chauvinism in something that’s supposed to be about women. Exactly the kind of unreasonable, emotional woman that men make fun of in my gender. For the people who are We in the paragraph above, is not me. I am not a reasonable, powerful man, who has language at his disposal. The one who calls women’s conversations “loud, exaggerated and never-ending”. Or calls women different, or the other gender, or the ones who don’t have a penis. Or makes jokes about them about their loud mouths, their sagging or perky breasts. Their weaknesses and bangles. Their clothes or lack of it. Their faces and lumpy bodies.
Or keeps her happy with a day from 365 days. Makes March the Eighth especially about them. This day is for women, reserved. Let’s celebrate women. Let’s tell them we love them. Let’s hug them, keep them safe, buy them clothes and greeting cards. Who is the we in this conversation? The one who is generous enough to grant the other gender just a day out of 365 such days? When did the word ‘gender’ became ‘women’ and ‘women issues’?
No, the we is not only men. It’s also women who speak the language and give the reasons created keeping men the primary gender. Women who uphold and encourage patriarchy thinking and behaviour. The ones who whisper about other women who wear short clothes, show breast or bum cleavages. The ones who like to get their period things in a black bag while looking away apologetically. The ones who call the women who have sex ‘sluts’. The Women’s Day is for them. Not for me.
I have decided to shun Women’s Day and my gender. I stand today, genderless. Not a woman, definitely not a man. Just a body with breasts and a lot of anger. 365 days a year.
I started to write a blog about it, but since my opinion on this is raw and emotional, this poem is what emerged. I am feeling sad about the rightful anger in a lot of men and women in the country about the violent death of Ram Singh, one of the Delhi rapists today. I am feeling sad that we can rejoice in violent deaths as a country, a community, a gender, a world. Don’t get me wrong. I am against gender inequality and gender violence in all forms that are embedded in our society. But is celebrating violence the solution? I hope that in craving the blood of someone who’s the monster, we don’t become monsters ourselves.
The Census lady just visited my house in Delhi with her long list of questions. With every question, I felt more and more disconnected with our government’s thinking and also angry. In their need to compartmentalize our beautifully diverse population, the government is killing our multiplicity—or wants to. You will be forcefully put in one compartment or the other and sadly have no choice about the matter. Here’s what five minutes of interacting with the census lady told me. Be prepared for a mental onslaught when the Census probe comes knocking by your door!
The census begins by asking you who is the HEAD of the family section—which of course is assumed to be a man. I wonder what happens in the household with only women? All the other people living in the house are made relatives of the said ‘Head’ of the family. How can a government which is talking about Women equality and creating bills and laws to protect its women be so patriarchal in its forms? I always had a problem with the forms which asked Father/Husband only – as if a woman cannot exist alone. Always made by a male babu of course.
The next question is RELIGION with six choices – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Buddhist. If you don’t have a religion, I am sorry but you cannot exist for our dear government.
The major issue which a lot of us coffee-house argumentative so-called-intellectuals have been talking about since months is the fact that we don’t want to give out our CASTE. We always hoped (without any action of course) that the government will be sensible enough to give us a choice of NO CASTE. That’s the third question and no, before you ask me, you don’t have a choice of saying NO CASTE. If you say so, the census lady will simply have to put one you depending on your mother tongue. You have to belong to a CASTE else you simply don’t exist for the votes that the government in power needs.
After these three initial questions, I was too emotional (and too scared) to read more of the census questions. It’s unfortunate when you start to see our government deliberately chopping our diverse society into cubes of castes. Our freedom fighters and social reformers must be turning in their graves. This is their nightmare come true.