‘Tomorrow, we study Human Reproduction’

January 22nd, 2013

Mitali Saran’s column, Let’s talk about sex, baby, was a serious comment on the need for a healthy national conversation about sex, and the lack thereof, in Indian schools. Speaking from the lengthy distance of my school days, I couldn’t agree more, not least because of a mental giggle brought on by memories of the unintended expectations imposed on our unsuspecting biology teacher in middle school.

By then, most of us had a hazy notion of “it”, acquired through the time-honoured channels of half- truths and whispered comments among friends. We knew “it” came under the rubric of “forbidden pleasure” and, therefore, to feverish teen minds, a source of enduring mystery. We also knew that our parents were, in some undignified way, involved in “it” to produce us but the precise mechanics were not clear. This is no surprise in a convent school run by celibate Catholic nuns teaching the tenets of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception in weekly catechisms, but I can pretty much bet every urban teenager thinks this way. Anyway, imagine the excitement when Mrs Kundu, entrusted with teaching us biology, announced, “Tomorrow, girls, we study Human Reproduction.”

Now, it is fair to say we processed this information quite differently from the way Mrs Kundu perceived it. But first, a word on Mrs Kundu. She was a stolid, non-nonsense housewifely type with a wide red track of sindoor running down the middle parting of her hair. It was hard to associate her with anything remotely “it”-ish. Her teaching methods veered to the conscientious. She purveyed information on topics as varied as the functioning of the amoeba (that curiously “it”-deprived creature) or peristalsis or carbon fixation with a matter-of-fact thoroughness that quite stripped these miracles of nature of any romance. It is not clear why we expected her to imbue the topic of Human Reproduction with any degree of fascination. Perhaps it indicated of our lack of formal sex education that we hoped to learn more about the sex act in a class on Human Reproduction taught by Mrs Kundu.

Either way, she had an unexpectedly attentive class that day. And predictably, by the time she finished explaining the journey of millions of “spermatozoa from the male body” up the “fallopian tubes of the female body”, we were suffering a crashing let-down. Hey, this was no enlightenment, just more stuff to mug up! “Any questions?” Mrs Kundu asked at the end of the lecture as she always did. Well of course we had, but none we could ask Mrs Kundu. Her quelling eye – she was no fool – forestalled even the most adventurous back-benchers from explicit queries. So, it was back to wildly inaccurate samizdat literature, Donna Summers’ heavy breathing and mildly “A” films. Yes, sex education would certainly have gone a long way towards filling the gaps in our teen imagination more fruitfully.

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Good girls, bad girls

January 7th, 2013

There have been rumblings in recent weeks that the vocal protests on the roads and in the media over the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi last year are overdone, knee-jerk reactions to an entrenched, endemic problem. The inverted logic appears to have escaped the detractors. It is surely impossible to protest enough, and vociferously too, about a shameful societal weakness in a country that aspires to global recognition. In some respects, we are little different from the Taliban, which shoots a young girl for wanting to go to school.

The cause for bigger concern, however, has been the orientation of media coverage. As she lay fighting for her life, the victim was vested with trite nicknames (a Guardian correspondent rightly called them “nauseating”) and untrammelled virtues. She was, we are informed in breathless prose, hard-working, caring of her lower middle class parents, who had sacrificed much to put her through a physiotherapy course. There is no doubt that she was all of these and more and her story was a tragic one of hopes unfulfilled. But it was the sub-text to the reports that was disturbing. Here was a “good” girl against whom a grave injustice had been perpetrated. Now, suppose she had been a swinging party animal, out on the town for a good time with her boyfriend (her father is keen to highlight that her companion was not a boyfriend, just a boy who was a friend) and, maybe, just a little giddy in her outlook? Should she have been less deserving of her fate or of the outpouring of sympathy and attention? The reason the issue needs to be raised is the marked contrast between the intense coverage of this young girl’s death and that of, Pallavi Purakayastha in Mumbai in August. She was just 25, two years older than the Delhi victim, and she died from stab wounds fending off an attempted sexual assault from a guard of the building in which she lived. She could have been saved, had her neighbours cared to answer her distress calls; she eventually bled to death on the floor of her apartment. Yet, the coverage of her tragedy was perfunctory and short-lived as has been the case with similar cases in the past. Was she, too, not “Braveheart” or “India’s Daughter” to name some of the appellations heaped on the Delhi victim?  Ah, but her narrative did not quite fit the image that many Indians want to vest in Indian women, even if it is accepted that they can be educated, independent professionals. Pallavi’s father is a bureaucrat with the central government, she was an upcoming lawyer and she had a live-in partner. Bachi Karkaria summed up the situation of women like her with annoying accuracy: “High-rise residential towers match the ambitions of these young women who come to ’shake the pagoda tree’ of globalisation’s neo-colony… They work late, and then they latchkey into their company-rented flats. Sometimes there are partners, but mostly their boyfriends come and go, like their part-time maids, to service specific needs….They don’t want to know their neighbours, preferring to barricade themselves in Manhattan-like isolation. They have no use for the camaraderie of the borrowed onion.” Ms Karkaria’s point is that their “they can also become victims of a more insidious set of rules. They may be able to safeguard their privacy, but their ‘bindaas’ independence is compromised by the mindset of their potential predators.”

Exactly so, and in my humble opinion, this “bindaas independence” is compromised by society and the media too. Just one month before the Delhi incident, a Spanish exchange student was raped in her flat in an upscale neighbourhood in Mumbai. Any word on that, after she identified her attacker and he was arrested? She may not have been “India’s Daughter” but surely her case demanded attention, even if it was not possible to fit her into the kind of narrative template that is imposed on Indian women by even the more liberal elements of society. The fact that no one “deserves” to be raped, or “asks for it” is still to percolate fully into our national psyche.

Indeed, that is why it may be better to read more closely the placards and posters carried by the women and men who braved Delhi’s biting cold to gather on Raj Path, and continue to do so at Jantar Mantar. “Good” girls or bad, party animals or home bodies, westernised or Indian, dented and painted or unmade-up, item girls or paramedics, they understand better than anybody else that real freedom lies in being allowed to be themselves, safely.

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