Loose Women and Other Urban Indian Tales

Anuradha Sengupta
Jalebi Ink

Dear all,

I am writing this to share a recent incident that brought me face to face with many issues I feel are of wider importance, and to use this as a collective sounding board for possible future action.

My idea is simply to tap into the wider experiences and insights of the community of people this may reach, who are invested in creating a more just and equal environment for everyone. Since some people reading this may not know me personally, I will begin with some information on myself.

I live in Kolkata. I am a freelance journalist and travel around a bit. I run an award-winning indie youth media collective called Jalebi Ink. I am also a single mom, by choice. I haven't faced any significant negative situations about my choice/status.

Till now. Here in Kolkata.

Two days back, a nasty run-in happened with some older boys (17-18) in my colony (Behala) and with their parents.

These boys had been harassing my 13 yr old son for a while. But he wouldn't let me intervene saying no, they will make more fun of me. Things came to a head in an incident in the park where these boys caught hold of him and in public pulled his pants down while the rest watched and clapped.

What I did and what followed was illuminating.

I went to the leader of this gang and asked him to cease immediately. The gang was there. They shrugged it off with non-chalance. Your son is a liar, they said. This is all in fun anyway. Shoulder shrugs and a lot of smug laughter.

An altercation followed with the boys, and their parents and neighbours which turned nasty and in the next 15 minutes, I (a five foot one inch woman) was surrounded by a pack of these boys and their parents, and even their maids. It was like a chakravyuh. They shoved me around. They proceeded to hurl every known gendered and cliched abuse. They threatened to beat me and my son up. "I will kill you and your son," the boy said. I slapped him and his pal who had smugly admitted that he had "only touched my son's pants". The boys came at me with their fists balled up. But were held back by some friends.

There were onlookers - no one did anything

They came to my house after that, with more people. Same thing happened. More abuses - and extolling of virtue of their sons. "Bring out your son" "Chool chhaata mohila" (short- haired woman), "we know what you are", "frustrated" "loose" "harlot" "your son is abnormal" etc.

My mother and father (who has Parkinsons) stood behind asking them to leave with folded hands. He was told to get lost.

The neighbours did nothing - they walked past on the stairs, looking away.

I filed a complaint. They too did - ostensibly as I had "assaulted" these 17-18 yr olds.

The cops came and asked my son questions. They were decent enough. They told my son the bullying will stop. All that. But they may have done that as I had called up several of my media friends who in turn would have put pressure on them. They said we'll see what we can do and went off.

The father of the leader of the pack of boys incidentally is a local real estate promoter with links to local councillors. The house they stay in is forcibly occupied and belongs to someone I know.

It is sad what this place has become. I feel that the more women get out of stereotypes, the more reactionary society becomes.

A chool chhata (short haired), pant pora (pant-clad), westernised, single woman = 'loose character', as per Bengali middle-class morality. This is a dangerous trend that I have noticed over the years - the simmering violence within middle-class Bengalis and the growing tendency to ostracize independent single women based on warped notions of morality. It's mob mentality in its most vicious form, the shocking part being that these are the so-called 'educated' bhadroloks, not uneducated people from deprived backgrounds.

Like a friend pointed out, the external trappings of middle-class society have changed. Everyone thinks they're 'modern' now. But the mindset is still feudal. Add to that a growing propensity for violence, and you have a dangerous cocktail.

It's like living in the dark ages. Everything they said to women then, they are saying now. Women have to have male figures around as "protectors" and "guardians".

The police fellow's pen had hovered for a while over the "son of" section in his report when I said write my name. When I fill govt or even other forms (as in banks etc), there is a predominant "Wife of" "Daughter of" section. His glance had changed when I told him I am a single mom.

Ever since my father was diagnosed with Parkinsons, my mother has taken over all the document, bank etc work completely. And yet, they still ask her to fill in who she is a wife of or daughter of. It is frustrating. When will this end? It was well-known writer Githa Hariharan, who slammed home the point that a mother can be the sole guardian of a child. Before that, a father's signature would always be required on forms. (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120229/jsp/opinion/story_15193043.jsp#.UWZSOZNTCSo)

I want to drive home to these boys and their parents that what they did was wrong on so many levels. What they did to a kid. Their strange warped perception of women. And the fact that they think it is fun to bully a 13 year old. The fact that they invaded my space and abused me. They did not bother about an old and ailing person. The boys who labelled me as a 'fallen woman' were teens, some of them going to the new crop of 'international' schools that have mushroomed in Calcutta. They have a music band. And yet they have such regressive mindsets.

I am looking for ideas and suggestions. From media stories, justified legal intervention to interventions or campaigns in the colony maybe. Blank Noise is a great organisation that does some amazing campaigns on harassment faced by women. Check them out here: http://blog.blanknoise.org/

Anuradha Sengupta


simple girl..... said...

I am shocked beyond words .. I do not know what to do.. people really so inconsiderate and crappy ... Is it possible that you can approach the schools where they study .? I am shocked to hear how parents can be so irresponsible..

Partha P Rudra said...

As a Probasi Bengali I always took pride in my Bengali heritage. I had the notion of Kolkata and Bengali culture as quite respectful of women and girls and having a gender egalitarian and a very progressive society. Last few years of deep professional engagement with Kolkata and Bengali society in West Bengal thoroughly challenged my perception and sense of pride! Truly shocking is the incidence but more shocking is the unexplainable passivity of the Bengali society.