Our maid Jayanthi, who comes every other day to help us, brings without failure a posy of gruesome news – senseless murder, gang-rape and child abuse – to decorate our breakfast table. As if they are some sweet-smelling English roses. Today it was about a seven year old child who was dragged into an abandoned shack, raped and strangulated to death. We shudder and scream and bark at her to shut up. Spare us the details! The poor woman is a sensationalist – some find these stories of brutality strangely satisfying – or, she is truly disturbed that she seeks some form of venting. And who better than her paymasters?
I hate and admire Jayanthi at the same time. I dislike her for fouling up my mood. I loathe the way these stories are articulated in newspapers, which is what Jayanthi imitates. I detest the vein in which people describe and revel in the gory details and forget about them a couple of hours later. Though, I admit I have no right to find fault with them for that.
And then, I admire her for bombarding our cozy middle-class mornings without mercy. It’s hard to ignore that hint of accusation in her voice. Are we to be blamed for all that is going on? We, the educated, the privileged, the powerful.
We, the middle class. What power do we have? I am wont to say we’ve none. We’ve tried street demonstrations. Perhaps not the right kind, or the right scale, despite the noble motives. Perhaps we’ve not tried hard enough. We have somehow become so estranged from our home turf that when some of us get out on the streets we get labeled as NGO crows or Nightclub Buddhists. Even though we may not work for NGOs, neither haunt nightclubs nor temples.
The truth is that Sri Lanka has a minority of ‘liberal intellectuals’ (let’s say, for the lack of better nomenclature), who are culturally removed from the majority of this country. And this minority, for which we still have to find a better term than the ‘Colombo 7 elite’, is so thin and fragmented that actually they are no longer the elite. They have no influence over the current ruling dynasty. History has finally cracked that cruel joke, and power has slipped from those who held it, into the hands of a new elite. What’s more, the new dynasty is very much the majority of this country, though obviously that has not lead to much common good. They speak Sinhala and listen to Bana, celebrate Vesak and Victory Day in the same month. They have little regard and bother the least about a weak minority that is not of this soil. So who can doubt the fact that this country’s got what it deserves? Democracy to Sri Lanka, I feel, is like a free Ferrari for a tribe in the Stone Age.
What Jayanthi does not realize is that there’s not much of a difference between her and me. We are just individuals, and despite one appears to be slightly better-off than the other in the scheme of things, neither has any influence over the machinery that controls that scheme of things. What can I do in a state where a school girl is fined for stealing coconuts and Duminda Silva, accused of murder and rape, is released scot-free? Write about it? But that book has been written long ago by one Mr. Victor Hugo. I cannot do better than him. What can I do but to put up a silly Facebook post or vent in a blog article?
How contained my revolt has become, in this day and age…
Six months ago, there were two news items that I could not forget in a couple of hours. Two girls in their early twenties died in two different places. Two totally unrelated cases. One has a name. The other’s we do not know. But does it matter, we would forget them anyway, in the lapse of time.
Who’s That Girl?
Rizana Nafeek, despite the pleas by some organizations to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to intervene, despite the requests for pardon by high and mighty, despite the demonstrations, was summarily executed. Our parliament observed silence. People debated on Facebook. Journalists swarmed that humble mud hut for a couple of months. Some of my friends got together to support Rizana’s family. Some comfort there?
I cannot claim to understand what Rizana must have gone through in her 24 years of life. War. Poverty. Hardship. Cruelty. Detention and execution. I have not experienced any of these in my life. Apart from a couple of smacks from my mother when I was a naughty child, nobody has ever beaten me. I have never been in the middle of war. The only form of poverty I have experienced has been my meager existence as a university student in one of the richest and most peaceful countries of the world – no comparison to that of Rizana’s war-ravaged Muttur. I do not speak her language, and I cannot claim to speak for her. I cannot write about it without over or underestimating the magnitude of this girl’s plight.
Rizana’s case is a clear indication of the dire straits in which sections of our society languish: The hand to mouth existences. How do we understand the continued rush of women to the Middle East despite such horrific incidents, of which Rizana’s is only one? Is it not our failure as a society to fulfill the very basic human needs of a majority of its members? Things are becoming more and more desperate, unjust and alarming around us.
Now we may have time to write to blogs and debate at forums about these things. Rizanas of this country don’t. They have families to feed before they join demonstrations of Buddhists questioning Buddhists and what not. But that may not be the only reason that when we walk out on to Lipton Circus, it is only us and our school mates from St. Thomas there. It is because we have no common language, no medium of reaching out to Rizanas. They are not on Facebook, no? In our fight for greater common good, what common grounds have we found with them?
I have a friend who argues that only the poor can fight for the poor and we pseudo-socialist petite bourgeoisie should keep out of it. He means it in a good way. Can the middle class champion the poor man’s cause? Isn’t that what all the NGOs are trying to do?
He may have a point, but I don’t agree with him anyway.
What’s my point, then? Simply this: Unless we build solidarity with others who may not be of our class, or our cultural milieu, our educational background, we cannot truly be a part of this country. Let’s not pretend to champion their cause, that’s fine. But let’s empathize. Let’s try to understand. Because unless we speak of things simply, in a language that anyone can understand, the masses will not join us university lecturers when we march on to Hyde Park. And let’s be honest and do it because we also care about ourselves, and not dress it up entirely in some altruistic frills. Let’s do it even if we only care about ourselves. Because it affects us, sooner or later.
Until we do that, we can never have those English roses on our breakfast table.
Nirbhaya, that girl who got gang raped in Delhi, makes me wonder about our understanding of inequality, class and basic needs in purely materialistic terms. If Rizana’s case is an example of how physical poverty affects society, Nirbhaya takes us a one step further. Not only does class limit our access to food, shelter and basic amenities. It also affects what makes us most human: in nurturing our ability to love and create, as against harm and destroy. And I am not sure if Marx touched this point when he talked about inequality and class.
Some of the articles I read regarding the perpetrators strongly illustrated the stark realities faced by the young men from rural India who migrate to big cities in search of employment. They leave their families behind. They live in impoverished shanties under dire working conditions. Their situations are not simply hard. It’s more complicated, convoluted than that. Living in the capitol of new India, they see relative wealth all around them. What’s worse, they see extravagance, licentiousness and debauchery. They are lucky if they can afford a prostitute. Miserable street walkers get caught and thrown in remand, when glamorous call girls continue their plush business in the dissolute lavishness of their rich customers. That’s the sorry truth about prostitution.
Ram Singh, the gang leader of the rape incident, had a wife who died back in the village of kidney failure; had an accident that left him ‘mental’ as others called him. He was prone to mood swings and violence. He hung himself while in detention in Tihar jail, his trial pending. His parents claim that he was raped repeatedly by other inmates in Tihar. Consider the irony.
I am not pleading sympathy for Ram Singh. He was a rapist of the most brutal order. But Ram Singh and his fellow rapists represent the seething frustration of modern nations, jostling for rapid development and moral decadence twice the speed. It’s bursting at the seams. Add a dash of deep-rooted South Asian sexism to that. Our obsession with the phallus, that demands to be retained as the only proof of virility of our nations. So we stick our guns and stick our penises to all and sundry. Protect our motherland, and our sisters, Inshallah!
We are hopelessly stratified and divided not only in terms of material wealth, but culture and decency. We are so deprived and frustrated that we lose the ability to nurture, to love. Instead what comes out is harm and violence; against women, against children, against the poor, against the rich, against governments and guerillas; Violence and counter-violence.
Yesterday was Vesak and as I walked around in my hometown in the night. I saw ‘Dan-Sals’. Ice-cream, coffee, rice everything. The young men ogling at the women, and pushing themselves onto them, made me wonder what sort of ‘Dan-Sals’ we should actually have. I know, the idea is insane.
I am not talking about free sex. I am trying to think my way through material and non-material dimensions of inequality. It affects us all. It affects me at the deepest, most personal level. A friend of mine once noted that I always put love and politics on the same footing. I think they are, because they are both about power. Or about the inequality of power. I am not merely trying to romanticize social issues.
Even after six months, I still think about that girl who got ravaged in Delhi. I have been to the very Cineplex that she watched the last movie of her life, with a male companion, at the age of 22. Just like her. I have hopped onto a bus afterwards, just like her. And even if I hadn’t been in Delhi at a young age, hadn’t attended the same university she attended, it wouldn’t have made a difference, would it?
Even after six months, I still this of Rizana. I have been to Muttur only once in my life. I have never been to Middle East. I have never been a handmaid. But even if I haven’t it doesn’t make a difference.
Can men ever empathize a woman’s plight? Can Rich ever triumph the Poor’s cause? Can rulers ever represent the ruled?
There are no easy answers. No quick fixes. As cost of living skyrockets together with the sense of alienation, as it plunges our youth into an abyss of frustration, we sit back and watch.
Last month, I was with a group of young girls and boys in Puttalam in a workshop. The most burning issue they saw around them was premature marriages and teenage pregnancies. After talking through with them to identify the root causes, beyond superficial popular and puritanical interpretations, what they identified as they needed most was to change their attitude towards their opposite sex. They wanted safe spaces to interact with the ‘other’, where they could discover each other beyond the traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
I thought that was a good start.
Talking to each other is always a good start.