Thursday, December 20, 2012

Being Woman

In the wake of the recent spine-chilling gang rape and assault that happened in Delhi, I finally decided to publish this post I've been waiting to post for a long time.

I was born in India, and spent 22 years of my life there. I absolutely love the country and the cultural diversity that it brings with it like no other country in the world does. We have a rich heritage and the kind of history that most other countries pretend to have, but don't. I am immensely proud to be born in such an amazing country, and yet, after moving to the United States, whenever I go back to India, things make me uncomfortable. And I'm not talking about the climate or the fact that things are less 'developed' in India. I'm talking about the mentality of people.

A girl walking down the street wearing shorts and tank tops will make every single man on the road blatantly stare at her. Wearing a two-piece swimsuit at the beach makes all heads turn towards you, and traveling in the unisex compartment of the local train is an open invitation to get groped from all directions. Most orthodox in-laws still have the tendency to reject a girl who has been with another man in the past.

Gender equality
On the other hand, men can do whatever they please. They can flaunt banana hammocks at the pool and get away with whipping out their penises on the side of the road to relieve themselves as other men act like nothing's wrong and the women turn away ashamed, pretending they didn't notice. So what happened to all those talks about gender equality? Why am I forced to wear long sleeved shirts and jeans when it is 40°C outside when men can take their shirts off if needed? Why does a boy have as many girlfriends as he wants and won't get anything more than a disapproving look or two, but a girl can get rejected for having had a past relationship? Did Ram have a right to put Sita through the agnipariksha and why didn't he have to take one? I was lucky for growing up in Maharashtra, one of the safest and most lenient states in India where eyebrows don't raise to see a girl playing soccer with other boys, but my North-Indian female friends didn't even have the option of staying out of the house after dark because it's 'unsafe' for them.

So much for being the largest democracy of the world.

A few years back, I was walking in my neighborhood with my friend when this kid passing us deliberately touched her chest. I didn't notice it, but as he walked past us, my friend told me what happened. "Are you sure he did it on purpose," I asked. "Why else would his hand reach my left boob when he's passing me on the right," she said matter-of-factly. I turned around to look at the boy as he kept casually walking away. He couldn't have been older than 13 or 14 and was about my height. "Stay right here," I said to my friend and turned around and started walking towards him. He realized he was being followed and kept walking faster sneaking sideways glances at me. "Hey you," I yelled. That attracted the attention of a few passers-by, some people buying fresh fruit at a fruit stand and a couple of rickshawallahs waiting for passengers. Normally, attracting that much attention on the road would have embarrassed me, but not this time. It gave me more confidence about publicly putting the kid to shame. He turned around with his chin up in the air and a look of arrogance, and said, "what!" I stormed closer to him and grabbed his shirt collar, bringing his face within 10 inches of me and staring point blank in his eyes. "Why did you touch my friend," I said. Having a girl grab him by his shirt and talk to him aggressively baffled him and his tone got submissive, "I didn't do anything." "You did, and you know it," I said, "who gave you the right to touch another woman?" And then, just like that on an impulse, I hit him hard across his face. I heard the fruit vendor shout something at us and the two rickshawallahs rushed over to mediate. I won't lie, right at that moment, I was suddenly overcome with fear. I was clearly stronger than the kid, but I had never made a scene on the street like that before and didn't know if those rickshawallahs would gang up on me or manhandle me. I softened my voice and tried my best not to sound shaky, "I dare you to touch another girl again," I said. I let go of his collar, shoving him a little to assert my victory, and started walking back to my friend, proud of what I had done, expecting her appreciation. Instead, her face was red with embarrassment. She shot me a disapproving look, turned away, and started walking even before I could catch up with her. I heard the rickshawallahs and a couple other random people reprimand the kid a little and then someone passed a comment and I heard laughter. My head was filled with a medley of emotions - guilt, anger, fear, confusion, but most importantly, satisfaction.

"That should teach him," I said. "Shut up! Why did you have to embarrass me like that," my friend blurted, almost in tears as she kept walking ahead of me with her gaze fixed on the ground ahead of her. Seeing her unexpected disappointment made my jaw drop. I embarrassed her? I thought I stuck up to her. If anything, she should have been grateful to me! "I'm sorry," I said, "it was a fit of rage." "Don't ever do things like that again," she said to me, "you'll get both of us in trouble." At that point I was genuinely confused, and then started to feel ashamed. Had I really done something wrong? Had I jeopardized my friend's life along with mine in an impulsive act of defiance? My 21 year old self decided that what I did wasn't really something to be proud of. I didn't talk about it with my parents or anyone else out of fear of getting rebuked. My mom always lectured me for being feisty and I didn't want to give her a chance to say "this is exactly what I mean."

However, after reading about all the rapes and assaults that happen on a day-to-day life, what I did makes my 26 year old self proud. I had the guts to stand up for my right as a woman that not many women have.
women in skirts
Not an invitation to rape
I have retaliated indecent sexual advances towards me more than once in the past. We need more women to stand up to the injustice happening around us. As my friend Mohona pointed out in her post, all of us have been victims of molestation in public. It can be as trivial as getting "accidentally" touched inappropriately on a public bus, getting our chests stared at, or something as serious as rape. What happened to the Delhi girl wasn't her fault, and yet the injuries she sustained on account of the lust of a bunch of strangers will have life long effects on her, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Is it enough to give these guys capital punishment? Why do they get immediate death? Why shouldn't they have to live a life in suffering like her?

I was lucky I was in Pune, which is one of the safest places to be in for a woman in India. Would the rickshawallahs have the same attitude if this had to happen in Delhi or UP or Bihar; or would they have raped and brutally assaulted me for standing up to my friend? The thought makes me shudder. No one has given men the right to express dominance over women and it's not their job to decide a woman's place in society. The patriarchal system does not justify treating women as objects to be used at your disposal. We have a right to walk in a crowd without getting groped. We have a right to wear skirts and sleeveless shirts without having every set of eyes on the road pop out of their sockets at us. We have a right to take that night bus home without worrying about getting gang raped and thrown out on the road half-naked and near dead.

It sure is important to teach our daughters the importance of protecting their safety in public, but it is more important to teach our sons to be real men and learn to show respect, courtesy, and self-control.

Don't rape
The message we really need

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Sorry State of Indian Sports

I have always seen people associate Indian sports with Cricket. Fun fact: India's National game is Field Hockey. Yep. When I started school at UNC, almost everyone asked me if I played Cricket when they heard I was into sports. I won't lie, I did play inter-collegiate cricket for a year and even now I enjoy watching cricket matches. But nothing could win me over from soccer. Playing soccer relaxes me and elevates my mood. And I like to think I'm good at it.
Women's football
Definitely good at kicking balls
I was lucky to have parents that let me get as involved in sports as I wanted to, as long as I did well in studies. My parents never imposed anything on me and where most Indian parents would be skeptical about their daughters playing the "manly" sports, my parents always encouraged me with football and rugby. So when I worked my way up the usual Inter-college > Zonals > Nationals ladder and became a national player, I decided the next step would be to consider Senior Nationals, where universities join hands to represent the State. It was the June of 2007, when seven of us from the Pune girls' team were sent to Bombay for the 15 day long Nationals selection camp. And this was when I realized how corrupt everything gets as you climb up the athletic ladder.

So here we were, a team of twenty-two girls at the tryouts, where in the end sixteen would make it to the national team (which included the core team of eleven and the substitutes). The camp was in Bombay, in June, and as a result the weather was sultry hot and humid. Considering this, seeing the "team quarters" shocked me. It was a big run-down room with paint peeling off the walls, tin sheets for roofs, two ceiling fans hanging from iron beams threatening to collapse on you any time, and seven bunk beds between 22 girls. Which meant 11 girls crammed next to each other in a space meant for seven people. There was one bathroom, one sink and one toilet between all of us. Through the cobweb filled gap between the roofs and the side wall, we could hear the boys' team in the neighboring room crack obnoxious jokes and yell playful obscenities at each other. There was an old television, which personally I thought was totally unnecessary and the absence of which would have saved us a lot of arguments over what channel to set. A few of us, who were the older players in the team (and knew the system better than the rest), immediately chose the top bunks so we could at least have the comfort of the ceiling fans. I know this was unfair and we were being bullies, but over the years, I had learned that Darwin's theory plays a very important factor in the Theory of Football Selections too.

The second set of shocks came next morning, when we had our morning workout at 6:30am. We were woken up at 5:30am with knocks on the door of our room. Thanks to the "limited number" of bathrooms and sinks, not all 22 girls could get a chance to brush and finish their morning chores in time, which meant a lot of girls were late for practice and a lot of those who did turn up, hadn't had a chance to brush. To add to our horror, we had a limited supply of hot water, which thankfully wasn't so bad after the workout in the Bombay heat. After the workout, we got breakfast. And if you are thinking milk and cereal or waffles or sandwiches, nope. Breakfast meant two slices of bread with eggs and ketchup. Not even a glass of milk. So what do the strict vegetarians eat? Not the Management's problem. They have ketchup to go with their bread, don't they? Lunch was no better. Rotis, bland daal (lentil soup), rice and a looping preparation of potatoes, cauliflower and lauki (bottle gourd). So basically if you had potatoes for lunch today, you can expect the same for dinner tomorrow. 
Lunch at soccer camps
Left: What the funds were for; Right: How much of the funds were used

Why these vegetables? Anyone who grew up in India can tell you that these are the cheapest vegetables that are also the easiest to cook with minimal spices. So where was the calcium and vitamins and so many more nutrients that sportsmen need? -- Again, not their problem. Why do they serve such meager meals? -- To save as much money as possible from the allotted funds to have a little party of their own. Who is 'they'? -- The Management, Sports Committee, Coaches and everyone else involved in the system. Hey at least the rice was unlimited right? Damn right it was, until all of us lost appetite when we saw the cook's sweat dripping in it and someone else found a black curly in their daal which I hope to God was from his beard!
Indian football team's official Chef
Our cook: Picture this guy, with a sweaty face and no hat
Two nights later, I was lying on my bunk bed, talking to a friend on my phone when I saw a big fat rat scurrying along the overhead beam that held the dangling fans in place. That was when I decided I had had enough and needed to complain about the situation. I stormed out of the room with my friend Anju in tow, as she kept telling me how complaining about it was a bad idea and would make the Pune team come off as 'high maintenance'. When I knocked and entered our coach's room, I was aghast to see the coaches sipping on ice cold Pepsi with the AC on while we sweltered in our chamber. Call me stupid, but up until that point, I hadn't realized how everyone was involved in the corruption they called the Sports Camp and that complaining really wasn't going to help. I saw what Anju meant. That night I cried a lot when I told my parents about the scenario at the camp and the rat incident. I told my dad I wanted to go back home but wasn't sure if I should give up this chance. "You do what you need to do," my Dad assured me, "We will be with you no matter what you decide." The next day I told the officials that I needed to go back and do my final assignment submissions in college. "What? College?! You are telling me you want to give up an opportunity to play Senior Nationals for a mere college assignment? This is big! These are the Senior Nationals. You play one Senior National tournament and you will be famous. What is your college assignment going to get you? A degree that will be framed and forgotten about. You can always get your degree next year, even your University will grant you that if you tell them the reason." So the fact was, my coach didn't realize I was an engineering student and that education meant a lot more to me than all the people he was trying to set an example of. Because I was the only engineering student at the camp. Everyone else was in Arts or Commerce programs which are much less demanding, or were struggling with bad jobs that they landed in because they failed most classes in college. I wasn't one of them. I was pursuing my Engineering degree and wanted to study abroad for my Masters. I was someone who had realized that I could not make a good career in Sports while I was in India. It wasn't me to put up with that kind of treatment which no one else in the field thought was wrong. It's true, to do well as a sportsman in India, you have to be a male Cricketer. Definitely not a female football player, not even if it meant playing for India. Yes, India does have a women's soccer team. 
Indian football
And with a lot of potential!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Yes, I miss India. Specifically...

  • Chowpati Chinese! The most unhealthy, unhygienic yet the tastiest and cheapest Chinese food! There is no place in the United States where you can just drive out at 2am and get yummy Chinese food!
  • Freshly squeezed Ganga-Jamuna orange/sweet lime juice topped with chaat masala at the juice stalls
  • Mewaad ice cream!
  • Driving on the shoulder to get ahead
  • Drinking coconut water from the coconut. And then having the coconut man break it open for the malai later
  • Taking Rs. 2 to the roadside paan-tapri to buy Cadbury Eclairs
  • Turning around and driving in the wrong direction because you missed the turn
  • Asking rikshaw wallas for directions
  • Asking random pedestrians for directions and then letting them hop on the back seat to show you the way
  • Sitting in the veranda, chatting with neighbors on lazy afternoons
  • Petting random street dogs
  • Drinking chai at street-side tapris (tea stalls) at 3 in the morning
  • Stealing kisses from your sweetheart while hiding from the public
  • Going to the railway station for burji-pav at midnight
  • Riding scooters side by side while chatting with friends