Choosing My Words
How does one forget? I’ve had no trouble forgetting grocery lists, answers to questions in exams, embarassing moments, insensitive words and actions. Then why can’t I erase the memory of a girl turning to her family and telling them to rest, and that she’d like to rest too? Is it because the unspeakable horror she lived through was covered in great detail by newspapers and television channels? Is it because I knew this could just as easily have happened to my mother, my wife, someone I knew? Or is it the heartfelt tributes and vigils the incident sparked across India? Like this touching tribute in India’s northeast, in which 600 guitarists played John Lennon’s “Imagine”?
Whatever the myriad reasons, the last few days have been strange. Normal moments suddenly hijacked by the feeling of a blow to the gut. Every single time I think of The Girl and her last words. How did we let this happen? That hurts, but not as bad as the question “How did I let this happen?” I could’ve done nothing at that horrid moment the girl got on the bus, but I’m complicit in allowing the conditions leading to her death to exist. A society’s beliefs are shaped over a wide, sweeping arc of time but each of those beliefs are reinforced because of a significant event, or a chain of them. This incident should be ours, failing which we’ll read about such an incident again, very soon. Of all the calls for change aired in the past few weeks, I found those calling for personal responsibility the most compelling. It’s easy to blame society for its ills and forget our personal role as one of its members. So I started with something we surround ourselves with – words.
A few days ago, India got drubbed by Pakistan in a cricket match. A few minutes later a status update appeared on my facebook feed proclaiming that there had been another gang-rape in India, this time by the Pakistan cricket team. A few years ago I would’ve dismissed it as idiotic but this time I was furious. I expressed my displeasure on the post along with many others and it disappeared quickly. This was a person who’d lamented the incident in Delhi and commiserated about the plight of women in India. Completely oblivious to the fact that he is part of the problem, that of maintaining mutual exclusivity between one’s personal actions and society’s.
Bonobo, a bar in Mumbai, carried a popular cocktail by the name of “Balatkari”, or rapist. The bar was trashed a couple days ago by women belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party. While the incident of violence is regrettable and completely unjustified, the existence of such a name is an excellent indicator of our attitude to sexual violence. If you’ve grown up in India, chances are you’ve been exposed to a few examples of how the word “rape” is used casually. Eg “I got raped in the exam”, “that prof raped me in the Q&A”. The word meant to convey the severity of the incident but falling woefully short of its real meaning. Perpetuated further by this lack of understanding to the point you see no problems asking “so what’s the big deal? It’s just a joke” when challenged. I’ve done it, so I know. What Bonobo did was far more devious. It profited off the meaning of this word and packaged it as a vicarious experience others could share in. Look at us, we’re so “edgy” because we’re buying and drinking this cocktail called “rapist”! Don’t kid yourself – you knew EXACTLY what it meant and you know EXACTLY why you bought it.
Speaking of edgy, another medium that abuses this word generously is comedy. As someone who loves the irreverence of comedy and makes it a regular part of his day, it’s appalling to hear sets which display ignorance of the meaning of words like “rape” and thus, the purpose of their art. I view comedy as insight. The only reason I listen to a comedian is because he or she distils the essence of life around me into humorous witticisms and opens my eyes to its advantages or contradictions. Daniel Tosh showed the world how not to joke about rape when he casually remarked that it would be funny if a female heckler in his audience got raped just then. There was nothing funny about it. On the other hand, here’s how you should joke about rape, if you must:
Louis sets up rape quite clearly as a negative and mocks the woman for even suggesting she’d enjoy it. Then he proceeds to walk the line between propriety and being politically incorrect by taking the scenario a bit further and describing rape. That’s the purpose of a comedian; to walk a line so I may realize there’s something on the other side and to walk it without ever crossing it. I’m grateful for people who can show me a chasm without falling into it. Comedy is also about evolving, improving and even changing without getting stuck in dogmatic stances. Here’s Louis CK again, on the Daily Show clarifying his “defense” of Daniel Tosh after the incident. At 3:50 he says something very important:
“All dialogue is positive. [...] I think you should listen. If someone has the opposite feeling for me, I want to hear it so I can add to mine. [...] I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have enlightened me to things I didn’t know. There’s this woman who said rape’s something that polices women’s lives, they have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t dress a certain way. That’s part of me now….and I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”
This is how you can continue to enlighten without perpetuating stereotypes.
What about the rest of our entertainment? A talentless git called Yo Yo Honey Singh, famous for weaving sexist imagery in his “rap” was hounded out of a New Years Eve show by a boycott petition. The hotel that was hosting him relented. (It’s ironic that Mr Singh took to Twitter to condemn the heinous incident of rape and call for better conditions for women.) There were many who confused the boycott with a ban. No one wants to deny Mr Honey Singh the right to peddle his bullshit in the market, but it’s the market’s prerogative to choose or reject his product. Our decisions are the consequence of awareness and a petition to boycott is a non-violent, non-restrictive means of communicating the changing tastes of a market.
On the other hand, it’s also equally true that cinema and music are a reflection of society today. A violent movie mirrors the violence of society, a misogynistic song reflects its society’s attitudes. It’s a mirror held up to us. If we don’t like what we see, we should change. A boycott is an encouraging sign that people are beginning to see something wrong with who they’ve been and what they’ve allowed. It’s very simple – if you choose not to see/hear it, they won’t peddle it anymore. So should you go home and destroy your Honey Singh CDs? No. The boycott isn’t to destroy him, it’s to educate people like him that their sexist bullshit won’t fly anymore. Keep up or ship out.
So what’s next for me, personally? I reacted adversely to that facebook status update because the memory of the rape still lingered in my mind. It was instantly offensive to me and I reacted accordingly. It’s something I need to do every day from here on. Call out friends on their sexism and ignorance. Be open about feedback on my own language. Regulating what I say or write, not because it’s politically incorrect but because it’s ignorant and wrong. Teaching
my child what I’m learning so he doesn’t make the same mistakes. Telling him about respecting women through my actions, not just talking about it. Not considering my family members and relatives immune to this change, and calling them out whenever they stray into their patriarchal bullshit. It’s about me, not we. (As Over Rated wrote so wonderfully, hell is other people).
Her name was Jyoti. She’s been my enlightenment.