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As I enter the last 4 days of my stay in India, it’s useful to look about and realize where I am. I’m in Hyderabad, the Muslim cultural capital of South India. Tomorrow I head back to Delhi. A couple of hundred miles east of Delhi is China. A little further away in the Northwest direction is Pakistan. Two hundred miles beyond that border lies Afghanistan. By Canadian standards, a couple of hundred miles is nothing. This is where the history of the early 21st century is being played out. And this is where the future of this century will be written. All rather exciting, really.
JJ send us this link about the present Miss India contestants. No, I’ve not seen them wandering about. But it brings up a topic I’ve been deftly avoiding: women in India.
Despite my base persona as a hetero perv, I have in fact been very careful not even to look at the women here. You just never know what cultural lines you might be crossing and what jealous boyfriend you might be pissing off –a good rule for travelling in any foreign country. The women I have dealth with have been: customer service people, fellow travellers, quasi-relatives, Aurovillians or friends with whom I’ve had prior contact. And even with those women, I’ve been careful not to show any public displays of affection.
See, in India it’s not typical to see men and women showing affection in public. Men will hold hands with other men, but to many it is unseemly to do so with a woman. Of course, this, like everything else, is changing. In Delhi, I once saw a couple kissing in the darkened shade of the Lok Sabha buildings at night time. In Bangalore, there was the occasional tender brush of finger against hand among couples shopping in the more upscale malls.
Like everything else I have discussed in my exploration of the new urban India, the appropriate behaviours between men and women are confounded by education and class: what is newly permissable among the educated and wealthier classes many still not be permitted among the rest. I’m sure I’m going to be buried beneath a mountain of emails from middle-upper class Indian women telling me that they feel perfectly free to smooch in public. But before you write to me, please ask yourselves if you can reliably speak for the other classes of women who co-exist in this enormous nation.
This is a nation of sexual segregation. There are necessarily women-only train compartments and hostels, because the rate of harrassment against unaccompanied women is so great. Less convincingly, there are separate women’s and men’s lines for airport security and at liquor stores. Like America prior to the 90s, every disco has a cover charge for men only; women are universally allowed in for free. The flipside to this is that there is an unabashed sexist remuneration policy in the workplace. Ten years ago, a businessman once told me that it’s his policy to pay women less than men for the same work, because “men have to support a family, women don’t”.
You would think that these sentiments would also be reflected in the public treatment of women, perhaps in something resembling deference. But I regularly see women, both old and young, jostled and bullied by larger men in crowds, on buses and airports. And thanks in part to media depictions of scantily-clad film stars and skanky Western women, and in part to a failure of this society to teach its men appropriate behaviour, some cities (particularly Delhi) are known for their poor treatment of unaccompanied women. Stories abound of groping, cat-calls and even of actual sexual assault against single women, both Indian and foreign. I’m told that Delhi is the worst for this. I’m also told that Bombay, Chennai and Bangalore are perfectly safe, in comparison.
Even in Auroville, a friend said she once happened upon a man on the side of the road, masturbating to the sight of her. At one of the Auroville beaches, buses arrive regularly from Chennai, jam-packed with Indian men desperate for a glimpse of white flesh in a bathing suit.
Hidden from the eyes of travellers is an on-going epidemic of domestic violence, fuelled by the parallel epidemic of alcoholism. I am further told that a particular plight of the educated class of women is that they are bred to lead and excel, but ultimately must subvert these skills in favour of becoming housewives. In fact, A. and I met one such woman from Bombay who had moved to Auroville specifically because it was one of the few places in India where she, as a married educated woman, was able to own and run her own business without community disapproval.
Having said all this, I must comment on the physical beauty of the Indian woman. This is a culture that has produced the ultimate sex manual, the Kama Sutra, and one that once elevated the station of courtesan to the level of artist. The woman Roger Ebert calls the most beautiful in the world, Ashwairya Rai, is of course a Bollywood goddess. And indeed, the pantheon of Bollywood beauties is remarkably one of sheer physical perfection. But I am reminded of what a non-Indian friend once said to me: “Your women come in two categories: either they are perfect goddesses or they have mono-brows.” I offer no comment on that assertion.
But I will say this: out of all the women I’ve tried not to look at during my journey, the most purely beautiful tend to be of the lower classes: the beggars, street urchins, sweepers, etc. In India, class is genetically correlated, since class is linked to caste which has traditionally determined marriage and reproductive patterns; so it is in fact scientifically defensible to say that, here, a certain class can share certain genetic characteristics. These women are typically darker skinned, have high cheekbones, strong lean bodies, brilliant eyes and dazzling smiles. Perhaps the roughness of their lives instills in my naive eyes a sense of inaccessible purity that is largely undeserved, I don’t know. But it is a surprising observation nonetheless.
Furthermore, the most intriguing women are the burqa-clad Muslim women of the bigger, wealthier cities. It’s true: slinky black burqas draped across statuesque and dignified forms, with only a slit for piercing bright eyes is a surprisingly alluring vision. In many ways, less is more.
It really does make one wonder why all the Indian men trip over each other to get a glimpse of the fat German chick wobbling to the post office, while their own goddesses saunter all about them.