Delhi has carried the infamous epithet of being a sordid city. One in which one not only had to jut elbows outward on one’s day out, but also the city which you were cautioned that you would have to fight the hardest to maintain you dignity. As an outsider. As a young person. As a woman. Cities are complex battlegrounds, I’ve learnt from the past decade of skipping between cities, countries. These battlegrounds are, predictably, entangled in each other as an ill-fitted jigsaw puzzle. Discourse acts as a potent tool in narrating coherence in the complex geography encased in cities. Discourse lends firmness in a fragmented imagination of an incident. It also lends moral force. I write this, after a conversation with Jasmeen in Calcutta, earlier this week, reminiscing about the year in sexual assault and rape and related upheavals. Guwahati, Gurgaon, Mangalore, Bangalore (rape in the vicinity of the National Law School campus), Mumbai and now Munirka, Delhi. Each an act of heinous sexual aggression as also violent attitude towards women whose changing public roles are perceived (presumably by the aggressors and their supporters) as threatening to the existing patriarchal moral order in which women’s assigned role is somewhat different.
Where discourse is a potent pill, is in strengthening the picture of women’s assigned role in the perpetrator’s Other world, and those in the victim’s attempted public expression are painted across a watershed of progressive-regressive, moral-immoral, traditional-modern. An act of rape as a reprehensible violation of the body consists of a two-fold dilemma for discourse – one, how to narrate the victim’s suffering, two, what is the appropriate approach for a collective to take the perpetrator to task. The controversies around death penalty, angry demands for bodily mutilation of the perpetrator surface in these debates. A collective, lets slip in a moment of fury, its hidden proclivity for the ‘un-modern’ vengeful tit-for-tat repertoire. Our fragile liberalism and modernity faces its own inner demons in a lifesize cutout in the image of the inhuman rapist.
Some defend the victim as their mother, sister, who could potentially have been in that same situation. It is the stance of the protective, paternalistic patriarch. Others disagree fervently, and address the secular singularity of the female modern citizen, whose rights to dignity, safety and security should be defended on secular terms, without recasting her as the fragile beneficiary of protection in the patriarchal familial system. The secular vessels of man and woman must be staged next to each, emptied of their relationalities of family, community, religion – and justice measured betwixt these two urgently modern entities. The democratic field is laid out vast and cacophonous at this time. Many actors scream out loud indexing a twenty-two-year-old figure of victim-hero – by now, mythical. Political parties swoop in to solidify this liquid anger and energy. Teargas and lathicharges at India Gate bring up questions about an already demystified state – whose sinister motives are spoken of, as it hits out on innocent protesters who anguish it is expected to address. The victim steadily grows into the mythical figure of the goddess – one that the nation has repeatedly manufactured on the political canvas, as far back as the nineteenth century, in the wake of the anti-colonial struggle. One that has been repeatedly rescued from heinous patriarchy and restored to pristineness, as the rightful icon of the nation – pertinently, in the nineteenth century figure of Sati and the widow. A variegated collective - feminists, liberals, right-wing patiarchs, nonchalants come to imbibe the picture of a fearless victim fighting without her intestines – metonymic of the nation. The nation that fights economic and political domination on the global platform, without requisite material, infrastructural, military wherewithal – intestines, as it were. The nation that fights internally, the ills of social retrogradeness - in matters of caste, gender, religion – and fights for precarious dignity on the global grid of sovereignty.
The perpetrator emerges as a space of relief – one in which this variegated collective can express condemnation at, in one voice, a space which offers momentary relief from the confusion of occupying this fraught national time. But the perpetrator can be vested with all the qualities of the body politic that the nation struggles to efface from its mirror-image. The retrograde elements of the inadequately modern Indian family, community, religion – things that we squeamishly negotiate on our daily journey through economic optimism and social precarity – are identified in their pure forms in the misogynistic perpetrator. Bollywood has marked a ‘wild east’ masculinity in the trope of ‘return to innocence’ through the new moral and material canvases of small town north India. The films Ishaqzaade (2012), Raajneeti (2010), Omkara (2006) in recent years mark a reworked version of the ‘angry, young man’ (regular in the 1970s Amitabh Bachchan films – usually, the cut-out of the laborer in manufacturing zones who turns vigilante) who returns to agrarian moral orders. The image of an angry young man, driving out in an open vehicle into the open landscape of part-desert part-village, recurs in these films. Ajay Devgan in Raajneeti, Ajay Devgan in Omkara, Arjun Kapoor in Ishaqzaade play the specturm of these characters. Parma, Arjun Kapoor, in the 2012 film Ishaqzaade, is a trainee in his grandfather’s political establishment, intoxicated with the brute power of gun and automobile - quite the antithesis of Ranvir Kapoor’s restrained, neoliberal and canny (bespectacled) masculinity in Raajneeti. The youth who is unabashed about failing to get beyond first year in college, drunk on gun-power, thinks nothing of setting an innocent man’s house on fire for not cowing down to his demands, is the irrational, uncontrollable, fearful patriarch-in-waiting. Very much the cutout of the Guwahati aggressors, with their alleged links with political and media players. Agrarian landscape and agrarian social orders suddenly faced with the violent tremors of hyper-modernity (physically imagined in the rapid reordering of agrarian land into commercial ones of malls and highways), reveal their inner turbulence in the acts of Parma. Parma does not even aspire to the seat of pure power. A murky concoction of lumpen-power is enough for the pleasures of instant annihilation and masculine celebration. This heady, un-modern, violent phantasmagoria, represented vividly in Indian cinema of the past decade, captures the continuing conversation of the body politic with the new logics of streamlined capital.
The stage for this feverish discourse generation is the urban public space. Park, bus, discotheque, cinema theater. The public space that opens up a celebratory space for the recently configured flexible, streamlined female subject – one that wears saris and mini-skirts with equal elan, one that juggles an emancipation facilitated by late capitalism – frequent travel, frequent change of profession, ready-to-cook sexualities. A heady counterpart of Wall street speculative money, no longer locked in unwieldy manufacturing enterprises, but smoothly moving between investments and market-differentials – this streamlined female subject. Juxtapose her to the retrograde unwieldy Indian man, whose upbringing makes him unidimensional, mother-dependent, father-worshipping, power-hungry, market-submissive, sex-incarcerated.
The metropolitan Indian public space that has fought racism and exclusion in the colonial time, fights xenophobia on the battle-lines of caste, religion and class today, as also retrograde gender values in demarcation of women’s limited navigability of such spaces. Juxtapose these constant drawings of boundaries with the other domain of public occupation of images. The vast and phantasmagoric advertisement billboards of soaps, diamonds, automobiles and insurance paint the heavypixel dream-image of the woman. Woman - vital, youthful, cheerful, all-powerful, efficient, birth-controled, biopoliticised and of course, free. The parks in which misogyny, crime and social paranoia are co-produced, heave under the billboard of running women in international sports gear celebrating health,vitality, freedom.
A nation heaves in an incessant babble of capital. Struggles to pin down, for at least a day, its certain place in the time and logic of capital. A collective cacophony finds friend and foe in teargas – a familiar enemy - the state, a familiar friend - the protest slogan. Momentarily, relief is restored in this delirious, polyvalent cry for certainty. A cry for somewhat of a coherent, unilinear national time. This therapeutic cry is aided by the recurring figure of the fighting, intestineless goddess, and the evil-eyed bleeding Ashura, about to be annihilated. The event of rape and resultant collective drama gives a body politic an important opportunity to momentarily dissemble the ill-fitting pieces of its jigsaw puzzle.