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A few days before I arrived in India for the first time, a young Indian woman was tortured and gang raped by six Indian men in the nation’s capital, setting off a massive wave of protests.
As I read about this awful story, I was reminded of two novels that had inspired my trip to India: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924) and Jewel in the Crown (1966) by Paul Scott, both stories of highly charged accusations of rape which inspired nationwide protests.
Though both books take place during the colonial time period, much of their content seems all too relevant to the modern India.
Perhaps the most glaring similarity between the India of these two novels and the India I visited was the presence, or lack of it, of Indian women in the general culture. The books above introduced me to the concept of “purdah,” a custom in both Hindu and Muslim cultures in which women are hidden or removed from the culture at large, which is predominantly male-dominated.
During my two weeks traveling throughout India, I had very little interaction with Indian women. Not once did I ever have a female server in a restaurant (or even see a non-Western woman in a restaurant). I never saw women working in shops or as tour guides, except once in Delhi, where I saw a woman guiding a group of female tourists. As I passed them on the street, most women quickly averted their gaze or pulled the edges of their saris over their eyes.
Yet at the same time, images of women in India were everywhere: in ads promoting products to whiten skin, in pictures on the covers of magazines and newspapers, and on television complaining about the staring, catcalling, and even groping they endured as they went about their daily lives.
I asked one of my tour guides if he thought the story of the rape was indicative of something deeper and problematic about the role of women in Indian culture.
“No, no, absolutely not!” he said. “How is this possible since women are the symbol of India? Mother India, the most revered of the whole nation.”
Evidently he had not heard of the Madonna-whore complex.
“It is not Indians who are doing this to the women,” he said. “It is the people from the poor countries who come to India for work. They live in groups of men with no women, and they don’t know the proper way to behave.”
I heard variations on this theory throughout India. It was not the people from India who did this, not the people from Delhi who did this, not the advanced people from the cities who did this. It was those other people, from Bangladesh, from the countryside, from anywhere else but here.
According to the Indians I met, the problem was that there were too many more young men than women in India, or that there were too many scantily clad women on the streets and on television, or that there was too much corruption among the police and the judiciary, so that anyone could get away with any crime, provided he had enough money, connections, or both. In fact, the only other topic I heard more about during my trip was frustration about the country’s endemic corruption, personified, ironically, by a woman, the powerful head of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi.
As a tourist and outsider in the country, I had no way to judge the accuracy of the things I read and heard while I was there. And yet now that I’m home, I’m still haunted by the stridency of the discussions I heard, particularly the impassioned cries of mobs demanding the death penalty for the rapists and their underlying anxiety that somehow these men, though they’d been caught and put in prison, would escape punishment.
The story these people were telling with such conviction is an old one in India, a story as old as or even older than A Passage to India or Jewel in the Crown. A story that leads to the same sad conclusion — namely, that if you’re looking for justice, you’d better look elsewhere than India.