Friday, December 20, 2013 5 comments

In the world of darkness

I was traveling to Vijayawada on Monday by the Janshatabdi express. A seven hour journey, it was not without its own story..!! The fact that my phone was dead forced me to focus on my surroundings like I used to, in the days gone by. 

Sitting on the adjacent seats next to me were a father -daughter duo.  So what was unique about them? 

The daughter, a young woman (probably in her twenties) was blind! She was talking to her father almost throughout the journey. I could not help but over hear the conversation considering I was seated right next to her. 

I found that most of the conversation was a litany of complaints. She was worried about people who were walking up and down the aisle ( though she was seated in the middle, with me at the window and her father at the aisle side). She was convinced that the pantry car staff who were selling snacks on the train were all set to molest her. When I bought coffee from a vendor and the cup was being passed to me across her seat she let out a loud scream saying that the chap was touching her. No amount of reassurance from  me or her father could calm her. And then after a while when I developed my allergic sneezing fit she had something new to complain about. Since she had heard me talking in Tamil to the vendors she had not realized that I also knew Telugu and could understand exactly what she was saying. She was telling her father that I must be suffering from some terrible illness which might be infectious! 

I must confess that I WAS quite irritated by now. Why? Well, it was because I once had a very close friend who was also blind and who was a completely different sort of person. 

I had met him my post graduate days. He was my senior. He was so self reliant that one could never believe that he did not have the sense of sight! I remember the first time I had met him. He was trying to dial a number. I butted in asking if I could help. He told me coldly that he would ask if he needed help with something. I was a bit hurt wondering why he was snapping. Afterwards when I met him again on campus he apologized. We became good friends. I used to help write his assignments and also used to read out books , newspapers and magazines. He was so very well adjusted with his disability that we used to admire him! What used to amaze me was the way he used to recognize us by the mere sound of our voices even in a noisy crowd! One of my friends had a way of creeping up behind him and taking his hand. He always knew it was her! He used to joke telling  us he knew it was her because as she was extremely fat the “earth shakes when she is around” He walked without support around campus and only used his cane when he went out. 

But he was not my only exposure to a person without the sense of sight. During my early days at Chennai when I used to stay at the YWCA I met another blind person - a young girl who was working in a bank. Her parents had died and the rest of the family did not want the responsibility of looking after her. So they had moved her to the working women’s hostel. But she was in no way like my friend from college.  She had an extreme lack of self confidence, always wanting someone to walk her to the dining room and across campus. She once told me that she wanted to get married but unluckily for her there were no blind men of marriageable age! She would never consider marrying a man with sight.  My thoughts went back to my friend from college who had always told me that he would marry any woman who appealed to him. She could be blind, be with sight or have any other disability!

And interestingly all these three people were born blind. Neither of them had eyes! So why this difference?

One of the reasons ofcourse is the way the family of a disabled person deals with their disability. In India, we tend to make them dependent. I also think the intrinsic gender differences existing in our society also plays out in the way disabled persons perceive and deal with their disability. Women in general are not taught to be confident and therefore is it surprising that a blind girl should always want someone next to her? In a world where women with all their faculties intact get molested it is but natural that a blind girl or woman should feel that men might want to touch them inappropriately.

I think there is also a need for attention that a blind person has – just to make their presence felt. This girl who was traveling with me was trying to get that from her father through her complaints. I remember, midway into the journey her father spotted an acquaintance. As the daughter was sleeping he left quietly from his seat and sat at the end of the coach talking to this person. When the girl woke up she was in panic as her father did not answer. No amount of reassurance from me would  make her quiet. She was yelling “Naana” ( daddy) every two minutes until her father heard her and rushed back . And after he came back, the girl gave him hell in a way that I have never heard anyone do before! She accused him of abandoning her, causing her “psychological distress” ( yes she used exactly these words). She then made up a story about the man sitting behind us who was supposedly touching her arm. I knew this was a lie because the moment her father left I had started watching over her closely. I guess she was doing this to make him feel guilty..! I don’t know how many disabled people and their families undergo regular counseling support in our country. If they did they might be able to handle such emotions better ( both the person with disability and the family). I suspect women do this “guilt trip” thing more than men. 

Being blind is something that only people who live in darkness understand. They deal with their dark realities differently and we from the world of light do little to help them. During  my return journey as I was waiting to board a train at the Vijaywada station at 1.00 AM I met a blind couple ( yes again..amazing coincidence !) – a young man and a girl. They were both holding on to each other and talking tenderly, oblivious to the world. When the train was announced the man asked people around where coach no S5 was expected to stop. Though there were displays along the platform stating where each coach was going to stop, no one bothered to direct them. They began trying to find their way around by themselves. When I heard the train whistle outside the station, I decided to take them to the spot because I was afraid they might fall from the platform on to the tracks. The man extended his arm and asked me to take him The girl held on to him. I wondered not only about the lack of sensitivity of people to the needs of this couple but also about the fact that despite the fact that both were blind it was the man who had been asking people for help. The girl was happy to follow him. I guess that places a bigger responsibility on a man who is blind. Should his wife also be blind he would still be expected to take the lead in any situation –whether he was prepared for it or not. And ofcourse it is a supremely confident man who would marry a woman who was not blind and not be suspicious about her.

We never understand or acknowledge disabled persons as individuals. To us their existence begins and ends with their disability. There is more to them than that! They are equally complex individuals subject to the same social and gender stereotypes that all of us are. Their disability just complicates matters further! 

I have noticed that many people without disabilities are extremely uncomfortable around people with disability. This is perceived by the disabled and it makes them all the more withdrawn into themselves. I wonder, why we do not accept people with disabilities with more ease in our country? We stare at them and often exhibit some unhealthy curiosity to know more about the nature of the disability. Yet, we do nothing to make the disabled feel good!  Until we change as a society we would continue to have disabled people who are unable to be self reliant. And that would be really unfair because ultimately it is self reliance that every disabled person seeks to achieve in their lives!
Friday, December 13, 2013 7 comments

The "Purple" Existence

Wednesday was a day when people in India were probably busiest on social media. We had a lot of interesting and witty comments starting with whether one could have more than “Koffee with Karan” ( Karan Johar is a popular film maker and talk show host who is also believed to be gay) to whether it is criminal to “love”! I asked a friend if I should attempt writing gay love stories on my fiction blog. He messaged back saying he would then stop visiting my blog! 
I realized that everyone including me had their own set of ideas regarding gay relationships. As an emerging social issue in India today, the educated middle class is still not very sure how to react to it. On one hand are those who support  the issue very vociferously and on the other hand are people who I call “homophobes” who are virulently against anybody gay.

So where am I between these two extremes?

I wish I could answer. This is an issue where I am completely confused. Let me begin by saying that I really cannot understand love and sexual relationships between same sex people. I sometimes think that if this was an option why did nature make male and female species? But I do realize that anything that I do not understand by virtue of being part of a majority group does not necessarily make it weird! May be there are people who prefer to be with partners of the same sex..! Do they have to be necessarily classified as criminal? Is every gay person a potential pedophile? From where did we get these images? 

I think much of this has to do with the colonial roots of our legal system which looked at this issue from a very “puritanical” point of view. When we look at Indian mythology we see characters like Shikhandin , who was supposedly a woman born as a man and the cause of the grandsire Bheesma’s death during the Kurukshetra war ( the great warrior refused to fight what he called a “female” and this was used as a decoy by Arjun to strike him down). But it is highly probable that Shikandin was a gay person or a transgender. Yes, he was discriminated against in terms of not being accorded the status of a warrior ! But there is a different interpretation of  alternate sexuality  in the section of the Mahabharata where the Pandava’s “Agyatvas” ( or exile in disguise ) is narrated. Arjun becomes “Brihannala” – a “female” dance teacher for the princess Uttara in King Virat’s  court. However when the Kauravas attack it is Brihannala who leads King Virat’s army to victory. Brihannala  was a transgender and a brave warrior- a positive portrayal this time!

There are also stories about how Princess Chitrangada was attracted to Arjun ( yes it is him again!) and in order to win his affections this “princess” who was supposedly a great warrior who fought and hunted like a “man” suddenly became very feminine.  However this entire piece can also be interpreted as an instance of a man who was attracted to another man!

So what I am coming to say is that gay love was certainly recognized and celebrated in India. Yet, our laws today unfortunately do not recognize that simply because we draw our lessons in law from western sources. 

The age of the HIV/AIDS epidemic across the world suddenly brought the issue of gay sex into focus as they were one of the vulnerable groups and classified as MSMs ( men having sex with men). The issue was opened up for discussion in our prudish society. A lot of public figures came out of what is called the “closet” and declared their different sexuality.

But there is something that keeps bothering me here is the issue of a discrimination within discrimination! This is particularly true in our country. While there is a lot of discussion on “male homosexuality” there is not as much about “female homosexuality” or lesbianism. Yes, we can say that women are generally discriminated against in our country so it is not surprising that their gay relationships should get a back seat in discussions.
Even the film “Fire” by Deepa Mehta which actually portrayed a lesbian relationship did not do justice to the issue. The message that seemed to come across was that women who are denied a normal sexual relationship with men drift towards other women. Lesbianism in our country as we know attracts some sort of vicarious interest from men! That was rather unfortunate.

Meanwhile both gays and lesbians in India undergo discrimination and stereotyping of a form that makes life very difficult to live. The effeminate portrayal of gay men and the mannish portrayal of lesbian women is only part of the problem. There are many gay people hiding behind the cloak of a heterosexual marriage simply because society refuses to accept them for what they are. A legislation like the recent one passed by the Supreme court would only help makes us more narrow minded.  This is indeed a pity because we are a country that has been touted as one with many progressive legislations - around abortion, inheritance rights of women etc , never mind if they get implemented. But at least they are there for recourse should an occasion arise! 

While each one of us is entitled to have our own views on homosexuality it is unfair to declare it as criminal. In a society that is slowly getting used to the idea of something that is different, this legislation is not just one ,but a hundred step backwards!