Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Conundrums

Last week a young couple came to invite me to their wedding and stayed to discuss problems that were troubling them. The young man was disturbed by the effect Raj Thackeray’s anti-north Indian campaign had done to his north Indian friends. One story in particular had depressed him.

A good friend, a quiet, hard-working, non-drinking, non-partying type, living as a tenant in a flat in Dombivali, was suddenly told to quit his flat because the remaining seven tenants, all Marathis, didn’t want a bhaiyya in their midst. The landlord had been very happy with this young man for the four years he had stayed in the flat, but said he was helpless in the face of the other tenants’ antagonism. The young man was rushing off for a shoot when the tenants’ delegation visited. He asked them for time. The tenants said nothing doing. Go. The young man had no choice. He packed his stuff, made an SOS call to a friend and moved in temporarily with him.

After this incident, the tension between my young friend and his north Indian friends has become palpable. “When I join them at our usual haunt, they fall silent. When I invited them to my wedding, they looked at the invitation card, saw it was in Marathi and became hostile. How do I deal with this?”

I said if his north Indian friends did not distinguish between him and Raj Thackeray’s mobs, they would only help him in his dangerous work. “But the tenants in my friend’s building weren’t part of Thackeray’s mobs,” he said. “They had been pretty friendly earlier. I tell you, the poison has got into ordinary Marathi people. Can’t we do something about it?”

I had no solution to offer.

My young friend’s fiancée has a problem that ties in with the old gender issue that’s been thrown up yet again with the suave David Davidar being accused of sexual harassment. His statement expresses deep regret at the hurt he has caused his wife (thanks Tiger Woods), but claims that his ‘flirtations’ were consensual. We gather from blogs by women that problems like this occur in organisations where informal friendships between bosses and employees are part of the work culture. Trouble starts when women realise that what began as a friendship was being subtly pushed towards flirtation. The women admit frankly that they enjoy the friendships, but begin to get uncomfortable when they change colour. The line between the one and the other is so blurred that before they know it, they’ve played into the man’s hand. This explains why their protests come so late in the day.

My young friend’s fiancée is a friendly young software programmer who works in Mantralaya. She was the first of the breed to be hired, and is full of justified pride in her profession. Gradually over time she has realised that her male colleagues are not impressed by her professional qualifications. They see her only and exclusively as a young female, who may be ogled, told risqué jokes and humiliated with innuendos about how she got her job.

“Do they know,” she asked with tears in her eyes, “what battles I had to fight with my family and community to be allowed to do this professional course? Do they not see how good I am at my job? Why do my clothes matter to them more than my work? I wear what I’m wearing now, a simple salwar-kameez. Is there something wrong with that? What angers me is that it isn’t just the older men who have this attitude, but men my age as well. How do I deal with this constant harassment? What do I do when I’m told a dirty joke that embarrasses me? If I show I’m embarrassed they are tickled. If I pretend I’m not embarrassed they are happy again because they can then whisper amongst themselves that I’m a ‘bold’ girl. I really don’t know how to deal with this.”

The conundrum is similar, though less destructive in its outcome, to the rape victim’s. If she screams it excites the rapist. If she doesn’t scream, she is supposed to have consented to rape.

“Don’t your women colleagues support and advise you?” I asked. Her smile now was really sad. “They have submitted to this kind of harassment themselves. One of them said it’ll stop once I’m married.”

That of course is patently untrue.