Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Valentine's Day

There was an incident in the city of Mangalore in southern India that recently stirred up a national controversy, revealing tensions swirling beneath the surface of modern Indian society. It seems that a group of thugs associated with the Sri Rama Sena, a conservative social/political group, ransacked a local nightclub and roughed up a group of women seen drinking on the premises. Their intention was to put a stop to behavior deemed “un-Indian” and a product of Western values. They simply couldn’t stand the sight of young women socializing with men in such a place and decided to take matters into their own hands to send a message to the emerging “pub culture” of the upwardly mobile youth of Mangalore.

The incident touched a nerve in the national psyche and exposed a burgeoning cultural and generational divide. The editorial pages have been raging about this for weeks. Conservative (and elderly) politicians in the state of Karnataka (where the incident occurred) were quick to see the incident as an opportunity for grandstanding and began railing about the degeneration of ancient Indian values. A woman’s place is in the home and all that. Because India is, at heart, a very conservative and patriarchal country, this plays well with the many, many people disturbed by the changes they see happening all around them. And they are right! "The times, they are a’changin.” Boys and girls holding hands is simply too much. Yes, they agree, it’s not right to beat people up, but what can you expect when women behave so provocatively. It’s the women who need to behave themselves.

This morning I read an article in the newspaper about a group called the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women that has launched a campaign to fight back against the hooligans by sending stacks of lacy pink underwear to the Sena chief and the men who stormed the pub in Mangalore. Thousands have joined the movement, using the tool of ridicule to make their point. It seems to be working too.

All this comes on the eve of Valentine’s Day, a frivolous import from the West that has caught the imagination of young Indians, causing fits of apoplexy among their elders and threats of violence from the Rama Sene and cultural nationalists of their ilk. There seems to be a real cultural divide. Many young Indians have bought into the whole Valentine marketing phenomena—flowers for your sweetheart, gifts on the special day, chocolates, and sweet nothings via SMS on their mobiles. Here’s a cute Hinglish valentine I read recently.

You are my aloo-chaat.

You are my apple-tart.

Tu meri bhindi ki sabzee.

Main tera missi-roti

You are my paapad fry.

Never say bye, bye!

Aloo-chaat and paapad fry are snack foods. Tu meri (You are my) bhindi ki sabzee (deep fried okra). Main tera (I am your) missi-roti (a special bread made from chickpeas).

This is one of the differences I’ve seen between Delhi and Pune. North India is more socially conservative than the South. Pune is home to hundreds of colleges and it’s common here to see boys and girls freely socializing. Single women can safely ride buses in Pune and be out at night, whereas that isn’t the case in Delhi. Jeans are common for the girls and many ride scooters just like the boys. You don’t see that so much in the North. Indian women, raised in the South, have more than once told me that they feel repressed in the North and have had to switch wardrobes when visiting relatives there.

When you look at what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you’ll see that one of the aims of the Taliban is to prevent girls from receiving an education and participating fully in society. They know that women hold the key. What they don’t seem to realize is that by disenfranchising half their population, they are consigning their societies to a cultural backwater.

The emerging, increased role of women is one of the hopes for India’s future. For many, these changes are seen as upsetting to inherited social patterns and I’m sure many men feel threatened, but they’ll just have to adjust. As educational and financial opportunities reach more girls, these changes will accelerate to bring about tremendously positive benefits for the country. It’ll probably take a few generations, but you can see it happening now in the more forward cities. It’s there too, in these same cities, where you’ll see the clash between the old and the new.