Monday, December 15, 2014

For a breath of that Kolkata air

Travel Travel, Dec '14
Aude Vincent on her nth India sojourn of train rides, road journeys, Durga Puja, NGOs and the distinctive Kolkata air

A Kolkata scene. All photo credits:
Aude Vincent
September 10, 2014, 2 pm, Kolkata airport. Far from my first trip to India, maybe the sixth, in a bit more than 10 years. And like each time, the childish joy of the first breath – the air is damp, rich, with a distinctive smell. And no, I’m not talking of the pollution! In Paris I can find hot snacks in packets and Alphonso mangoes directly imported, Tamil food on a banana leaf and sweet paan (betel). But to smell this air I have to travel about 7,000 kilometres, and I’m glad I have to. Some things have to be missed and looked forward to, without immediate and ‘any time’ satisfaction.

Guwahati railway station
First part of my trip, I am headed to Assam and Meghalaya. Booked a sleeper berth as usual, but this time I find it dirty. Am I getting older and more comfort-aware, or is the Indian Railways neglecting its poorer users? I also have the feeling that the procession of sellers is more compact. Anytime one of them stops to display his goods to travellers, who look more for a distraction than a bargain, the next one nearly bumps into him. I’m truly amazed at all the stuff one can buy just sitting in a train – drink and food items, from the classic tea, coffee, paani bottle, biryanis, bread-omelette and so on, to the rarer ice-creams, as well as locks, inflatable pillows, bed sheets, pens (at this point their usefulness on a long train trip is still understandable), but also t-shirts and sarees, chappals (slippers), wooden toys and flashy knick-knack. And behind all this, the striking reality of people struggling for a livelihood (or a try at it), walking in trains, arms full of cheap goods.

For the first few hours of the travel, my seven immediate neighbours are all males. For at least one hour they all stare at me. Fortunately I’ve just started a captivating and long novel! They finally get bored and involve in other activities, but one does persist. He also engages politely in conversation. Though he seems nice and acts on sheer curiosity more than anything else, I keep a cordial distance. Because if I have got him wrong, there is till a good 15 hours to Guwahati! Occasionally he reads over my shoulder. Not a big deal in itself, I do it myself quite a lot when I’m short of reading material in public transports. But I’m in the middle of a Sarah Waters novel, concerned that the passion between the two main characters might explode in a grand erotic lesbian scene any next page! This finally happens while my interested neighbour is looking away. Ouf! And the guy is definitely nice and never annoying.

A view of Shillong
After the heat and high-density traffic in Guwahati, and a three-hour ride at the back of a Tata Sumo, squeezed between the window and three Hindu pilgrims in orange lungis (sitting with their legs apart, taking too much room, like any guy anywhere in the world), the Shillong freshness is a treat.

A treat too it is to unfold my body. I can’t sit straight on the third row of seats of a Sumo, so have to bend my back during those three hours (will be careful from now on to sit only in the front or on the second row in any similar vehicle!). I feel physically much more comfortable, but soon start to feel awkward. If I’m considered a tall woman in France, here I feel inadequately long. Everybody around me seems perfectly fine and fit and well-proportioned, why on earth do I need those extra 20 centimetres! And what has made me this tall? Having grown up in Western Europe, in a family with no major economic difficulties, and as a single child – no brother to compete with for food . . . makes you laugh? Check that . . .

In Nongstoin and Riwai I feel even taller. Twice my friends and guides talk with children telling they are 12 years old, and they have the average size of about an 8-9 year old in France – of course, I haven’t taken any measurement, but having worked with children for the past four years, I think I’m not guessing too badly.

On my way back to Kolkata, I’m sick. My throat and sinus haven’t found the contrast between plains heat and hills freshness such a treat. Not a big deal – this kind of sickness is nearly agreeable when you don’t have much obligation. One ‘has to’ stay a lot in bed, lazily reading, looking at the beautiful landscape through one’s hotel window, watching silly-easy comedies on TV, and drinking lots of chai (tea), dunking the lunch leftover chapatis into it (oops!). But as the infection makes my noise fuller and my throat coarser, my voice ends up being a strange squeak, which people around me don’t seem to understand anymore. Neither my four words of Hindi nor my English. I have to repeat myself twice, thrice, for anything, finally pointing items on a menu or gesturing desperately. With inegal results – in the train I end up with a non-veg biryani, too tired and feverish to run after the guy to change it . . . I eat with circumspection the rice around the mutton piece.

Durga Puja in Kolkata
A feminist and dyke activist, for some days in Kolkata, I use the opportunity not only to indulge in Bengali food and to marvel at Durga Puja pandals, but also to meet people engaged in similar struggles.

The energy coming out of these informal meetings is stimulating, filling me up with fresh strength. I’m writing a short paper in French to try and share some of the things I’ve discovered here, and to this purpose comparison won’t be enough. Indeed, simply, some of the structures built and implemented by activists in Bengal have no counterparts in France. For example, the Chetana Resource Centre of Sappho for Equality or the Durbar movement. Also refreshing is the spontaneous enthusiasm of an NGO of Catholic inspiration like Ankur Kala for being part of the Maitree network, members of which lead actions such as Take Back the Night walks!

Or seeing an NGO like Praajak, working with children living on the streets, or in slums, minding gender equity issues, and what kind of masculinity model they are passing on to the boys. This year, a French national programme proposed in school about equality between girls and boys was met by loud protests from reactionary groups, going as far as organising schools boycott on several occasions. They were pleading to keep alive the good old stereotypes, and fearing nursery school children would be taught masturbation by their teachers! You say ‘sex equality’, they hear ‘sexuality’!

Dum Dum, Kolkata
I’m aware that as a foreigner and a visitor I have only a partial idea of what’s going on, and how complicated things can be between the different groups, and so on. But still, it’s happily far from the Occidental stereotype about Indian women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people: “You know it’s terrible – they don’t have equal rights like we do in Europe / USA – not evolved as we are – and gays, oh dear, they kill them, don’t they?” This is a classic racist way of putting things, delivering at the same time two mythical messages: Indian women and LGBT people cannot be anything but victims, and the Occident has solved patriarchal issues years ago.

Still in France women earn on an average 20% less wages than men do, 100-200 women are killed each year by their husbands or partners (and one in 10 women is or has been a victim of domestic violence), tens of thousands of rapes are committed every year . . . and in terms of rights, artificial insemination with a donor sperm is refused to lesbians and single women, transgender people are dependent on the goodwill of magistrates to get identity documents in accordance with their gender . . . and these are examples, definitely not exhaustive lists. If you have any doubt, just have a look at the way women (and LGBT people) are displayed and used in advertisements produced in and, if not only, for, France.

Now, where have I put that sweet and sour mango pickle jar again?

Aude Vincent is a French feminist activist with a tropism to India. She has written articles for the magazine Offensive, an essay on Vandana Shiva, and is the co-author of books about sexism in advertisements and in the toy business.

1 comment:

  1. A forgotten reference about men and women height difference, in French: the work of Priscille Touraille, anthropologist,
    and the movie out of it, by VĂ©ronique Kleiner "Pourquoi les femmes sont-elles plus petites que les hommes ?" (Why are women smaller than men?).